An American In Paris stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope talk to Matthew Amer about bringing the hit show to London and swapping ballet for musical theatre.
You wouldn’t hire a tiler to lay a patio or a baker to cook a banquet. They do similar jobs but you probably want an expert. Yet this is precisely what director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and the team behind new musical An American in Paris did. And it worked. When the production ran on Broadway, it won four Tony Awards, the highest accolade in American theatre.
They didn’t hire tilers, obviously. That might be a beautifully choreographed step too far. In casting Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, the performers who take the lead roles of Jerry and Lise, they employed acclaimed ballet dancers. They could be sure the pair would excel at bringing the France-set love story to life through movement, but having them sing and act as well was a risk.
As spins of the roulette wheel go, it paid off. The stage adaptation of the Gene Kelly film won praise when it opened in Paris in 2014 and when it transferred to Broadway the following year.
Cope describes the heart of the story as a “love square”. Lise Dassin is a young French ballerina torn between three possible lovers. Where better for trials of the heart to play out than in the French capital? And what better music to accompany them than that of George Gershwin?
We find out more from the stars of the show:
Fairchild: I’m just really excited to do it for the London audience, which I feel is just going to love the show.
Cope: I’m looking forward to the fact that all my family who couldn’t come out to Paris or New York will finally get a chance to see me do this. I’m sure my parents are going to be making the trip up to London to see me and spending all their money on tickets. The West End was what I was brought up on. It’s going to be surreal. I can’t wait to let the British audiences see what we’ve been up to and to see another aspect of Christopher Wheeldon’s work. Obviously, they know the ballet, but this will be the first time they get to see something different.
Fairchild: It is unusual for a musical theatre show. A lot of time a dance is just a dance. What Christopher Wheeldon has done is make it an element of the storytelling. You don’t sit back and watch it. It’s engaging and pushes the story forward.
When you can’t formulate the words, when words don’t necessarily depict the subtlety of the situation, that’s when dance has a really powerful position in storytelling. We’re able to convey things that you can’t with the English language.
Cope: It’s taken a lot of work. It was nearly three years ago now that we did our final audition for the show. Between then and rehearsals we both took many singing and acting lessons. But nothing prepares you for the show more than the rehearsal process and the getting out there in front of the audience. You can sing as much as you want in a room with a singing teacher when it’s just the two of you, but nothing compares to having to stand in front of 2,000 people and sing with a microphone on when you’ve been used to standing on stage and not making a noise at all.
Cope: I think knowing the producers and the director were willing to take a chance on us made us believe in ourselves, because I don’t know if I’d back a non-speaking, non-singing ballet dancer to lead a Broadway show. Knowing they had that confidence in us meant that we had the confidence in ourselves. There were days when I thought, “I don’t think I’ll be able to do this.” And there were days that were the total opposite.
Fairchild: We’ve really pushed ourselves to extend into another art form and extend into another way of telling stories. I think Christopher did such a fantastic job. It flows in such an amazing way that you forget you’re listening to a song or watching a dance, and it all just blurs into this whirlwind of Paris. I think it’s really beautiful.
Cope: It’s full of great characters, great music, beautiful dancing. It’s like sitting in Paris for two and a half hours because there’s a beautiful set and amazing costumes. So you get the best of everything, really.
Fairchild: I think it’s the best of every art form rolled into one.