Thank heaven for teen movie sensations: They grow up in the most theatrical ways. Take, for instance, Vanessa Hudgens, star of Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise, who will headline the newly revamped stage version of “Gigi,” the musical that started as a movie and won the 1959 Academy Award for best picture.
The producers of “Gigi” announced Wednesday that Hudgens will play the gamine title character of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical, which begins a four-week “pre-Broadway” tryout at the Kennedy Center on Jan. 16. Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer will direct, and Joshua Bergasse will choreograph the show, with a new book by British playwright Heidi Thomas, writer of the BBC TV series “Call the Midwife.”
In a telephone interview, Hudgens said she was overjoyed at having landed the part, although she had worried about whether “I could really look like I could be a Parisian in the 1900s. I don’t think they had many Filipinos there then.” (Her mother, Gina, is from the Philippines.) “I went in, and I was terrified,” she said of her audition, for which she sang “I Don’t Understand the Parisians” from “Gigi.”
“Much to my surprise,” she added, the offer came later that day. “I was, like, screaming in the car,” Hudgens remembered. “I called my mom; I called my dad. I could not believe it.”
The casting of Hudgens, 25, who played Gabriella Montez, the new girl at East High in the wildly successful Disney Channel and big-screen series, significantly ups the ante for “Gigi,” a show in the $10 million range that has its sights on a move to Times Square later next year. With credits in other movies with youthful appeal — and nearly 4.5 million Twitter followers — she’s the kind of high-visibility player among young people around whom an old musical could build a legitimate media campaign.
Schaeffer, whose Broadway work has included the 2011 revival of “Follies,” which began at the Kennedy Center, and the jukebox show “Million Dollar Quartet,” said his original thought was to find an unknown for Gigi. “Then one day, Vanessa came in and gave a smart, heartfelt and enchanting audition,” he recounted via e-mail. “As soon as she left the room, I said to the creative team, ‘We’ve found our Gigi.’ ” She subsequently played the role in a workshop directed by Schaeffer in which Victoria Clark, Corey Cott and Howard McGillin also participated. (Hudgens’s co-stars will be announced at a later date.)
“Gigi” perhaps needs this kind of luster because its record as a stage musical is not stellar. Based on a novella by Colette, “Gigi” is the comically romantic tale of a Parisian girl at the turn of the 20th century whose minders have an eye to groom her as a courtesan until she encounters Gaston, a bon vivant who falls in love with her. It was first adapted as a play, and later, Lerner and Loewe turned it into an MGM movie musical, with Leslie Caron as Gigi and Louis Jourdan as Gaston. Its fondly remembered songs include “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “The Night They Invented Champagne” and “I Remember It Well.”
A 1973 effort to turn it into a Broadway musical fell flat: It closed after a few more than 100 performances. Thomas’s version, its creators say, is a major overhaul of the book. The production will reorder some songs and reincorporate numbers from the movie that were cut from that ’73 show, such as “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” and “The Parisians.”
Hudgens, who grew up in California performing as a child in local productions of musicals, says her last stage work was as Mimi in a three-night Hollywood Bowl engagement of “Rent” directed by Neil Patrick Harris in 2010. “There have been other opportunities to be on Broadway. I passed them up because,” she said, “when the right thing comes along it will happen.” For an actress whose family named a dog Gigi, this opportunity may just be that thing.