Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How Garen Scribner learned to lead this Broadway musical
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
It may be filled with simple pleasures – beautiful dancing, elegant costumes, timeless Gershwin songs – but An American in Paris is not a simple show. For performers, in fact, it's one of the most technically demanding musicals on Broadway.
That's largely thanks to director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, a ballet superstar who fills this production with lengthy, ambitious routines. There are several dances that last over 10 minutes, pushing the story forward with their wordless character beats while also creating dazzling shapes out of human bodies. It takes gifted dancers to capture both the narrative and the aesthetic elements of Wheeldon's work.
What's more, the company has to perform within the design, which evokes the crackling energy of post-war France. Streets and apartments and cafés are suggested by everything from impressionistic light to realistic furniture to sketches that come magically to life on the walls, and as the cast inhabits and enhances this environment, they must also navigate it, making sure their physical feats don't destroy a backdrop flying in behind them.
And of course, this all serves the story. Based on the 1951 film, the show follows Yankee GI Jerry Mulligan as he stays in Paris after World War II, falling in love with both the city and a charming dancer named Lise. While Gershwin numbers like "I Got Rhythm" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" accompany Jerry's happiest times, playwright Craig Lucas delivers darker moments, too. Lise, for instance, feels beholden to a man who hid her from the Germans, while Jerry gets romantically entangled with a rich benefactor who wants to support his burgeoning career as an artist. The performers need to inhabit these serious scenes as effectively as they belt the buoyant tunes.
No wonder Garen Scribner has felt a little overwhelmed. He's been a member of the ensemble since the show opened at Broadway's Palace Theatre last year, but in March he took over as Jerry. Now that he's the lead, he's responsible for steering this acting-singing-dancing spectacular.
"The first two or three times I did it, it was almost just like survival," he says, gamely admitting that he's never had such a challenging job. (Prior to this, he was primarily a dancer, including a stint as a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet.) "There's so much happening around me on stage at every moment, and at first I wasn't able to think about my 'journey' as some kind of start-to-finish narrative."
So how did he sink into his role? "In the beginning I found that the most useful thing for me to do was to write notes down on a Post-it," he says. "Even if it was just one word. I would remind myself to breathe at a certain moment in time so that at the end of a number, when I have to sing that bring-it-home note, I can get there and not be out of breath. So I'd make a Post-it that said something like, 'In [the song] "Liza," breathe after the chaine turn!'"
There were notes about Jerry's emotional life, too. "I would arrange them so they were chronological," Scribner says. "I did it every day, and then I would clear the board and do it the next day. And eventually the group got smaller and smaller until [the notes] were all ingrained in my body."
At the same time, Scribner has discovered that personally connecting to his performance is just as important as the technical prep. "To make Jerry a believable character that you want to root for, it takes so much of Garen," he says. "My intention is to do it within the confines of who Jerry is, but the only way I can convince myself that I'm that person is really finding Garen within Jerry."
To that end, he's dredged up personal memories of a failed romance to fuel Jerry's tortured relationship with his benefactor. "That's one of the reasons it's such an exhausting thing to do," he says. "I'm constantly in this mode of self-reflection. I'm constantly excavating parts of myself that I maybe spent years covering up or didn't know how to address."
But as draining as it might be, this process keeps his performance lively. "The emotion comes and the dancing follows," he says. "It courses through my body, and I have to move in response to it. And it's the same for the acting and the singing. So if you come one night and then you come again, you might see something different than what I did before."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available to An American Paris. Go here to browse our current offers.
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: Garen Scribner as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise.