GENE KELLY WAS AS INNOVATIVE behind the scenes as he was in front of the camera, as his widow, Patricia, is quick to point out. “The biggest challenge in a musical is moving from a scene to a song,” she explains, “so Gene would work with the arrangers to create a way for the dance to pick up the story. There’s no opening vamp in the original music of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ so Roger Edens gave Gene the famous lead-in. It’s what takes him from kissing her to where he can begin to sing. Nobody questions that. If you’re in love and you’re full of joy, you dance and splash in puddles, but he gets into it over those opening bars that Roger gave him.”
“I just was with several of the dancers from the ABT last night,” she says, speaking from her home in California, “who were performing Jerome Robbins’s ‘Fancy Free’ at the Hollywood Bowl, and I asked them if they’d seen any Gene Kelly movies – and one after another they said yes. One woman said, ‘He’s the reason I’m a dancer,’ and the next man said, ‘He’s everything to us.’ And these are young people, the cream of the crop, and he’s still the go-to guy for them.”
Which puts the lie to the notion that the show would appeal to a limited demographic. “People say, ‘It’ll skew to an older audience,’ and I tell them that it doesn’t – it skews to every audience, nine years old to ninety. And it’s half men and half women, because he strikes such a chord with them.”
A centerpiece, of course, is the movie “Singin’ in the Rain,” considered by many to be the all-time best screen musical. “It holds up!” says Kelly. “It’s 63 years old, and I think I’ve introduced it about twenty times in the past six months, and I’ve been watching it with the audiences – and they just go wild. The wit is so funny, and current, that even though I’ve seen it so many times I still see things that I’ve never seen before.
“But even people who are familiar with it don’t realize the extent of his work. We cover the whole gamut, really, especially the breadth of his choreography. I try to introduce people to the innovations in his work – how ahead of its time it was, right from the beginning. It’s a journey through his career and into his thinking process. You’ll hear why he did what he did and what compelled him to do things, which is the way he revealed himself to me over our decade together. I always say that you had to marry him in order to get the stories.”
Although the film musical has struggled of late to re-establish itself, it continues to ignore the lessons taught by Gene Kelly’s work. “Nowadays, they don’t know how to shoot dance,” Patricia observes. “Both Fred and Gene insisted that you shoot head-on and full-figure. Gene hated the chopped-up body parts of MTV. People don’t realize how impotent it is when you don’t see the head and don’t see the feet and you have all these cutaways and quick cuts, you’ve lost the power of the dance – and the power of the personality.
“But Gene didn’t want people to repeat what he did. He said, ‘Take what I’ve done and go beyond it. Break the boundaries.’ But instead I think they’ve gone backwards. They do this cheap, quick cutting because they don’t trust the audience.” Even before putting together this show, Patricia Kelly has worked to preserve the movies and promote her late husband’s legacy. “And I’ve been on panels with people who say, ‘Audiences don’t have the attention span. You have to dumb it down,’ and I have to wonder what young people they’ve been hanging around with! I show these clips around the world, and they say, ‘Oh, my God, there’s no cut,’ and I point out that there is a cut, but it’s on the turn and you don’t notice it – but he makes sure that none of it’s fake. Yes, we’re dumbing things down, but I see that audiences are really looking for this stuff. People are yearning for quality work.”
Kelly worked as a director and choreographer as well as a performer, “But because he’s such a big presence on the screen, people don‘t realize that it was his brain that was behind what you see there. We take it for granted to see dancing out in the streets, and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ seems natural to us now, seeing the camera move with dance. But you never saw that before – the dance was always on a stage.
“What I hear most often after the show is, ‘I never knew that about him! I loved him before, but I love him even more now!’”
– Metroland Magazine, 17 September 2015