On September 11th, 2015, Daniel Messé — along with lyricist Nathan Tyson and a book by Craig Lucas — debuted a new musical he had written at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. Starring Les Misérables veteran Samantha Barks in the title role, this fairly faithful modern production of the quirky Oscar-nominated 2001 French romantic-comedy film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (commonly known as Amélie for short) wowed and charmed audience and critics alike until it ended it’s limited run on October 18th of that year. “The show… boldly transfigures the whimsical charms of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movie into sparkling musical comedy,” wrote the LA Times. The San Franscisco Chronicle wrote that “wit crackles and charm fills the house…in this seamless blend of visual, narrative and performance delights.” Given the glowing reception, graduating the show to Broadway — sort of a seal of quality for musical theatre — seemed inevitable.
And, finally, it happened. After a pre-Broadway Los Angeles run at Ahmanson Theatre from early December 2016 to mid-January 2017, the show was officially picked up at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, and began its public performances, after a month of previews, on the 3rd of April, 2017 — with most of the original cast returning and Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo taking over the lead role. Running 56 performances — 83, if you count the previews — the show’s waning ticket sales due to lukewarm reviews, combined with the utter lack of Tony nominations come award season, ended the show early after just over a month on the stage. “Although the lyrics … have an agreeable flow, the score proceeds in a smooth pastel stream that suggests pink Champagne gone a bit flat,” wrote the New York Times. Regarding the supposed lack of memorability, The Daily Beast wrote “…why did they bother?” Seemingly overnight, the show went from Broadway’s brightest prospect to one of the biggest flops of the year. What happened?
Without seeing both performances to judge, the clues lie in the critical reviews and perhaps the context in which they were seen. The biggest, most notable change between both versions is the casting of the lead herself, Amélie Poulain. Played adorably playful and shy by the wonderful Audrey Tautou in the film, Sam Barks had huge shoes to fill for such an iconic character of French cinema when originating the role at Berkeley Rep. However, according to reviews from this era, she did a wonderful job; “…Samantha Barks shines throughout, her voice lovely as it tells Amélie’s story and tackles so much of this new music,” wrote SFist, and both the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle seem to agree that, while she’s not quite as a mischievous pixie as Tautou’s version, she holds up as her own unique version of the character. Critics were not so kind to her Broadway replacement. “As Amélie, Phillipa Soo is no Audrey Tautou,” wrote Variety. “But the star is so bland here, she’s not even Phillipa Soo.” Likewise, the Chicago Tribune wrote “Soo… is both an exceptionally capable actor and completely miscast here.” Watching cast performance videos seems to confirm this fact; while Phillipa Soo definitely has a powerful and sharp voice, she almost seems lacklustre and exhausted in the role, like she’s putting all her effort into hitting the notes instead of focusing on maintaining her character’s signature eclectic energy. This may be our first clue.
More perplexing, however, is the critic’s transformed treatment of the male lead and main love interest, Nino Quincampoix — who is played by Peter and the Starcatcher’s Adam Chanler-Berat in both productions. Regarding his Berkeley performance, the San Francisco Chronicle called him “magnetic” with a “bright, vibrant tenor”. “Adam Chanler-Berat is equally talented [as Samantha Barks], and brings the house down…,” wrote SFist. These reviews drastically middle out once the show crossed over to Broadway. Regarding the leads, The Wrap writes that they “…don’t overact, but then they’re not asked to do very much or given much reason for us to watch them.” Variety wrote that he plays the role “listlessly” and is “a case study in vapidity.” Do you see the pattern now? There are a few potential explanations for this shifting reception. Given the critical lack of love for Phillipa Soo, it’s entirely possible her on-stage presence with Chanler-Berat is to blame; in a romance story, chemistry between leads is, of course, essential. Another theory works more as a case study of human emotion and how it plays into criticism, but it appears that the more positive the review, the more every aspect is praised and vice versa. Somewhat fallacious as it may be, it seems if one is more apt to enjoy the show, they praise the performances; if they dislike it, it’s the performer’s fault. And, of course, there is the overarching concept that could apply to this entire production: what is deemed good off-Broadway is not necessarily good on Broadway, where different standards are held.
As far as direction, stage direction, music and prop-work goes, it appears not much has changed from Berkeley to Broadway — and perhaps that’s part of the problem as well. How often do you see a new play locally and think, “this is good enough to go directly to Broadway, exactly as it is”? While Tony-winning director Pam McKinnon is no stranger to Broadway, she’s no veteran either — it appears she’s only directed a small handful of works, and neither of them musicals. Give that musical theatre has a natural grandeur that most regular plays do not possess, I would say it’s not an unfair assumption that Amélie the musical, while certainly stylistic, may have lacked much of the pomp and circumstance that Broadway expects from it’s new musicals. Likewise, newcomer Daniel Messé’s ‘Greek chorus’ musical style with only a smattering of catchy pop-ballads may work for a local production, more than one reviewer noted that there was far too many ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s from the supporting cast for a Broadway show. As his biggest claim to fame is as the pianist for the alternative folk-rock group Hem, this is definitely understandable given his musical background — but Broadway critics are far from forgiving. What works for your band may not work for musical theatre.
All in all, we may never truly know why this musical sank so quickly, though one thing is for certain: there were a lot of factors at play here. Perhaps New Yorkers are less forgiving than LA critics. Perhaps the cast was exhausted and lost steam and interest after playing the show for years. Perhaps it simply picked a bad year to open, with more critic-friendly shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Groundhog Day poised to sweep the Tony Awards. Perhaps the show just wasn’t good enough for Broadway. Though you may never get a chance to see the show and decide for yourself, you can still pick up the catchy and fun Broadway soundtrack, released by Warner Classics, for a taste. In the words of the perky Savvy Crawford, who plays Amélie as a child, “…but whenever the boat gets halfway there, there’s always halfway more.” Maybe, as in the play, the audience and the production are separated by Zeno’s paradox: destined to travel halfway — creating a new halfway point — but never really connecting. At least we still have the movie. C’est la vie.