How often does a piece of classical music inspire an Academy Award-winning Hollywood musical? If you can think of an example other than An American in Paris, please let us know. The Houston Symphony plays this classic film’s soundtrack live-to-picture on November 9, 10 and 11. Get ready for this spectacular presentation with these fun facts.
1) Paris in the Spring
The earliest sketch of the orchestral piece known as An American in Paris is found on the back of a postcard Gershwin sent after visiting the French capital in 1926. He did not seriously begin composing the piece, however, until 1928 when he returned to Paris that spring. A notorious ladykiller, Gershwin is alleged to have had a torrid affair with the beautiful Countess Nadige de Ganny during this time. If the rumor is true, the romance may have provided inspiration for Gershwin’s masterpiece.
2) The Deal
Though sources disagree about whether the deal occurred after a concert, cards or pool, MGM producer Arthur Freed asked Ira Gershwin (George Gershwin’s brother and lyricist) for the rights to the title and music of An American in Paris one night in November 1949. For $300,000, Ira agreed, on the condition that any resulting film could only contain music by his brother. “I wouldn’t use anything else, that’s the object,” Freed assured him.
3) Dream Team
MGM assembled an all-star team to create the film. The story was written by Alan Jay Lerner (most famous for his work on My Fair Lady), and the star/choreographer would be the incomparable Gene Kelly. The director, Vincente Minnelli (Judy Garland’s second husband and father of Liza Minnelli) had actually been a frequent guest at the Gershwin’s New York apartment in the 1930s. Oscar Levant (who plays the wisecracking pianist in the film) had been one of George Gershwin’s best friends prior to the composer’s tragic early death from a brain tumor in 1937.
4) A Star Is Born
The team wanted a real French gamine for the female lead. Gene Kelly recommended Leslie Caron, a 17-year-old ballet dancer who had impressed him in Paris two years earlier. Even though Caron had no acting experience, after a screen test she got the job, and with three days’ notice she moved to Hollywood with her mother. Interestingly, she never sings in the movie, but Minnelli crafted her scenes so well that no one seemed to notice that all the singing is done by men. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Caron went on a single (rather unsuccessful) date with a young, aspiring conductor named André Previn, who would later serve as the Houston Symphony’s music director from 1967 to 1969.
5) Grand Finale
Set to the piece of music that inspired the entire film, the famous final ballet sequence took about a month to shoot and cost approximately half a million dollars (more than the budget for some entire films of the time). Though nearly 17-minutes of pure dancing made some MGM executives nervous, the ballet proved to be the highlight of the film for the public and critics alike. Shot on an MGM soundstage, the sequence recreated some of Paris’s most iconic sights, but with sets in the styles of different artists associated with the city, including Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo and Rousseau.
Don’t miss An American in Paris—Film with Live Orchestra on November 9, 10 and 11, 2018! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.