I remember being intrigued and baffled by the film, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. My vocabulary for film musicals was based on MGM's wonderful product, so I wasn't prepared for a little through-sung French musical in which almost the entire score was recitative sung-spoken by untrained singers including the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve. The French have an approach to film musicals that is both more naturalistic and more mannered than the US approach. Have you seen the absolutely brilliant recent French musical LOVE SONGS? If not, rent or buy it immediately. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG was an acquired taste but one I easily acquired. Perhaps being an opera fan helped. The scoring was beautiful in an early 1960s jazzy way and the very colorful film looked ravishing. French filmmakers use color in very expressive ways.
The current stage version of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG has not been enthusiastically received here. Critics complain about the Michelle LeGrand score which only proves what Stephen Sondheim has written -- that theatre critics know nothing about music. It's a sublte, very sophisticated score, but subtlety and sophistication aren't what theatre critics or West End audiences know how to react to. The story is also unsentimental. A young couple falls in love. She gets pregnant. He goes off to war. She marries a rich man who loves her and can support her and her child. The boy returns and, after a brief, self-destructive period, he falls in love with the nurse to his elderly, sick aunt. He marries the nurse and inherits his aunt's estate. Years later, there is a brief reunion of the young lovers, now married and with children, but they have moved on. No grand sentimental reunion. No tragedy. Live goes on. It's a story of simple, decent people who are survivors.
Basically the show gives us the entire film score, plus new material for an invented character called La Maitresse played by cabaret performer Meow Meow. She begins each act as a kind of audience warm up. It isn't necessary but it does establish a tone of informality. Without it, folks who don't know the film may be more baffled. Legrand has also written a torch song for her to separate the second and third "acts" of the story -- the only song sung in French. Veteran lyricist Sheldon Harnick has provided a serviceable translation of the rest of the score. He wisely kept the translation faithful to the original, that is, sounding like sung dialogue rather than conventional rhyming lyrics. It was wise to pick the lyricist of the most sophisticated non-Sondheim musical (the classic SHE LOVES ME. If you don't know that show, get the original cast album with Barbara Cook, or hightail it to Chichester where it is about to be revived) to provide the English version.
I thought THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG worked brilliantly as a stage musical, thanks in part to a wonderful little orchestra and Emma Rice's lovely, inventive staging and choreography that provided a theatrical equivalent to the artifice of the film. The cast was perfect. Other than Meow Meow and veteran Joanna Riding as the girl's mother, it was a cast of young unknown singing actors who were perfect for their roles. No one belted a la GLEE as that would have been totally inappropriate to the delicate score. There were touches of artifice -- The elderly aunt was played by a man. It isn't played as a joke. The simple sets, moved by cast members, were witty and effective.
The theatre was far from full on a Friday night (poor reviews and some bad word of mouth), but the audience who were there clearly totally enjoyed the experience. My partner and I thought it was delightful. It was certainly the best "new" musical I have seen in London or New York in years. Go figure.
THE UMBRELLA OF CHERBOURG. Gielgud Theatre. April 8, 2011.