A Brit, An American, Paris

November 30, 2014

Imagine yourself as a hard-boiled Broadway producer. Someone comes to you with a new pitch: How about turning the beloved 1951 Gene Kelly film An American in Paris into a Broadway musical? There’s just one catch—the director has never directed before; he’s a choreographer.

Oh, and he’s really a ballet choreographer.

And he’s determined to cast two professional ballet dancers with no acting experience as the leads.

And he openly admits this director-choreographer setup makes him “a bit nervous.”

This might sound like a recipe for a surefire Broadway fizzle. But that choreographer-turned-director happens to be Christopher Wheeldon, the Royal Ballet wunderkind who joined New York City Ballet at 19, eventually becoming one of the world’s most sought-after contemporary ballet choreographers. Although he only has one Broadway credit to his name—2002’s Sweet Smell of Success—he’s recently created a handful of sumptuous, full-length ballets that function much like a Broadway show would: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, for The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, and Cinderella, for the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.

As NYCB principal Robert Fairchild—who’ll star as Jerry, the title character—puts it, “It’s Chris Wheeldon. He doesn’t do anything half-ass. It’s going to be high-quality.”

But why now? What makes this charmingly antiquated movie-musical, with its Gershwin score and cast of carefree artists set against the backdrop of post World War II Paris, ripe for a 21st-century Broadway adaptation?

Wheeldon has actually been trying to get a Broadway version off the ground for the last decade. He’s always adored the music. “That’s the primary driving force for me, as a choreographer,” he says. He also feels the show is a textbook example of “the romantic heyday of the American musical.” He first choreographed a one-act ballet version in 2005 for NYCB. Later, he was approached by a director about choreographing a musical adaptation, but it wasn’t until two years ago, when a current producer of the show asked him to direct a Broadway iteration, that the project really took off. A workshop was staged last fall in New York, and the musical premieres in late November with a limited engagement at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet before it transfers to Broadway in March.

Any trepidation Wheeldon initially felt about occupying the director-choreographer role—at one point he asked the producers if it’d be better if he worked with a director— is now long gone. “As the project’s unfolded, it feels right as a director-choreographer vehicle, because then everything about the show moves with the same kind of language—the transitions, everything,” says Wheeldon. “And it’s a very dance-centric story, the version that we’ve made.”

While Wheeldon promises to respect the source material, he won’t be fashioning a regurgitation of the film. “I’m fairly certain Gene Kelly wouldn’t want to be imitated,” he says. “The movie has its history as a great piece of film choreography, but none of us are interested in re-creating the movie for the stage.” For starters, he’s choreographing everything from scratch. In addition to the many song and dance numbers, there will be two shorter storytelling ballets in the first act and a longer ballet to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” at the end.

Wheeldon’s also building off a few things he feels the film did right—like casting actual dancers as the leads, for one. “It was always the idea that we would have world-class dancers playing these roles, in the same way that Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron were,” he says.

Asking Fairchild to audition for Jerry was an obvious move. “Seeing him in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and West Side Story, it was clear that he’s also a man of the theater and has a place on the Broadway stage,” says Wheeldon, who had worked with him several times at NYCB. After several rounds of callbacks, Fairchild—who counts Gene Kelly as the reason why he initially wanted to dance—was thrilled to get the part. “After the workshop, someone from the Gershwin estate came up and said, ‘We’ve been looking for a Jerry Mulligan since 1983, and we’ve finally found him in you,’ ” Fairchild says. “To get the baton passed to me is such an honor.”

For the role of Lise, the French ingénue female lead, Wheeldon had worried at first that he’d have trouble casting the right performer. His assistant Jackie Barrett suggested Royal Ballet first artist Leanne Cope, since he knew she’d taken singing lessons growing up. Cope turned out to be the perfect fit. “Lise actually needs to be a quadruple threat, because she has to be on pointe, in addition to dancing and singing and acting,” he says. “Leanne’s clearly more than capable of doing all of those things, and doing them in an extraordinary way.”

Even though Wheeldon’s got a team of Broadway vets like Craig Lucas (book), Bob Crowley (sets and costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting) and Rob Fisher (score adaptation and arrangement), he found himself caught off guard at first by the pressures of being a director. “There are a lot of people involved—there’s a large music department, design department, producers, script managers,” he says. “I find the management of all that most challenging. Everybody brings their questions to the director, so you become the filter for a lot of information. It’s frightening.”

Some surprises are pleasant ones. “Working on a book was something that I’d never done before,” he says. “I’ve only adapted synopses of ballets. But after working with Craig Lucas, who’s been amazing and supportive and patient with me, it’s become something I’ve really enjoyed, creating an outline and then working on structure and storytelling, fine-tuning and making the characters more focused.”

In the end, Wheeldon says his goals—and nerves—are the same as if he were making a ballet. “I approach every project with the same amount of trepidation and excited nervousness,” he says. “Making a Broadway show is a risky business, and you can’t just shut your eyes. But my main focus is to make a show that captures some of the old magic of the way shows used to be.”

Who could ask for anything more?

How Leanne Became Lise

It’s been a year of firsts for Leanne Cope. To prepare for her Great White Way debut as Lise in An American in Paris, the Royal Ballet dancer is getting her first taste of acting lessons and music rehearsals. She also chopped off her long locks for the first time. “I don’t have to tie it in a bun for a year,” explains Cope, 31. “I thought, New start: Let’s chop the hair off!”

Her transition from ballet to musical theater isn’t the stretch it might seem. She’d had dreams of dancing on Broadway since before she entered at The Royal’s lower school, White Lodge. So throughout her training, she took voice lessons, and even won the school’s singing competition two years running. (“It’s my claim to fame!” Cope laughs.)

Above: Cope works through a solo.

Since joining The Royal in 2003, she’s earned a reputation there as a talented dancer-actress, particularly in works by artist in residence Liam Scarlett. She’s been both a scared little girl in his Hansel and Gretel and a woman who’s had a lobotomy in his Sweet Violets. Cope’s role as Scarlett’s muse has drawn comparisons to Royal Ballet greats Lynn Seymour and Kenneth MacMillan—from no less than former RB artistic director Monica Mason. “I cried when she said that,” says Cope. “I don’t think anyone could give you a bigger compliment than wanting to create something on you.”

Now, as Lise, she’s getting wider exposure—and it’s about time, says Christopher Wheeldon. “At The Royal Ballet, no one could put their finger on what it was about her that was so special,” he says. “It’s great to see her blossoming and having the chance to be number one. She’s absolutely 200 percent embracing the singing and the acting, and of course the dancing’s already there.”

Yet Cope is keeping her goals simple. “I’d love it,” she says, “if someone in the audience who hadn’t read about me was asked, ‘What do you think her foremost strength is?’ and replied that it wasn’t the dancing.”

“Every day I’ve had to pinch myself,” she continues. “I’m on Broad­way, rehears­ing, and Christopher Wheeldon is choreographing a solo for me—in a studio that’s named after Jerome Robbins, of all amazing, inspira­tional people! I just want to take every day one at a time.” —RR