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An American (and Brit) Conquer Paris (and Broadway)

An American in Paris

Photography by Angela Sterling

It wasn’t so much the candy-hued Technicolor sidewalks of Paris that captivated Christopher Wheeldon and Robert Fairchild as little boys but rather the soaked streets of Hollywood, a glossy raincoat and an athletic umbrella. “I grew up with MGM Hollywood classics, particularly the Gene Kelly movies,” Wheeldon tells Out.  But it was Singin in the Rain that initially captured his imagination more than An American in Paris.  Same with Fairchild, who recalled receiving the former film as a Valentine’s Day gift from his mom, shortly after Kelly died. “[Kelly] was a huge inspiration and the reason I wanted to become a dancer,” Fairchild says. “He made dancing so cool and for a guy growing up in Salt Lake City, dancing was not cool. But here was this role model for me who really paved the way for guys to dance. That’s a huge gift.”

Both men have gone on to be among the most celebrated figures in ballet in the world: Wheeldon as the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet in his native England, and Fairchild as a principal dancer at New York City Ballet. But while for many they’ve come to define contemporary classicism, each has always had the spirit of Gene Kelly tap dancing somewhere inside. With their recent collaboration on the new Broadway musical version of An American in Paris — Wheeldon as director, Fairchild as star — the inner showbiz entertainer has been released. The show earned critical raves when it opened earlier this month, and is one of the few box-office hits of the season.

Despite its pedigree of rich source material and talent, the production was also seen as one of the year’s biggest risks: inevitable comparisons to a beloved classic, shepherded to the stage by a first-time Broadway director (though Wheeldon had choreographed Sweet Smell of Success in 2002) and starring a guy with obvious dancing chops, but whose biggest fans had never even heard him speak. “It’s crazy to think that I’ve been on stage for 10 years with a ballet company and never opened my voice,” says Fairchild, who plays Jerry Mulligan, and American ex-G.I. who decides to stay in the City of Lights to make it as a painter and falls for a French ballet dancer. “This opportunity feels so expressive and so full bodied.”

One of the ways the creative team made the story feel fresh was giving it a more visible historical context. The Hollywood film is set in the 1950s, with the pain of World War II suppressed in favor of an exuberant postwar optimism. The new musical, which takes place in the dawn of victory, is shaded with sadness and the lingering ghost of occupation. “It was something we could do that they couldn’t do back in the '50s, when it was still really raw,” Wheeldon explains. And reminding modern audiences of the hell from which Paris was then emerging adds layers of depth, making dance and love feel like urgent and necessary antidotes to war.

An American in Paris

Reimagining the story also allowed the creative team the freedom to give the characters more fleshed out back-stories. The object of Jerry’s affections is Lise (played by Leanne Cope, a dancer with the Royal Ballet), who was hidden during the occupation by a prominent French family and is now engaged to the family’s son, a would-be cabaret singer named Henri (Max von Essen). In the scrubbed MGM version, faith and sexuality aren’t even remotely addressed; onstage, we learn Lise is Jewish and Henri’s possible proclivity for the same-sex is openly discussed. 

“I love the ambiguity and I love that it’s there,” says Wheeldon, of Henri’s questionable orientation, which he credits to Craig Lucas, who wrote the book for the musical. “It gave him more humanity as a character.” He also appreciates that the question is never definitively answered, which he finds moving and historically accurate. “Like so many artistic men in that time period, being gay didn’t exist. It was such that many gay men got married and loved deeply the women they were with.” But Wheeldon, who married his husband on Fire Island in 2013, posits a enticing epilogue: “Maybe if Henri came to America in the sequel and performed at Radio City Music Hall, he would fall in love with a chorus boy and live happily ever after.”

Perhaps even more radical than the show’s historical clarity is its faith in dance as the primary storyteller. In the heyday of midcentury American musical theater, dance was part of the DNA of classics like West Side Story and 42nd Street. Lately, dance has become more of a decorative interlude than an important facet of plot and character. As many critics have noted, An American in Paris is its most genuine, romantic self when wordless. To achieve this, Wheeldon knew he needed top-shelf dancers, but that they had to have the acting and singing chops to match as well. “In the past, there’s been criticism of ballet dancers moving to Broadway,” he says. “I was anxious to find two performers that could handle the acting and singing with the same level of brilliance.”

Longtime fans of Fairchild might have been surprised by his vocal skills, but should not have been caught off guard by the ease with which he embraced the jazzy, grounded dancing of the show, set to Gershwin classics. The legendary New York City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins moved fluidly between Lincoln Center and the Great White Way, which made a mark on the company. “We do jazzier ballets at NYCB,” says Fairchild, pointing to Who Cares?, a staple of the repertory by founding choreographer George Balanchine, also set to Gershwin music. He also points out that he actually gets to tap dance in two company ballets and, occasionally float around in a tux, offering a hint of the song-and-dance man behind his princely polish. “It’s always been my niche at the ballet,” he says.

Both Wheeldon and Fairchild say they’ve learned a lot from the ways of Broadway that they intend to bring back to the ballet world. As a choreographer, Wheeldon says he’s interested in taking on more narrative work and “pushing the dancers to be more inquisitive and dig a little deeper” into their characters. Fairchild, who signed a year contract with the show through next March, is open to more possibilities that utilize his newly revealed triple-threat status. In the meantime, he’s focusing on physically getting through each grueling show. “It’s no joke,” he says of the eight-shows-a-week grind. “It’s a real process of staying healthy and getting enough sleep. But it’s worth it — every time I go on stage, I’m in heaven.”

An American in Paris is currently playing at the Palace Theatre, Broadway at 47th St., NYC.

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