The dar­ing cast and di­rec­tor in ‘An Amer­i­can in Paris’ turn the Broad­way mu­si­cal into a dance all its own

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Syl­viane Gold

It’s been a Broad­way tra­di­tion for more than half a cen­tury: Be­fore the open­ing of ev­ery mu­si­cal, a mem­ber of the cho­rus is pre­sented with the Gypsy Robe, a trea­sured dress­ing gown em­bel­lished with hand-sewn me­men­tos of previous mu­si­cals. When the cast of “An Amer­i­can in Paris” gath­ered on­stage for the rit­ual hand-off, per­form­ers mak­ing their Broad­way de­butswere asked to step for­ward. Al­most ev­ery­one did, re­calls Robert Fairchild, the show’s Tonynom­i­nated star.

“It was so cool,” he says. “It was just so crazy. We were all do­ing it for the first time.”

Within the hour, he was singing and danc­ing his way through “I’ve Got Be­gin­ner’s Luck,” which could be the show’s theme song. Fairchild, a pop­u­lar prin­ci­pal dancer with the New York City Bal­let, had never been in a Broad­way mu­si­cal. And nei­ther had his Tony-nom­i­nated cos­tar, Leanne Cope, amem­ber of the Royal Bal­let with no ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence in the West End.

More­over, Christo­pher Wheel­don, the A-list bal­let chore­og­ra­pher with one Broad­way mu­si­cal to his credit, was di­rect­ing for the first time— and is up for a Tony Award for both chore­og­ra­phy and di­rec­tion.

“Ev­ery­one in this whole project took a gamble on ev­ery­body,” Fairchild notes. And the gam­bler in chief, lead pro­ducer Stu­art Oken, nowhas deliri­ous re­views, sold-out houses, and 12 Tony nom­i­na­tions to show for his dar­ing.

Broad­way has long been awash in mu­si­cals based on Hol­ly­wood films, but with its long dance pas­sages re-cre­at­ing post­war Paris and ad­vanc­ing the story, “An Amer­i­can in Paris” looks noth­ing like them. Nor does it look much like the movie. Oken main­tains that adapt­ing “An Amer­i­can in Paris” was “not a no-brainer,” de­spite its six Os­cars, its cel­e­brated Ge­orge Gersh­win mu­sic, and its per­for­mances by Gene Kelly and Les­lie Caron.

“There’s a per­cep­tion that it kind of holds up as a film,” Oken says, “but it doesn’t. It’s a Hol­ly­wood backlot movie that lacked a rea­son for ex­ist­ing other than to cel­e­brate the Gersh­win song­book. You read the sto­ries about when the movie was made, and it was ‘the bal­let cost more than the film, the bal­let was this, the bal­let was that.’ ”

The ground­break­ing 16-minute dance se­quence to Gersh­win’s 1928 “Amer­i­can in Paris” suite, Oken thinks, “is beau­ti­ful, but it doesn’t feel earned.”

Oken, with his then part­ner, Val Ka­plan, de­cided that if you’re go­ing to make a stage ver­sion of a movie fa­mous for its danc­ing, “You don’t want to hire a di­rec­tor who wants to put a bal­let at the end of the story. We wanted to find some­body who wanted to make the bal­let in­trin­sic ... which meant we had to find some­body who was a di­rec­tor-chore­og­ra­pher, some­body who had ab­so­lute bal­let chops.”

The search led him to Wheel­don, whose sen­sa­tional ca­reer as a bal­let chore­og­ra­pher had be­gun at New York City Bal­let in 1997 and whoin 2005 had given the com­pany a one-act “Amer­i­can in Paris” bal­let set to the Gersh­win suite. Like Jerry Mul­li­gan, the Gene Kelly char­ac­ter in the film, the cen­tral char­ac­ter in the bal­let was a pain­ter smit­ten with a young Parisi­enne, but that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties ended.

Wheel­don says the mu­si­cal quotes ex­actly one small step from the bal­let, and on a re­cent morn­ing, Wheel­don and Fairchild demon­strate it for the ben­e­fit of a pho­tog­ra­pher and a re­porter.

Their easy ca­ma­raderie tes­ti­fies to their long years over­lap­ping at New York City Bal­let, which has a long his­tory of in­ter­mit­tently over­lap­ping with Broad­way. The com­pany’s reper­toire in­cludes not just “Sleep­ing Beauty” and “La Syl­phide” but “Slaugh­ter onTenth Av­enue,” which the com­pany’s founder and guid­ing ge­nius, Ge­orge Balan­chine, cre­ated for the 1936 Rodgers & Hart mu­si­cal “On Your Toes”; “West Side Story Suite,” an an­thol­ogy of Jerome Rob­bins’ dances from his great 1957 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Leonard Bernstein; and Wheel­don’s own 2002 work, “Carousel (A Dance),” based on the plot of the clas­sic Rodgers& Ham­mer­stein show.

Balan­chine, who had re­cruited Rob­bins as co-head of NYCB, and Peter Martins, who holds the reins to­day, all al­low, even wel­come, el­e­ments of Broad­way show­man­ship to drib­ble into their work.

Still, when Oken ap­proached Wheel­don with his idea for a new Broad­way mu­si­cal based on Vin­cente Min­nelli’s film, Wheel­don hes­i­tated.

“It took me eight months to say yes,” he says. It wasn’t that Broad­way didn’t in­trigue him. He’d grown up see­ing mu­si­cals like “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Guys and Dolls” in Lon­don. Leav­ing Eng­land at 19 to join New York City Bal­let, he re­calls, “I booked my­self into ev­ery show on Broad­way.” And when he chore­ographed “Sweet Smell of Suc­cess” in 2002, he’d got­ten and en­joyed “a taste of that won­der­ful Broad­way fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence you have mak­ing a mu­si­cal.”

He felt ready to chore­o­graph “An Amer­i­can in Paris” for Broad­way; it was the prospect of di­rect­ing that made him “sweat a lit­tle bit.” Oken was con­vinced that Wheel­don could han­dle both ends of the job, hav­ing seen Wheel­don’s first three-act bal­let, “Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land,” at the Royal in 2011. “I thought it was the best mu­si­cal I saw that year,” Oken says.

And hav­ing al­ready put play­wright Craig Lu­cas to work on a book that would make the im­pact of World War II on the char­ac­ters an im­por­tant part of the story, Oken per­suaded Wheel­don to come on board, telling him, “We want what you do.”

Now that Wheel­don and Fairchild are nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zens of Broad­way, they’ve been an­a­lyz­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween their home turf at the bal­let, whether at Lin­coln Cen­ter or in Euro­pean opera houses, and what they’ve dis­cov­ered at Broad­way’s ven­er­a­ble Palace The­ater.

The first thing Fairchild men­tions — and Wheel­don im­me­di­ately as­sents— is howthe space it­self changes the na­ture of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s like an in­cred­i­ble force of na­ture,” Fairchild says. “The en­thu­si­asm, the chem­istry, the en­ergy that you feel from ev­ery­body on­stage — it comes alive and it pops in such a smaller venue.”

With­out the “big chasm” cre­ated by an or­ches­tra pit de­signed to hold a full-scale or­ches­tra, Wheeld on sug­gests, per­form­ers feel more con­nected to the au­di­ence. Fairchild agrees. “You re­ally feel like you’re putting on a show for these peo­ple,” he says. “They are com­ing to the the­ater for two hours and 40 min­utes to be en­ter­tained. A lot of times in the bal­let world, it’s like we’re fish in an aquar­ium and they’ve come to watch the spec­ta­cle.”

Fairchild took singing lessons and act­ing lessons to play Jerry Mul­li­gan. “I worked my butt off,” he says. And if this ex-GI, who fought through World War II in France and stayed in Paris to paint, has lit­tle in com­mon with Fairchild’s hand­some bal­let princes in white tights, the dancer feels per­fectly at home in the part. “I have a lot of roles at New York City Bal­let that are this kind of jazzy, Gene Kelly-es­que type move­ment,” he says.

Wheel­don sees Fairchild as an “all-Amer­i­can dancer” in the mold of former NYCB stars Jac­ques d’Am­boise, Ed­ward Vil­lella and Damian Woet­zel. “He’s quintessen­tially Amer­i­can,” Wheel­don notes. “You wouldn’t see that style of danc­ing at Paris Opera Bal­let or Royal Bal­let.” And Jerry Mul­li­gan, he adds, is an “all-Amer­i­can guy, grounded and earthy.” Wheel­don notes that Jerry’s dance vo­cab­u­lary in the show comes not from GeneKelly’s work in the­movie, but “fromthe com­bi­na­tion of the jazzy an­gu­lar­ity of the Gersh­win mu­sic and Rob­bie’s nat­u­ral style as a dancer.”

Kelly isn’t the only ghost hov­er­ing over the show; songs as­so­ci­ated with Fred As­taire have been in­ter­po­lated into the score of “An Amer­i­can in Paris” on Broad­way. Fairchild isn’t fazed.

“In my mind, you can’t be com­pared to them. The­yare the end-all and the be-all. And I owe so much of my life to them— the in­spi­ra­tion they’ve given me, the road that they paved for male dancers. I just get ex­cited for the op­por­tu­nity to dance in their shadow.”

He’s also ex­cited about the non­dance as­pects of “An Amer­i­can in Paris,” af­ter be­ing “silent for 10 years on­stage and then to have some dif­fer­ent way of ex­press­ing your­self.”

The learn­ing curve for him and for Wheel­don has been steep but in­ter­est­ing.

“In the stu­dio chore­ograph­ing,” Fairchild says, “it just comes out of Chris like this force. As a di­rec­tor, he re­ally takes his time. And if he doesn’t have the an­swer, he says, ‘Leave that with me for a sec­ond.’ He­has to talk to the book writer, so many peo­ple— it’s not just his ideas.”

Wheel­don finds that some­thing of a re­lief. “When Iwalk in the room to make a bal­let, it’s me and my pi­anist and­maybe a bal­let mas­ter. Ev­ery­one waits formeto take the first step.” He had to get used to the col­lab­o­ra­tive de­vel­op­ment process and the much larger cre­ative team on “Amer­i­can in Paris.” Un­in­ten­tion­ally quot­ing one of the Ira Gersh­win lyrics in the show, he says, “It’s won­der­ful. You feel sup­ported, and ev­ery­one is fo­cus­ing on the same thing. Thank­fully, we all got on very­well.”

Wheel­don in­tends to con­tinue com­mut­ing be­tween Broad­way and bal­let. Fairchild says he feels “very con­nected” to New York City Bal­let and will re­turn when his leave ends. But there are no twinges of re­gret at hav­ing missed the com­pany’s spring sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter to star in “An Amer­i­can in Paris.”

“Hon­estly, I can’t pic­ture my­self do­ing any­thing else at this mo­ment in time,” Fairchild says.

‘Ev­ery­one in this whole project took a gamble on ev­ery­body.’


New York City Bal­let prin­ci­pal dancer and star of ‘An Amer­i­can in Paris’ ‘You feel sup­ported, and ev­ery­one is fo­cus­ing on the same thing.’

— CHRISTO­PHER WHEEL­DON, ‘An Amer­i­can in Paris’ di­rec­tor-chore­og­ra­pher

Matthew Mur­phy Broad­way’s Palace The­atre


and Leanne Cope, both mem­bers of bal­let com­pa­nies, have earned Tony nom­i­na­tions for their roles in the­mu­si­cal “An Amer­i­can in Paris.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

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