This week, the lights go down on another packed house at the Theatre du Chatelet, the gilded 19th century theater in Paris whose name has become synonymous with grand American musical productions. The latest hit is Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, which ends a sold-out 10-day run this Friday.
Over the past decade, Parisians have relished such classics as Singin' in the Rain, The King and I and The Sound of Music, all performed in English by international casts at the Chatelet. The French can't seem to get enough of the musical genre, says Jean-Luc Choplin, the theater's director.
"We have done Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Bernstein, Sondheim, but we had not done Cole Porter until now, and it was time," he says. He calls Kiss Me, Kate a fitting tribute to one of the "big five" American musical composers who was also inspired by the City of Light.
Kiss Me, Kate is the story of an acting troupe in Baltimore putting on a performance of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The Chatelet's version is directed by Lee Blakeley, a Briton known for his grand staging of international operas. As a show within a show, Kiss Me, Kate is fun, Blakeley says — but complicated.
"But musicals, in general, are more complicated to put on," he says. "They are more episodic than plays or operas. There are more scenes. And the cast is interdisciplinary — with different skills that come into focus at different times. We have actors who act, actors who sing, singers who dance, dancers who act."
Blakeley has been a key part of the Chatelet's musical success over the past six years, directing plays including Sunday in the Park with George and The King and I.
Putting on a show at this theater is like nothing else, he says. "We have a massive stage, so we can create shows on a scale that's hard to create anywhere else. Most stages are not this big in [London's] West End or on Broadway. And it is such a glorious theater to perform in."
Some of the Chatelet's productions have been so well received, they've traveled back across the Atlantic — reaching new audiences in the U.S. and earning the Chatelet a name on Broadway.
"The quality coming out of Chatelet in the last few years is fantastic," says Blakeley. "We're now exporting American musicals back to America from Paris. Who would've thought that would happen?"
The Chatelet's production of Sweeney Todd was performed in Houston and San Francisco, and The King and I played in Chicago. Choplin says he recently signed an agreement with Harvey Weinstein to bring last year's production of Singin' in the Rain to Broadway in 2017.
In 2014, the Chatelet teamed up with Broadway producers to create the world premiere stage version in Paris of the musical movie An American in Paris. It went on to Broadway, where it won four Tony Awards and is still playing.
As a public theater, the Chatelet is subsidized by the city of Paris, something Choplin says gives him great leverage. "A producer coming to work with us doesn't have to pay for the theater," he says. "It is given with all of the personnel. And we do sets and costumes at a very competitive price because we have no overhead. So the conditions are fantastic. And there is time on stage to rehearse at no cost. For producers, that's a great advantage."
The Chatelet earns money when Choplin sells its first-rate productions abroad. It's a public-private model that's getting increasing attention in the world of musical theater.
Choplin began introducing Parisians to American musicals a decade ago. It's all in keeping with the eclectic mix of performances the theater has featured since it opened in 1862. The Chatelet serves as a bridge between art and entertainment, Choplin says. "We try to do things that are popular and sophisticated," he says. "And I think we do them very cleverly, and with a kind of Parisian elegance."