WASHINGTON (AP) — "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," a famous sculpture by Edgar Degas that can be seen in museums around the world, is coming to life in a new musical exploring the story of a mysterious 14-year-old dancer and the artist who portrayed her.
The production imagines the story of Marie van Goethem, a struggling dancer in the world of the Paris Opera Ballet in the late 1800s when dancing represented a chance at escaping poverty. Degas took an interest in dancers for his paintings and sculptures, leaving behind images of young ballerinas popular more than a century later.
The $7 million Kennedy Center musical opens Saturday for previews and runs through Nov. 20 in Washington.
It's the brainchild of the Broadway team of playwright and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty and director and choreographer Susan Stroman. The show was born out of their love of dance and an interest in one of the most important sculptures at the National Gallery of Art.
"I would wonder about that little girl," Stroman said during a recent visit to the museum. "Like, 'Who was she? Why did he choose her?' She looked different from all the other ballerinas that he would paint, and you could tell that she had spirit, she had character."
Degas, played by Tony Award-winning actor Boyd Gaines, made the wax-and-clay sculpture between 1878 and 1881 as his eyesight began to fade. The piece was cast in bronze and circulated widely after the artist died, making it a fixture in museums.
Parts of the story are based on writings left by Degas and American artist Mary Cassatt, who collaborated with him and who figures in the story as a strong woman amid a rising feminist movement.
When Degas exhibited his sculpture, critics disapproved, saying he created a homely specimen. Later, his young subject was fired from the ballet, though it's not clear why. She disappears from the records, curators said. That gave Ahrens an opening to create the rest of Marie's story.
Stroman and Ahrens said they grew up seeing Degas' images of dancers. Ahrens would pose like the "Little Dancer" as a girl.
"For every little girl, every dancer, everybody who loves art ... they know the face of that tough little girl," Ahrens said. "But they don't know her name."
The story is a unique concept, crossing art forms with a music-and-dance-infused story inspired by a 130-year-old artwork that was inspired by the ballet. It's a risk for the Kennedy Center in seeking to draw a crowd and to recoup its costs from often disparate audiences for theater, dance and fine art.
Stroman — whose Broadway credits include "The Producers," ''Contact" and "The Music Man" — said she is one of the few people bridging genres as a lover of both ballet and musical theater. But she hopes "Little Dancer" will appeal more widely.
"What I'm hoping for is that someone who loves the ballet will want to come see a story about a ballet dancer in Paris and then someone who loves art will come to see the real story about the sculpture and then someone who loves musical theater will come because of that," she said.
Tiler Peck, the New York City Ballet principal dancer who plays the young Marie, has visited the sculpture twice since rehearsals moved to Washington.
"I want to make sure I get it as perfectly as possible and to be as true to the sculpture as I can," she said. "To be able to see exactly how her hands are clasped and what her hair looked like, where the ribbon was placed."
The role is emotionally exhausting, Peck said, because Marie's life was traumatic.
"She was a complete survivor, and she'll do whatever she can to make her dreams of becoming a ballerina come true," Peck said. "I feel like that's the one hope she has."