The refashioned “Gigi” bounding into the Kennedy Center this week with a Broadway glint in its eye is a passion project from two women — both new to musicals — who have long adored the 1958 movie.
“I’ve wanted to see ‘Gigi’ on stage since I was 6,” says Jenna Segal, lead producer of the ambitious show.
Writer Heidi Thomas, riding high on the success of her 1950s-era drama “Call the Midwife” for the BBC, says, “There is an argument that I would not be on this Earth if not for the film.” Her parents’ first date: a night out seeing the Vincente Minnelli picture, with its romantic songs and Parisian scenery.
Ah yes! They remember it well. But that doesn’t mean that Jersey girl Segal and Liverpudlian Thomas aren’t giving “Gigi” a major makeover, because for all its screen success — namely its nine Oscars and a reputation as the last true smash in MGM’s lavish history with musicals — it still has no real stage pedigree. Lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederic Loewe wrote “Gigi” for Hollywood just after their 1956 London stage hit with another Cinderella fable, “My Fair Lady” (which wouldn’t become a movie until 1964).
A 1973-74 Broadway “Gigi” closed in three short months, although Lerner and Loewe won a Tony for their expanded score. Neither a 1980s U.S. tour nor a 1985 London production converted “Gigi” into an evergreen property.
“They understood it was falling into obscurity,” Segal says by phone from New York of the lawyers for the Lerner and Loewe estate. The lawyers granted Segal license to work with all the adaptations of “Gigi” they controlled since it first appeared as a novella by the French writer Colette in 1944.
Segal is certainly out to revive the show in style. The project, which she says is budgeted at $12 million, features Broadway vets Victoria Clark, Dee Hoty and Howard McGillin. Eric Schaeffer, head of Arlington’s Signature Theatre and whose 2011 “Follies” made the leap from the Kennedy Center to Broadway, is directing. As the lively girl who rises above her Belle Epoque courtesan surroundings, Segal has “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens.
But it has been Thomas’s job to retool the over-adapted tale that had lost its way from the smart novella by Colette, in which an innocent 15-year-old does better with the rich playboy Gaston Lachaille than her wily courtesan aunt and grandmother ever hoped. Colette knew plenty about Gigi’s world of savvy courtesans and wealthy bachelors: a lifelong contrarian, she married and divorced several times, had female lovers, and in the early 1900s gained a reputation for her racy “Claudine” stories. Onstage she appeared in “La Chair (The Flesh),” a music hall pantomime and a literal bodice ripper that scandalously featured her exposed breast; at one point a young Maurice Chevalier — who sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in the “Gigi” movie — was another act on the same bill.
By the time Colette wrote “Gigi,” she was 70. In 1951, she was in a wheelchair, various ailments overtaking her, when she spotted a striking young dancer during a film shoot at her hotel in Monte Carlo.
“That’s our Gigi for America,” Colette said, looking at a then-unknown Audrey Hepburn.
Hepburn made her Broadway debut in the 1951 “Gigi” adaptation by “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” author Anita Loos. The play is broadly comic, featuring two meddling servants and a drunk scene for Gigi’s mother, a music hall chanteuse whose bad singing is the butt of more jokes. That script hasn’t been much use to Thomas, whose chief sources have been Colette’s book and the Lerner and Loewe movie.
In fact, Thomas says it’s in her contract to “capture the spirit of that movie, the romance, the sweep, the comedy. I thought that was marvelous, because it gave me a kind of mission statement.”
Her changes began with putting in more of Paris than the “drawing room-y” stage versions had managed, and also more of Gigi, whose role kept shrinking with each retelling, Thomas felt. She also repurposed the movie’s famous opener, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” as warbled by Honore, uncle of the sugar magnate Gaston. Segal has always heard the tune with her innocent 6-year-old ears; it surprised her that modern generations are unnerved by the older gentleman’s paean to pubescent pulchritude.
“Heidi really felt like it wasn’t the right way to open it,” Segal says. They’ve given the song — arguably the most recognized in the score, along with “I Remember It Well” — to Gigi’s aunt and grandmother, while taking a number from the 1973 “Gigi,” “Paris Is Paris Again,” as the opener.
“That’s minor in its way,” Thomas says from Manhattan. “But it takes away a major stumbling block.”
Thomas and Segal were particularly uncomfortable with the age disparity between the Gigi who is still 15 in Colette’s book and a Gaston who, at 33, is more than twice as old. Now Gigi is 18 (thank heaven) and played by the 26-year-old Hudgens. Gaston, played by 24-year-old Corey Cott, is only slightly older.
Segal, a George Washington University alum who worked on political talk shows and with MTV before “retiring” to start a family, goes on at length about why “Gigi” continues to speak to women. She points out that Belle Epoque courtesans were among the most independent women of their age; the contracts guaranteeing their support were sometimes, in her words, “pretty spectacular.” And in terms of the battle of the sexes, Segal prefers the male-female dynamic in “Gigi” over “My Fair Lady.”
“He’s not rescuing her,” Segal says. “She’s rescuing him.”
“Gigi is a heroine that you really embrace in the way we embrace Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ ” says Thomas, whose period dramas for British television include a “Madame Bovary” adaptation, the “Cranford” series based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th-century novellas, and the 2010 “Upstairs, Downstairs.” “She’s a spirited woman who kicks against the trend.”
Still, none of that is why Segal has been working on “Gigi” for seven years. “It’s about how glorious the movie is,” she says, “how romantic the love story is, how I cry each time I hear ‘I Remember It Well.’ ”
The Kennedy Center run is billed as pre-Broadway, but as Washington audiences are learning with more frequency lately, that’s all just talk until a hopeful production edges out the competition and actually books one of those hard-to-get Manhattan theaters.
“Look, there are four theater owners, and it’s just not in my control,” Segal says. (Most of Broadway’s 40 theaters are owned by the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, or Jujamcyn Theaters; almost none are independent.) “We have every reason to believe we’re high on their list.”
“Everybody’s waiting for everybody else’s dreams to crash and burn,” says Thomas, whose early British playwriting efforts have almost entirely been supplanted by BBC TV work. “It makes me feel icky to think about it.”
Meantime, Thomas — who not only writes “Call the Midwife” but is also its creator and an executive producer — has been getting a kick out of learning to solve story problems with songs. During one “Gigi” workshop rehearsal, she scratched her head over an especially thorny sequence.
“The music director told me, ‘We’ll cover it with a dance break,’ ” Thomas says. “I thought, ‘God, I wish I could do that in television.’ ”
“Gigi,” new book adaptation by Heidi Thomas, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Jan. 16-Feb. 12 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre. Tickets $45-$145, subject to change. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.