Adapting An American in Paris into a ballet-heavy stage show was crazily ambitious, Christopher Wheeldon admits. Now he’s bringing the hit to London.
It seemed a dodgy project. Turning a novice director loose on a treasured film musical? Shoving a ballet star into Gene Kelly’s tap shoes? Four years ago, a stage version of An American in Paris seemed a risky notion even to the man invited to direct it, Christopher Wheeldon. “I thought it was a mad idea,” the British choreographer admits. “I’d never worked with actors before, and thought, who am I to cut my teeth on a multimillion-dollar musical based on an Oscar-winning MGM movie by the beloved Gene Kelly?” He also hoped to cast as leads a couple of ballet dancers who’d never spoken, let alone sung, on stage. Did Wheeldon feel the risk? His only reply is a round-eyed, emphatic nod.
Then he giggles — which is fine, as the show has now wowed Paris and Broadway, and is soaring into the West End. We are in a spartan dressing room at the production’s east London rehearsal studios, where the showbiz bulbs round the mirror refuse to work. Wheeldon, forking up a broccoli salad (he’s on a no-cake, no-booze diet until opening night), seems cheery, despite the bright blue support sock packed around his ankle, which he broke stepping backwards off stage when devising a Nutcracker for Chicago this winter. An in-demand classical choreographer, he has created romantic yet kinetic pieces for New York City Ballet, and more recently rejuvenated the story ballet with vivid versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale for his alma mater, the Royal Ballet.
This musical is based on the 1951 classic in which Kelly charms Leslie Caron via a series of Gershwin numbers in liberated Paris. Having initially rejected the project, Wheeldon changed his mind after meeting the writer Craig Lucas. “We talked about placing it in a more realistic historical context, which Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly couldn’t because it was still so close to the end of the war. They did the right thing — it’s a beautiful, uplifting, picture-postcard movie. The interesting thing, to me, was how we could flesh out the story a little bit, give it more texture and treat Paris as a character that, like all our characters, is emerging from this terrible period,”
The story still follows the romance between American Jerry (a former GI and aspiring painter) and French Lise (a ballerina in waiting), and their emotional and artistic tangles. The show also develops what Wheeldon argues the film could only hint at: that Lise is Jewish, hidden by her father’s employers during the war. He brings up archive photos of the Nazi occupation on his laptop. He and the designer Bob Crowley “were very inspired by them. They’re all these grey-toned photographs — grey-brown-greeny-sepia — but the red tone pops. We tried to figure out ways to use colour as an emotional tool. As the spirit of the Parisians starts to flood back in, so does the light and colour.”
A boy-meets-girl story is always about more than romance. What does it represent here? “Jerry finds his way out of the terrors of the war, and decides he can’t go back to face his family — as was true of so many soldiers. All of them are also discovering themselves as artists. The final ballet in the movie is this glorious Technicolor journey around Paris, as seen through the eyes of [famous] artists. Ours is the crashing together of all the different art forms of our protagonists. It’s a journey of discovery and friendship, but also of fulfilling their artistic calling.”
Think Gene Kelly and you hear tap — hoofing through MGM’s Paris or puddle-stomping in Singin’ in the Rain. Not so here. “I’m not a tap dancer,” Wheeldon says, “so making it the primary vocabulary in the show would not have been smart for me. I’m coming at this from a more balletic perspective.” He describes the style as “jazz ballet”. The heroine is now an emerging ballerina, so “it made sense to find ballet dancers — and good ones. Sometimes you get dancers in shows who might have studied ballet in college, and they get away with it because most people don’t know they’re seeing really bad ballet... I wanted two really world-class dancers.”
Again, it felt like a gamble. Wheeldon auditioned Robert Fairchild, a charismatic principal at New York City Ballet. “He couldn’t look me in the eye, because we know each other so well. He was, like, ‘Can I face the corner when I sing?’ So he faced the corner.” Beneath the nerves, however, Fairchild was the real deal. “You could just see that desire in his eyes. We were the lucky ones to unleash that flood of talent.”
He also struggled to cast Lise until he found Leanne Cope at the Royal Ballet. “I’d always loved Leanne,” Wheeldon reflects, “but she’d always seemed frightened to me, as if there was something holding her back.” She had previously tried out, unsuccessfully, for the title role in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Wheeldon was watching Swan Lake at Covent Garden when his assistant remembered hearing Cope’s delightful ballet-school version of The Man I Love.
“So I grabbed Leanne between shows and said, ‘Sing for me!’” Cope protested that these days she only sang in the shower, so Wheeldon marched her into a dressing room, stood her in the shower and asked her to read a scene. “She said, ‘I’ve never read a script before.’ I said, ‘First time for everything — I’ve never directed a musical before.’ It was instantly obvious she was right for the part.”
After his experience of working with actors, are they a different breed from dancers? “It’s just a different way of working. Good actors don’t do anything that doesn’t ring true, that they can’t attach a motion or reason to. It’s a slow process, but it’s full of integrity. It’s useful for dancers, learning that it’s not just about decorating the stage. There’s a mutual appreciation, a nice cross-germination.”
Moving successfully between ballet and Broadway is rare. Early in his career, Wheeldon danced for the greatest of the crossovers, the famously demanding Jerome Robbins (West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof). “I worked with Jerry for the last four or five years of his life. He had fearsome moments, but for the most part he was just an old man who wanted to enjoy watching young people dance his work. He would make us do it over and over again.”
A Robbins premiere involved “an intense rehearsal period — that’s where I learnt that we had to approach this material like actors. He would challenge us, he would call us out and ask us where our character was from, who their family were. It was scary, because he was uncompromising.” Robbins was the first choreographer to cast Wheeldon in a principal role at NYCB — “He liked my dancing a lot” — and his death in 1998 was a factor in shifting Wheeldon towards choreography.
Initial workshops for this musical were, he admits, “a decidedly uncomfortable process for me. I was fairly clueless. I didn’t have the tools or knowledge to help an actor out of a situation.” How did he get his director’s head on? He runs a hand through his quiff as he thinks. “I got it up on its feet, which was quite shocking to the actors — but it was my only way in.” I see this approach when Wheeldon rehearses some dialogue scenes. “Your posture doesn’t reflect what you’re saying,” he tells one actor. “We need to see it through your body.”
The stage show retains the imperishable sound of Gershwin. “The music is so heaven, and the Gershwins were incredibly generous. They gave us the use of the entire catalogue, but also permission to combine pieces of music, completely rearrange them to work within the context of our story.” Like the film, the show starts with I Got Rhythm, but instead of Kelly teaching tots to sing in English, Wheeldon offers a wartime blackout, “an expression of joy coming from this time of repression, this explosive sense of joy”.
The choreographer has now taken the New York Times app off his phone because the bad-news ping was distracting. After living in New York for 24 years, he recently became an American citizen. “I’ve got dual nationality, but I’m still a Brit,” he assures me.
Wheeldon’s greatest hits
The Winter’s Tale (2014) His most moving piece to date, a rich adaptation of the Shakespeare play
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) To Joby Talbot’s perky music, with a hilarious Red Queen and a tap-dancing Mad Hatter
Cinderella (2012) Created for Dutch National Ballet, a trad production with a cheekily inventive transformation scene
DGV: Danse à grande vitesse (2006) The dancers are at full stretch in this crowd-pleaser, to a driving Michael Nyman score
Within the Golden Hour (2008) Set to Ezio Bosso’s folk-inflected score, beautiful slow-paced duets mix with fluid ensembles