Vanessa Hudgens
Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The New Golden Age of Hollywood: Vanessa Hudgens in Gigi

Vanessa Hudgens is making her Broadway debut at the Kennedy Center through February 12 as the iconic Gigi in this classic musical about a young woman who chooses her own destiny. The 26-year-old actress and songstress, whose film repertoire ranges from the High School Musical franchise to Harmony Korine’s campy Spring Breakers, says playing Gigi is just bringing it back to basics for her.

“I feel so comfortable and at home,” she says of her role in Gigi. “I just feel like everything is right in the world when I’m doing this. It’s a really reassuring feeling.”

Hudgens is smitten with her character, a bold teenager preparing for life as a courtesan during the Belle Époque in Paris under the guidance of her grandmother, Mamita Alvarez (played by actress Victoria Clark). But when Gigi meets dashing bachelor Gaston (played by actor Corey Cott), she realizes that she wants more from life than to be someone’s mistress.

As Gaston falls in love with Gigi and prepares an offer for Mamita to take her as his mistress, Gigi challenges him to consider a different path for them – one that could lead to a committed relationship and perhaps even marriage.

“I think that it’s really empowering for audiences to see our characters go through such a big change,” Hudgens says of the love-struck pair. “They start off as one thing and then turn into something else – a truer version of themselves.”

The actress says that the musical opens with Gigi as a young girl pressured to live her life a certain way, but who ultimately decides that she doesn’t want to be what everyone else wants her to be.

“She creates her own rules and finds her own happiness. And I think that’s a really good message to remind everyone: Don’t let others tell you who to be. You just do you because that’s how you’re going to find your truth and your happiness.”

Hudgens can relate to this personal journey. As a teen sensation who first began her career in musical theater at eight years old, the actress has spent nearly two decades learning how to be the author of her own narrative. She says that Gigi knows what she wants and just goes for it, and that reminds Hudgens of herself in many ways.

“That’s how I try to live my life,” she says. “I always say that I can’t live my life through other people’s eyes because then it would leave me very unhappy. And you only get one shot at life, so I try to just live every day as my truest self and that’s how Gigi is.”

There have been many incarnations of French novelist Colette’s Gigi, most notably the original 1951 Broadway production that put Audrey Hepburn on the map and the award-winning 1958 film directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s dad, Judy Garland’s ex-husband, and the man behind some of the most memorable musicals in the Golden Age of Hollywood, most notably Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris.)

Though Gigi has taken a 40-year hiatus from Broadway, this newly adapted production of the musical directed by Eric Schaeffer remains a timeless story of standing up for your own beliefs, even if that means pushing against the grain.

“I think this is a very powerful story,” Hudgens says. “Even though it was done so long ago, it’s still so relevant in this modern day and age to empower people to find their own way and not be held back by social confinement.”

Along with a captivating storyline, Gigi features a stunning collection of songs – the 1973 Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Score – and incredible costumes reminiscent of turn-of-the-20th-century European glamour. Hudgens describes the musical’s aesthetic as awe-inspiring, and credits costume designer Catherine Zuber with making audiences wish they had lived in such a fashionable era.

“Everyone carries themselves with such a regal aesthetic,” she says of the full cast in costume. “And it’s just really, really wonderful to see.”

The actress’s favorite moment of rehearsing for Gigi was on her first day in the theater with her fellow cast members, who she affectionately describes as a group of seasoned veterans that have become like family to her.

“We had our costumes on,” she says, “and we were just sitting in this space with all of our lights and sets. [I was] looking around and seeing these people who I’ve fallen in love with looking like the most beautiful versions of themselves, and just knowing that we’re about to embark on this journey together. It gave me butterflies.”

Hudgens chatted with On Tap before opening night, and though experiencing some normal pre-performance jitters, she opened up about how amazing this opportunity has been for her both professionally and personally.

“[Gigi] has honestly been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in a while. And once we get audiences in here, I’m sure I’m going to be on cloud nine.”

Gigi runs from January 16 to February 12 at the Kennedy Center, and will move to Broadway this spring. Tickets to Gigi run $45-$150. If you’re 18-30, join the Kennedy Center’s MyTix program to receive discount offers and free ticket giveaways.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 800-444-1324; www.kennedy-center.org