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How to Be a Courtesan (on Broadway, At Least)

Date: Mar 31, 2015

Performance secrets from Gigi's female ensemble


The 1958 movie musical Gigi brought je ne sais quoi to the big screen, following a young Parisian girl who is groomed to be a companion for a wealthy playboy… until they fall in love for real. Complete with romance, glamour, and tunes like "Thank Heavens for Little Girls," the film is a beloved classic, and in 1973 it spawned a Broadway musical.

However, the original stage production barely surpassed 100 performances, and since then it has vanished from the New York stage – until now. With a new book by Heidi Thomas, direction by Eric Schaeffer, and choreography by Joshua Bergasse, it's getting a second chance at love at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre.

The cast is led by pop princess Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi, while Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark plays Mamita Alvarez, her bustling grandmother. Along with those headliners, the ensemble boasts a remarkable group of dancers who make their mark both individually and as a sophisticated team.

Below, meet the women who portray the sassy courtesans of Gigi and learn about their impressions of France, their thoughts on what courtesans really are, and how they tackle Bergasse's challenging movement (in huge ballgowns).


Tanairi Vazquez

Hometown: Alexandria, VA
Broadway Stats: Wonderland
and West Side Story

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: A newcomer to the story (which was originally a 1948 novella by Collette), Vazquez was struck by Gigi's evolution in Thomas's script. Specifically, it presents her as an outspoken self-advocate who won't settle for courtesan-hood, asking instead for the more bonding option of marriage. "Gigi is becoming her own person and breaking the rules of that time," says Vazquez. "I can relate to that: If I don't agree with something, I'll speak up. That's important as a woman -- to be vocal."

Character Notes: Even if they don't have names in the script, all the women in the ensemble have created personalities for the courtesans they play. Vazquez crafted a flirtatious, playful woman from Spain. "She was married and got a divorce," she says of her alter ego. "Now she's in Paris looking for a new love, trying to get into the hottest parties to meet Gaston [the wealthy playboy] and get his attention."

French Flair: Director Eric Schaeffer shared the courtesans' French sitting style: "In one scene where I'm seated, Eric came up and explained it to me that I should sit with my feet and knees together, not with my legs crossed. It made me feel more accurately French."

Costume Tips: To tackle the huge gowns the dancers wear in the various social scenes, Vazquez found a unique trick: "The original tights we wore underneath made the gowns stick [to our legs]," she says. "It works better when we can feel the dress under us without an extra layer, without tights."


Cameron Adams

Hometown: Myrtle Beach, SC
Broadway Stats
: Eight shows, including Nice Work If You Can Get It and Promises, Promises

A New Woman: When she learned the team was going to handle the story in a fresh way, Adams was intrigued. "Our writer was smart and made all the necessary changes," the performer says. "She's a woman writing about women in a completely different time and place, with things we don't understand, but she's found a way to make intricate changes with Gigi's character, creating her as a smart, grounded, strong woman that connects the story to today. You root for Gigi the entire time, which I don't think you got in the movie."

The Truth About Courtesans: Adams understands that many viewers might be uncomfortable with the contracts courtesans made with men in that period. "I thought it might feel weird when we started learning about these women," she says. "I think people think courtesans are prostitutes, that it's all sex. But with these women, the men buy them apartments, jewels, gowns. It's an interesting lifestyle choice, in a time when women didn't have much opportunity. And even more, it's lovely to watch them falling in love and being as glamorous as Gigi is, despite the time period that suggests you should do things differently. With a laugh, she adds, "You're not going to feel icky!"

Bergasse Connection:
Having danced in the Broadway ensemble of Hairspray with Joshua Bergasse, who started his career as a performer, Adams already appreciated his work and approach. "He loves dancers and dance," she says. "But I will say his style is athletic and technical. Then you put on a three-inch heel and a gown, and it's a certainly a challenge."


Kathryn Boswell

Home Country: Solomon Islands (before moving to Texas)
Broadway Stats: Debut

Musical Memory:
In college Boswell saw Gigi as part of a movie marathon. "I was mesmerized," she remembers. "The score is incredible and lush and needs to be heard by everybody."

The Truth About Courtesans:
The creative team explained that the courtesans were the social media queens of the time. "Those women made empires of being popular, beautiful, and admired, which is a job today, too," Boswell says, using Kim Kardashian as an example. "It's not so far from our reality if you think of it that way." From that perspective, Boswell notes that the movie contrasts the courtesan's glittering image with the world Gigi sees. "Gigi sees courtesans as trapped and relying on men, despite their power of lust and attraction," she says. "She wants to be more than that, more than a plaything. It's fascinating."

French Flair:
"I'm like a three year-old with French pastries, from croissants to quiche and desserts," she says. She also loves the French Champagne Sundays that her castmates host in the dressing rooms. "How often do you have a legitimate reason to drink champagne!?" she asks.

Costume Tips:
While Boswell thinks designer Catherine Zuber's costumes are gorgeous, she was shocked by their extreme weight. "You can't have an easy show," she says. "No matter what, you have to be on your toes with the gowns. The trains are so long, so we have 'skirt-ography' so we don't step on them. It's key because in certain numbers the steps are precise and in unison. If you mess up, you're caught."


Alison Jantzie

Hometown: Lacombe, Canada
Broadway Stats: Debut

Dance Captain Duties:
As the dance captain, Jantzie gains a different view of the work. "Josh's choreography is dynamic and story driven, so each day it changes," she says. "We as a team are flexible to that, and I have to keep an eye on all those moving pieces. For example, the costumes are a challenge in themselves. Their weight, volume, and restrictiveness indicate your character. So when the costume changes, the choreography changes. Josh goes in, clarifies and differentiates, continually tweaking to move the plot along."

Character Notes:
"I've always imagined my character's name is Mademoiselle Gertrude," Jantzie says. "She's not been around the block. She's excited by the lavishness of Paris and all the adventures she can have while finding her gentleman."

French Flair:
"I've indulged in more macaroons of late," she laughs.


Hannah Florence

Hometown: West Hartford, CT
Broadway Stats: Scandalous

The Truth About Courtesans:
Florence feels courtesans should be reckoned with. "While the ladies may have had love affairs, they've found powerful stances off of those relationships and are now distinguished and respected," she says. "There's no embarrassment or shame. We're mysterious, we're doing what we want to do in that world, and we're not at the mercy of men: If anything the men are at the will of our manipulation."

Backstage Music:
"I'm the DJ of the dressing room," Florence says. "I play a different genre of music every day when we are getting ready. For relaxation, I do a Bossa Nova station."

Bergasse Connection:
Having danced in two other shows for Bergasse, Florence knows her plan when attacking his work: "My process is to make sure my brain is turned on immediately," she says. "He's so quick, so for me, it's really being focused, alert, and in tune with what' s happening. Then, if and when it's needed, you can contribute. He lets his dancers problem solve and things change in a blink. You can't be married to any step with him."


Ashley Yeater

Hometown: Moundsville, WV
Broadway Stats: Big Fish, Pippin, Follies, The Producers

The Truth About Courtesans:
Yeater sees the courtesans as not-so-distant relatives of the New York woman. "We are strong and aggressive: As a New Yorker, that's how you survive," she says. "This city was not built for the weak. So it's been a fun but relatable journey because I live my life as a strong woman."

Character Notes:
Yeater has named her character Mary Louise, a social climber who loves jewels. "She's in the process of being very elegant, but she's wearing a dress with feathers on her big night, so she can't do anything without sneezing. She's a big mess."


Ashley Fitzgerald

Hometown: Baltimore, MD
Broadway Stats: Debut

French Flair:
Fitzgerald lived in France while performing in Fosse, and she devoured the café culture. "I loved having a ham and cheese baguette and having a warm croissant from my local lady who didn't speak English," she remembers. "You sit in chairs facing out so you can watch what's happening around you."

New Veteran:
"I'm a veteran, but this is my Broadway debut," Fitzgerald says. "On one hand, it's just another stage, and it's special and I put in everything I have regardless of where I'm dancing. It's about the experience and people, as opposed to the bullet points or the title. But on the other hand… it's Broadway!"


Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in New York

Photos by Margot Schulman