This afternoon’s performance will be the last chance Broadway audiences have to see Amélie, a sweetheart of a musical that left most critics, and most tickets, unmoved following its opening last month at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The show, with a score by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen and book by Craig Lucas, closes after just 83 performances including previews. Its fate was sealed May 2, when the Tony Awards nominations were announced absent a single nod to the dreamy coming-of-age tale about a girl who finds community, purpose and love in Paris in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.
In addition to Hamilton Tony nominee Phillipa Soo in the title role, Amélie had two accomplished women at the helm: director Pam MacKinnon, a Tony winner for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and nominee for Clybourne Park, and musical director Kimberly Grigsby, whose extraordinarily wide-ranging Broadway credits include Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Spring Awakening and Caroline, Or Change.
No show, and certainly no musical, can survive the double punch of critical and audience indifference. Like the film, Amélie the musical walked a treacherous line between romantic comedy and color-saturated, surrealistic whimsy. My own mixed feelings about it turned somewhat positive after a second viewing – and, more significantly, hearing – which I mentioned in my review. Of course, few are afforded that luxury, though perhaps more will give it a spin with the release a few days ago of its original cast album, gorgeously produced for Warner Music label Parlophone and available on most services.
Early in the previews, I spoke with MacKinnon and Grigsby about Amélie, which underwent significant revisions across two development runs, in Berkeley, CA and Los Angeles, before settling in, however briefly, at the Kerr.
DEADLINE: What was your takeaway from the film? How did that influence your decision to take it on?
MacKINNON: I saw the movie when it came out and had ambivalent feelings toward it. I got annoyed that the woman never spoke, but thought it was this glorious tour-de-force of color and movement, and it lived in memory in that way, for me. That made me believe there was room to dig into her brain and her point of view, as well as be true to the story – while not being tied down by the story. There are more characters in the movie – a landlady, more good deeds – so yeah it is a paring down, making the people in the Two Windmills Café her primary surrogate adult family. And I also just loved the music.
GRIGSBY: When I work with a composer it’s very much about getting inside his head. Dan knew that I had a sensibility similar to his, and I understand how he hears the music. I bring my dramaturgy to it. I thought the movie lends itself to being musicalized because there is so little dialogue in it. We had an opportunity to express what’s going on inside of her. Because that’s the only thing that’s happening.
DEADLINE: Not to state the obvious, but it’s a distinctly female story.
MacKINNON: Yeah, at the center of it is a young woman and I do think it’s a coming-of-age story – how a girl becomes a young woman and then, what is that new chapter in her life? There’s the phrase “boy to a man,” but there isn’t one with the same connotation for girl to a woman. I feel really excited about putting that story on the stage. You take your childhood with you, take the tools of your childhood, and then what? She’s found a job, she’s found an apartment, she’s done a lot of successful things on her own in this big city of Paris, and then she plateaus a bit, and then she starts to open up and then she starts to help others but denies what she needs. It goes step by step by step.
It’s much more than a boy-meets-girl story. At the center of it, it’s a girl becoming a young woman. She has stepped into love. She’s a girl, in both the movie and our musical, who knows innately that she’s a creature of love and yearns for that. That’s a very big and fulfilling human arc. The finale, “Where Do We Go From Here?” is new, we didn’t have it in Los Angeles. And that question, where do we go from here? is, I hate to use the cliché, brave. What happens next? They don’t know.
DEADLINE: How did you handle the challenge of balancing the movie’s storytelling and fantastical excursions?
GRIGSBY: One example is that after Berkeley we changed the orchestration from cello to trombone to add a little muscle. The trombone can also create more whimsy than a cello, sonically create something that makes you go, “Oooh, weird interesting.”
DEADLINE: Pam, you’re known for your staging of serious, ambitious plays – I particularly remember your work on a terrific new piece by Itamar Moses called Completeness – but musicals, not so much.
MacKINNON: True, I mainly do plays, so to have the circle of writers be times three or times four and adding in the choreographer and sets and costume design team was new. But Amélie is very theatrical. It’s a play in 80 scenes.
Best, I think, to leave it there. “Times Are Hard For Dreamers,” as Amélie‘s opening number suggests. Nevertheless, MacKinnon already has segued into her next project, without leaving Paris: She’s directing Uma Thurman in what is expected to mark her Broadway debut, Beau Willimon’s (House Of Cards) The Parisian Woman. It’s not a musical.