Patricia Ward Kelly offers a unique perspective on classic film and Hollywood. As the wife and biographer of legendary dancer, director, choreographer Gene Kelly, she brings rare and very intimate portraits of the celebrated artist to the stage. AussieTheatre’s Peter J Snee caught up with Patricia for a chat, ahead of her 2020 Australian tour.
Gene and Patricia Kelly met at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in 1985, when he was the host/narrator for a television special about the museum and she was a writer on the project. Soon after, he invited her to California to write his memoir and the two married in 1990. During the course of their decade together, Patricia Kelly recorded her husband’s words in some format nearly every day. This remarkable personal account forms the spine of the two highly-acclaimed shows she created about Gene Kelly’s life and work.
Mrs Kelly’s most recent production — Gene Kelly: A Life in Music— premiered with The Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 2018 and is currently available for booking worldwide. Featuring beautifully-restored film clips combined with freshly-minted scores played live by a full symphony orchestra, A Life in Music takes audiences on a personal journey into the heart and mind of one of the world’s most gifted and beloved stars.
Most people think of dance when they think of Gene, says writer and onstage host Patricia Kelly. I think of music. He used to sing to me at night and when he revealed some of the most personal aspects of his life, he often did it through music and lyrics from American Popular Songs. So, along with extraordinary compositions by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn, and others, you have the stories that Gene told me.
Mrs Kelly’s one-woman show Gene Kelly: The Legacy premiered at the Academy of Motion Pictures in 2012 with personal introductions by Hugh Jackman and Justin Timberlake. Hailed as “trenchant as well as endearingly entertaining” by the Hollywood Reporter and as “a one-of-a-kind out of this world event” by Sony Pictures, the show has since sold out in venues across the US and abroad.
Gene wanted to be remembered for changing the look of dance on film and for creating a particularly American style of dance, explains Patricia Kelly.
He was also a true Renaissance man who spoke multiple languages, wrote poetry and very often read a book a day. These are just some of the little-known dimensions to Gene that I reveal in the Legacy show. He was also very romantic and audiences experience this when they hear his voice in rare recordings and when I read the valentines and notes he used to leave for me around the house.
Toward the end of his life Gene traveled with his own one-man show and I will never forget the effect he had on the audience. He sat in a chair onstage and, even in a very big hall, people had the feeling that they were in the living room with him just having a chat. That had a big impact on the way that I designed Gene Kelly: The Legacy. It isn’t really a show per se; it is more of a conversation. I want people to feel that kind of intimacy.
A sought-after public speaker and historian, Patricia Kelly shares her experiences and those of her husband all around the world. Often heard on radio and in podcasts, she also appears on PBS and Turner Classic Movies discussing Gene Kelly’s films and is featured in the bonus materials of several DVDs, including An American in Paris, The Pirate, Words and Music, Xanadu, and Hello, Dolly! When not on tour, Patricia Kelly lives in Los Angeles where she curates the Gene Kelly Archives and is completing the memoir about her late husband. Reflecting on her work, Patricia Kelly says;
I always say there is no demographic for Gene. People often assume he skews old, but he doesn’t. He appeals to young and old alike and isn’t confined to one type of audience. His work is timeless, and, in many ways, he is evergreen. He just keeps going.
When asked what Gene would think of modern movies, Patricia replied;
Gene would yearn for the romanace of a story. I think that if he were to see the movies today, he would think they were too real. He was such a true romantic and he always wanted that from his movies. I would love to see what he could do with today’s technology though; I remember Gene exploring 3d film techniques by manipulating colour back then, so if he had the technology availble today, I would be amazed to see what he could create.
This is Patricia’s first time in Australia and she is very much looking forward to sharing this amazing story.
My favourite part of the whole thing is sitting on stage and watching the audience react when the projections play up on the screen behind me. It is such a joyous tribute to the memory of Gene.
Patricia closed by saying that she can’t wait to get out to see some of the local entertainment Australia has to offer. She is a huge fan of both the opera and the ballet and intends to make a visit to both.
Gene Kelly: The Legacy will be touring the following venues in 2020;
Sydney State Theatre, 12 Feb
Melbourne Recital Centre, 13 Feb
Brisbane QPAC Concert Hall, 16 Feb