On Monday, at Picturehouse Central, the West End transfer of An American in Paris held its press launch. Hosting the afternoon was star ballerina (& now Strictly judge) Darcey Bussell, accompanied her friend & former choreographer Christopher Wheeldon – and the director of the show.
Initially a film (1951), An American in Paris tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, an American GI who decides to stay in Paris at the end of World War II to try & become an artist. He had also met a mysterious woman, who turns out to be a ballerina called Lise Dassin. The show follows them both as they pursue their artistic endeavours and wonder about their feelings for each other. And with timeless music from the Gershwins, how can you go wrong?
Darcey herself saw the show for the first time in New York (it had opened at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris before transferring) – she’d heard a lot about it but couldn’t help but be nervous for her friend, as he’d never directed a full musical before. In the end she was swept away by the love story, was hugely impressed by the choreography, and simply didn’t want the how to end (this is apparently a rare thing for her).
Christopher is excited about bringing the show to London – a long way from the cold sweats of the first reading and the nerves of the workshops! When asked which character he saw himself as, Wheeldon said he’d love to dance the role of Jerry, embody the glamour & elegance of Milo, have the sharp wit of Adam, be fresh-faced like Lise – and, if he could sing, deliver I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise. So pretty much everyone!
Wheeldon recognised that taking on the direction & choreography of an entire musical was a huge responsibility, and initially he turned it down – but they took each stage slowly, and as he started to understand the story & movement of the show his confidence grew. It helped that he was backed by a great team (many former colleagues): “the incomparable Bob Crowley” as designer, Natasha Katz on lighting, and Craig Lucas writing the book. Crowley created a magical version of Paris, filled with life in the years following the war; Katz is an award-winning lighting designer – and Wheeldon loved Lucas’ Lighting The Piazza, so was very happy to have him on the team. Luckily the Gershwin estate was open to including other music (lesser known as well as the biggest classics); this was part of the vision to not just re-create the film, but to make the show a distinct entity. When the film was originally made, the war was not long over, but now the emotions are a lot less raw – this allowed for a truthful, historical context, filled with colour and including Paris as a character in its own right.
The entire casting process was enjoyable, despite the challenge of having to find high quality performers who could also capture the spirit of the piece. With there being ballet included, he did want to find ballet dancers to fill the lead roles if he possibly could – and, after a worldwide search, he found them in the New York City Ballet & Royal Ballet in London. Wheeldon had worked with Robert Fairchild before and loved his American showmanship, which reminds him of a modern-day Jacques d’Amboise. It was a little harder to find someone to play Lise, as she needed to be a quadruple threat: singing, acting, dancing and ballet dancing. Wheeldon had been told that Leanne Cope could sing – he ran into her after she had just finished a matinée of Swan Lake and auditioned her singing there & then (The Man I Love). The next day she went in to read lines for the role, which was the first time she’d ever done it.
We were then introduced to several of the London cast: Jane Asher (Madame Baurel), Haydn Oakley (Henri Baurel), David Seadon-Young (Adam Hochberg), Zoe Rainey (Milo Davenport) & Ashley Day (alternate Jerry Mulligan). All bar Asher gave a performance of a medley of ‘S Wonderful and Shall We Dance? accompanied by a pianist. Their voices sounded perfect for the show, and the performance was made all the more remarkable by the fact that they don’t actually start rehearsals until January!
That brought official proceedings to an end, as we were ushered into the Members’ Lounge for a drinks & canapés reception. The show represents everything I love about musical theatre: old-style glamour & glitz, big numbers and lots of dance! What will make it rather special is the variety of dance styles that are on show – from ballet to ballroom to tap. Prior to attending the launch, I watched the Gershwin prom from August and remembered just how brilliant that music is. It includes the ballet from An American In Paris, which just served to whet my appetite further! I, for one, cannot wait for the show to arrive in London and will be counting down the days until March…
An American In Paris runs at the Dominion Theatre from 4 March-30 September 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.
Post courtesy of Theatre Bloggers: www.theatrebloggers.co.uk