Royal Ballet dancer Leanne Cope, who had never sung or spoken on stage, is the star of hit musical An American in Paris. Now she’s even considering Strictly, she tells Nick Curtis.
Leanne Cope’s story really does sound like the plot of a Broadway musical. A working-class girl from Bath, her parents scrimped to send her to the Royal Ballet’s White Lodge school, where she was told she was going to struggle. “I am not physically gifted for ballet: the backs of my legs are really short, I don’t have the best proportions or muscle tone.”
She worked hard and became a dependable “first artist” for the company — one step up from the corps de ballet — but in 2014, aged 32, didn’t expect to become a soloist, much less a star of a musical.
Then, despite having “never spoken or sung on stage before”, she was cast by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon as Lise, the ingénue lead in his stage adaptation of the 1951 Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron film, An American in Paris.
The show starts from a darker place than the movie, before rising on exuberant choreography and Gershwin songs such as S’Wonderful and The Man I Love to a place of airy, ineffable lightness. It went down a storm, first in Paris and then in New York, where Cope, the only Brit in the cast, was nominated for a Tony award, one of 12 the show is up for. Now it is reopening the massive Dominion Theatre.
“Strangely, I feel more daunted by the West End,” says Cope, all eyes and smile atop her tiny frame. “Broadway was far beyond any dream I had but the West End is what I grew up on.” Stars including Sting, Robert de Niro and politicians Bill and Hillary Clinton turned out for the New York run, and Cope missed a backstage visit from Barbra Streisand while she was in the shower. But she was most excited to meet Lea Salonga, the original Miss Saigon: “I remember revising for my GCSEs listening to her on the cast album.”
Cope had worked with Wheeldon before on his ballets Alice in Wonderland and DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, although in the latter, “on opening night, I fell over, flat on my face. But I was lucky that he always used me.” Then three years ago, when she came off stage after Swan Lake, Wheeldon — in town for a flying visit — dragged her into a backstage shower room, asked her to sing The Man I Love, and recorded it on his iPhone. It won her the part.
The musical involved a bigger learning curve than a new ballet. She had to have singing and acting lessons as well as classes every day for the dance routines. Many of those are balletic, but Cope is required to switch throughout the show between pointe shoes and heels, which was initially painful.
She and Robert Fairchild, the American ballet dancer who plays Jerry, the ex-GI and would-be painter with whom Lise falls in love, also had to “re-sensitise” themselves. “As dancers, you are used to being held in sometimes very intimate ways, so you are numb to being touched,” Cope explains. “We had to remind ourselves how wonderful it is for someone to touch you, or to feel their breath on your neck.”
he met Leslie Caron, who played Lise in the original film, for tea in London, but arguably had to create a deeper psychological grounding for the character. Wheeldon’s stage show is set immediately after the liberation of Paris in 1944. “There are still breadlines, there are still Nazi flags hanging, people are still wondering who is listening to their conversation,” says Cope. This adds more grit to the artistic dreams of the Americans, Jerry and pianist Adam (who was wounded during the war, and whose own unacknowledged yearning for Lise seems bound up in pain).
Moreover, Lise is revealed to be the daughter of a Jewish ballerina and to have been hidden away from the age of 14 by the wealthy Parisian family of Henri, who wants only to be a cabaret singer.
When I saw the show in New York this made complete sense of Lise’s naivety — a 19-year-old emerging from seclusion and suddenly torn between Henri, who she adores and to whom she feels indebted, and Jerry, for whom she feels unfamiliar, romantic love. Cope suggested the complex feelings beneath the surface beautifully in the evening’s stand-out performance.
The musical is a gateway show, she thinks, between the worlds of ballet and musicals. “Robbie [Fairchild] is so well known at Lincoln Center that the ballet audience decided to travel 15 blocks to Broadway. They loved it and decided they wanted to see more,” she says. Hopefully the ballet passages, including the 17-minute finale, will demystify the form for theatre audiences.
Some of Cope’s own family were “scared of ballet” before she went to White Lodge, having started dancing at the age of five. “We are hairdressers and labourers and if I’d have stayed in Bath I’d probably have been a hairdresser too,” says Cope. Her stylist mother Debbie was a ballroom dancer, though, before she married Cope’s father Paul, a printer who later worked in an abattoir (and was made redundant the day his daughter was cast in the musical).
Cope pays tribute to the support she has always had from her parents and her younger brother Jason, and also from her husband, Paul Kay, a fellow Royal Ballet dancer she’s known for most of her life.
“We were joint winners at a dance competition when we were nine and there’s a photo of us holding up this cup,” she says. “Then we went to White Lodge together at 11. We started dating — well, you can’t really date at boarding school — at 16. And we have been together ever since.”
When they were appearing together in The Nutcracker at Covent Garden, Kay wrote a marriage proposal into the note he had to hand her on stage every night. They married in 2014 and Cope was considering giving up performing to start a family when An American in Paris came along.
Now, though, Cope isn’t sure what the future holds for her after the musical’s London run. There could be more in the same vein or even straight plays (she successfully auditioned for one in New York). She wouldn’t even rule out an appearance on Strictly Come Dancing. “That is how sad I am,” grins Cope. “I didn’t go out in New York. I’d go home after a double show on Saturday and stream Strictly. I can’t wait for this year, to see who’s involved, who the new judge is. I think it’s wonderful for the UK in general to fall in love with dance again.”
I think Leanne Cope might help us do that too.