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Heidi Thomas talks Vanessa Hudgens and reworking 'Gigi'

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GIGI HUDGENS THOMAS

How do you solve a problem like Gigi? That was the task given to Heidi Thomas, the writer behind British hit Call the Midwife, who is adapting the book of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical for its upcoming Broadway production (starring High School Musical‘s Vanessa Hudgens).

The musical Gigi, based on the Colette novella, began as a film—specifically, Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 classic. An adaptation hit Broadway in 1973, but the production was considered somewhat of a flop. And while the beloved film won Best Picture, some of its elements haven’t aged particularly well—for instance, its opening number, in which Maurice Chevalier croons about how wonderful “little girls” are… because “they grow up in the most delightful way.”

So Thomas’s work was cut out for her. Her experience working in period dramas has informed how she approaches the show, which she argues is as relevant today as ever: “I think Gigi, like any young woman today, is growing up, is coming of age in a society that has huge expectations of her, and they are very particular expectations,” Thomas told EW. “I swear, when I walk ten blocks to my script meeting, I will constantly be passing young women who are grappling with these issues. I think that is the thing that makes it feel so immediate and so fresh.”

Thomas talked with EW about tackling the show, and how its star can follow in the footsteps of the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron.

EW: What brought you initially to Gigi?

Heidi Thomas: My parents’ first date was Gigi at the cinema in 1959. My father proposed to my mother on the way home, so swept away by the romance of the film. When it came on television on a Sunday afternoon, my mum would say, “You have to watch this film.” So it became like this magical iconic thing in our home.

I was actually approached by Jenna Segal, the producer, because when she was putting Gigi together as a new musical from the ground up, she wanted a female voice, a female writer. She approached a top London theatrical producer, which is a very Jenna thing to do. They said, “Oh, you must contact Heidi Thomas,” and she did, and here I am now.

I was very inspired by Jenna’s approach because, as you probably know, Gigi was made as a movie in the first instance. It wasn’t a stage musical beforehand.

There was a non-musical production in 1951…

Yes, starring Audrey Hepburn. Jenna very cleverly put before me the Colette novella, and the Anita Loos play, and the Alan Jay Lerner screenplay, and the later book they wrote for musical theater—which didn’t quite work on a story level, although it won a Tony for score. I could see what the challenge was, but I could also see the heritage of this project. I’m doing it for my parents.

How did you approach the adaptation? I read that you have “restored Gigi to her rightful place at the center of the story.”

Sometimes one looks at the movie, for example—and certainly at the later stage adaptations—and you wonder why it’s called Gigi and not Honoré. Because Gigi is relatively liminal at times. In the Colette novella, you can see why it’s called Gigi—it’s about this girl, it’s about her point of view, but very particularly it’s about her becoming autonomous. It’s about a young woman taking possession of her life and revealing qualities that the people trying to guide her didn’t suspect she had.

The grandmother and the aunt, Mamita and Alicia, are very present in the novella. There’s a wonderful line where Alicia says to her sister, “My dear, don’t you realize she has gone beyond us?” I translated that various ways. I looked at the original French, and that is what she was saying: “This girl knows something we don’t know.” That, to me, encapsulates the female experience. We take with us the triumphs and tragedies and mistakes of our female forebears, but we try to make it into something that is uniquely our own. That was the thing that I wanted to hang on to. That was my starting point, in a way, was to go back to Colette, from whom all things were born. I do think of her as a fairy godmother to our project.

Will the story of this musical be unfamiliar to people who know the movie?

The movie is very much a movie. For example, there’s virtually no role for an ensemble in terms of dance or singing, and that was something that obviously had to be addressed. The movie was filmed in Paris, and I realized that instead of using a singing and dancing ensemble, the statues of Paris were appearing almost as a chorus line. I had to make sure that was embedded.

In 1973 and [in a] 1985 [West End production], some songs were taken out. Some were dropped. It seemed a little thin on the musical number front and I had the huge privilege of being able to choose songs from the movie. For example, “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” never made it through to a stage version. That, to me, was an iconic moment, where she sings and then comes out in her white dress.

There are some problematic elements to the movie. A lot of people look at Honoré singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” now and cringe a bit.

Oh dear, that was the biggest hurdle. I grew up as a child listening to that on a record player and I thought nothing of it. I used to dance around the room to it as a little girl. I think modern society has re-contextualized certain elements of many works of art, and I don’t think Gigi is alone in having to face up to that. One of the interesting things about it was I thought, this is actually a beautiful song and it is an iconic song, but is it the problem that it’s sung by an old man at the very beginning? So we have re-contextualized that, and it’s now sung by Mamita and Alicia about Gigi. That seemed to remove all the thorns from the rose. It’s now more or less a duet between them, and you realize they are two sisters who are dueling over the possession of this young daughter to whom they’re both devoted. One of them wants her to grow up more quickly, and the other wants to keep her as a child.

That changes the gaze of the piece. That first moment in the movie is Honoré looking at all the women passing by, and it’s very much from the male perspective.

Gigi has more of a voice from early on in the show. She is somebody who is being looked at from a distance in the movie version, and it works exquisitely, it looks so beautiful. But we’ve altered that slightly, and indeed “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” comes about halfway through the first act. It’s not the scene setter. There’s a beautiful song that didn’t feature in the movie called “Paris Is Paris Again” that is about the first day of spring in Paris. It’s a wonderful big ensemble number, and that is a much better scene setter than “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Because the other interesting thing to note, is that Honoré isn’t a character in the Colette novella at all. He was created for a short movie based on the novella that came out in the late 1940s, and he seems almost like an interloper. In this version, we’ve developed the relationship between Honoré and Mamita, which gives us one of the most beautiful songs, “I Remember It Well.”

Gigi’s role as a courtesan is danced around in the movie. It’s there, but sex is never really mentioned.

No! Apart from that one line she says, and it means “I shall sleep in your bed.” I remember as a child, I thought, “Oh, is he lonely?” Because I was was about 9 when I came to the movie.

Although the courtesan system doesn’t exist really now in Paris or anywhere else, I spent a lot of time studying it. I realized that for women at that point in history, in that particular culture, if you wanted to be an independent woman—a woman who, ironically, was not defined by a man—you could not marry. The big thing about courtesans was, whatever service they were offering, they kept their own apartments. They weren’t beholden to anybody. As they moved in to middle age, they had a life where they could make choices. In many ways, it was a career. Nowadays, a girl with Gigi’s intelligence and wit and perspicacity and energy probably would make a very good career for herself in some sort of business. She just has this wonderful verve. Her mentors perceive that as being desirable for her, but she actually doesn’t want to be the commodity. When she ultimately chooses love and marriage, it’s not [an] anti-feminist thing—it’s a very feminist thing for me because she is doing what’s right and what’s comfortable for her in the face of what everybody around her wants. I seize that as evidence of the dawning of a modern woman.

What we do in the stage musical is, we look at the impact of celebrity on a woman’s life. The way these women played their lives out it was about being photographed, it was about giving endorsements. They often were actresses or singers or painters’ muses, and you can see a lot of those parallels now.

It’s interesting you bring up celebrity, because Vanessa Hudgens is playing Gigi, and she is someone who has encountered media attention for her personal life. I wanted to ask you about her performance.

She’s amazing. I had a week in New York doing lots of casting, looking at all the leading roles and the ensemble. Rumor had it on the day before I was due to depart that Vanessa Hudgens’s people had seen our script and had expressed an interest in the role for her. She wanted to come in and meet us. It was going to happen the next day, Friday morning, when I was flying back. When I got off the airplane in London, there were so many texts from the team: “Oh my God, Vanessa was amazing, she’s the real deal.” That girl has an aura about her only a real star has, but she’s actually very sweet and humble. She sits on the floor with the ensemble, changes her shoes, her tights, everything. I think she is a worthy successor to Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron in this role.

What do you think she brings to the part specifically?

I think she brings freshness and innocence, and, as I said before, sensitivity. She thinks very, very carefully about lines. Sometimes we tweak things. But I think what she did was, she picked up the script and got straight to the heart of it. Perhaps because she’s part of a younger generation, she wasn’t at all concerned with the heritage or the legacy of the piece, which I personally and Jenna have been extremely concerned with—you can’t take on a property like this without treating it like the most beautiful piece of porcelain that has been put in your hands. And Vanessa, for all she respects the piece, didn’t come to it from that point of view at all. She thought, “I love this woman and I want to play her,” and that’s exactly the energy you need in this role.

I wanted to ask about Gigi’s age.

In the novel, she’s 15. I was scandalized! I thought well, we aren’t going there. We make it very clear that she is 18, because I want a modern audience to feel comfortable with this.

The other thing we did is we made Gaston a little younger. In the movie, Louis Jourdan played the part wonderfully. He’s absolutely ravishing in the role, but it was impossible to think of him as less than 35. We wanted Gigi and Gaston to be childhood friends. It’s not just that Gaston knew Gigi as a little girl; Gigi knew Gaston as a young boy. I think we believe ultimately they would be soulmates if there’s not such a big age gap.

How did you figure out where to fit in all the music you had at your disposal from the movie and the Broadway production?

In my original contract—and I’ve been working on Gigi for three years now—there was a phrase that I copied out and stuck above my desk. It said, “to capture the spirit of the original movie.” It needed to be romantic, emotionally involving, transporting—all the things you want a really great musical to be. I looked at all of the songs that were in the movie and determined that none would be left out, which had been the case in the earlier stage versions.

I always think that when you take on an adaptation of anything, especially if it’s something that’s a classic in its own right, you are charged with translating it to the new medium as faithfully and honorably as possible. Sometimes the least faithful and honorable thing you can do is not change anything. Because if something hasn’t succeeded on stage as well as it succeeded on screen, you have to look at that and try and assess why. “Paris Is Paris Again” is just a fabulous song, and there’s another gorgeous song where Gigi goes to the ocean called “I Never Want to Go Home Again,” which was in the stage version and we’ve looked at that. It’s sometimes been the case of trial and error.