When Christopher Wheeldon was growing up in England, the only child of parents involved in amateur theater, he amused himself by building stage sets in his bedroom. The one he liked best was inspired by “Starlight Express,” with toy car tracks re-creating the whirling pathways of the 1980s roller-skating rock musical.
“It was Theater Geeks 101 for an 8-year-old,” he says. Wheeldon went on to an immensely successful life on the stage, dancing with the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, then becoming one of the world’s most sought-after ballet choreographers. Yet only now are his long-ago musical theater dreams fully coming true: “An American in Paris,” the first Broadway show that Wheeldon has directed as well as choreographed, opens in the Palace Theatre on Sunday.
The show opens with a big dance number, closes with a 14-minute ballet and, with ballet dancers in the leading roles, it relies on dancing all the way through to propel the plot. It perfectly encapsulates the artistic character of the boyish-looking, 42-year-old Wheeldon: a sophisticated balletmaker who is a hopeless fan of razzle-dazzle.
“An American in Paris” also reflects the fancies of an Englishman in New York, where Wheeldon has spent more than half his life. But could his tastes be too elevated for Broadway? Can high art bring in box-office gold?
Wheeldon’s cultivated approach is evident in the electrifying Rockettes-style number he crafted for one of the show’s many jazz-infused Gershwin songs, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” The music’s building sense of joy and sheer panache cries out for a kick line, and gets it. And more. With concentric archways lit up like giant makeup mirrors, the set recalls the stage of Radio City Music Hall and hints at the flashing, swooping lines of Wheeldon’s boyhood obsession with the “Starlight Express” steam engines come to life.
“It’s all my Broadway-fantasy-birthday wishes come true,” Wheeldon says of “Stairway to Paradise,” which also features tap-dancing, top hats and Ziegfeldian showgirls in feathers. Sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel one recent morning before rehearsal, he wiggles his fingers over the coffee table as if he’s animating marionettes.
But equally important to Wheeldon in this number is that it be classy.
“I wanted it to have some softness as well as the razzmatazz,” he says. “A more refined sensibility.”
Wheeldon is slim and pale, with a touch of a golden beard. There’s something undeniably refined about him, even though he’s casually dressed in a plaid shirt and corduroys, and it’s not just the caramel tones of his London accent. He perches with uplifted posture on his banquette, never slumping against the seat back, and he gestures with a smooth, lyrical flair as he describes bringing a ballet aesthetic to the stage version of the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
“The biggest challenge was being courageous and sticking to my guns,” he says. “There’s a lot of noise surrounding Broadway shows, among people who have grown up going to Broadway musicals that don’t have much dance in them, and particularly this much dance is unusual. So there’s going to be some who don’t like it and think there’s too much dance and not enough singing or pizzazz or whatever. But that’s part of hoping to make something that’s a new genre, in a way.”
But there is peril as well as promise in this new Wheeldonian genre. Even among the few other mid-century, classic-American musicals now on Broadway, “An American in Paris” stands out. The “other” French show, the insufferable “Gigi,” another film-turned-musical, doesn’t have much dancing, and what it has is raucous and hard-edged. (One can be thankful there isn’t much of it.) “On the Town,” a well-deserved hit, has the benefit of comedy and a race-against-the-clock story with built-in momentum. Within a high-energy narrative, the high-energy dancing, led by the sparkling Megan Fairchild of New York City Ballet, fits seamlessly.
“An American in Paris” takes a different, more poetic approach. To make it more poignant and dramatic for today’s audiences, the new book by Craig Lucas sets the action in 1945, in a traumatized Paris just emerging from World War II, rather than in the sunnier 1950 setting of the movie. Robert Fairchild, brother of “On the Town’s” Megan and also a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, plays ex-G.I. Jerry Mulligan not as the smug wiseacre that Kelly portrayed, but as a battle-scarred lonely heart. Lise Dassin, played in the film by Caron and in the musical by the Royal Ballet’s waifish Leanne Cope, is a Jewish aspiring ballerina, shadowed by a dreadful past.
Wheeldon has some knowledge of wartime darkness. His parents were children during the Blitz; his mother’s family, living in a village outside London, hosted kids evacuated during the Nazi bombing. Both of Wheeldon’s grandfathers fought in and survived the war.
Emerging from the dark is a recurring motif in the musical. The actors reconfigure each scene with moving panels that can become ballet studio mirrors, or the walls of bars, salons and cabarets, “to suggest the rebuilding of the community of Paris in a physical way, and the city moving into the light,” Wheeldon says, swimming his hands through space as he describes the stage movement.
His life is bound up in this musical in several ways: Gene Kelly was one of Wheeldon’s childhood idols. One of the first performances his parents ever took him to was a Gershwin concert. But his strongest personal connection to the show is through the dancing. The film is most memorable for the surreal 15-minute ballet at the end in which Kelly pursues Caron through a sketchbook of Parisian landmarks. The Broadway version offers a feast of dancing from start to finish. The opening ballet sets the scene of a smoky, agonized Paris, just after the Nazi occupation, and it cleverly contains the love-at-first-sight moment between Jerry and Lise.
Wheeldon devised it to put the audience on notice that dance “is going to be arm in arm, an equal language just as much as the singing and acting in the show,” he says.
“I didn’t think about whether it was going to be palatable for a Broadway audience,” Wheeldon continues. “I just thought, if we did it right and everything was integrated into an artistic whole, that the audience would go with us.
“The central question is how do you pull your audience into the story. The Broadway audience wants to be immediately embraced, and I prefer a rather slow burn. But I listen.” He places a hand on his chest and bows his head in mock reverence. “I wanted to have these very seamless transitions from one scene to the other, but one of the producers said to me, ‘You have to let the audience clap, or they won’t feel comfortable.’ ”
So Wheeldon built in some pauses. “And you can feel the release in the audience.”
He acknowledges that he’s still on a learning curve with the musical, but he didn’t come in a total novice — far from it. When he was a New York City Ballet member in the 1990s, he was coached by Broadway veteran Jerome Robbins in such works as “Dances at a Gathering” and “West Side Story Suite,” a condensed version of Robbins’s musical in which the dancers speak and sing.
“There was no better way to learn the craft of musical theater than being in ‘West Side Story Suite,’ ” Wheeldon says. “Jerry taught us to develop a character and not just be the obedient silent ballet dancer.”
Wheeldon’s full-length ballets are large-scale theatrical productions. It was his “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” created in 2011 for the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, that sealed his Broadway fate. Stuart Oken, one of the “American in Paris” producers, came away from it convinced that Wheeldon was the director-choreographer he’d been looking for. He had been courting Wheeldon for some time, but the choreographer was unsure about directing a Broadway show; he’d never directed actors before.
“I saw his theatricality and his joy, and I loved his work,” Oken says by phone. After seeing “Alice,” with its deftly etched characters and interwoven episodes of hallucinogenic fantasy, he says he told Wheeldon: “ ‘Alice’ is the best Broadway musical I’ve seen this year. Why aren’t you ready?”
Oken says he wanted a single director-choreographer who would make dance the highlight of “An American in Paris,” even more than it had been in the film. With Broadway’s high ticket prices and all the competition, “you gotta go for it,” he says. “It’s too expensive and it takes too many years to not have some dream in the middle of the vision. Christopher gave us that ability. We could dream through his eyes.”
However, bringing ballet to the Palace, a legendary vaudeville house, involves tricky offstage choreography. It wasn’t such a problem for the musical’s tryout run in Paris this winter, at the Theatre du Châtelet, where the Ballets Russes used to perform. But the Palace has virtually no space behind the stage, and only a few feet of wing space on either side. Actors waiting for their cues have to coordinate their positions with the scenery panels rolling on and off.
“The biggest challenge of the show is you could be standing around in heels, acting and singing, and split seconds later you have to run offstage, put your pointe shoes on and then be fully warmed up to dance,” Cope says. “And there’s no space to dance around and warm up backstage.”
The stage crew also suffers, as the dancers need to keep the heat cranked up so their muscles stay loose. “I feel bad. They are sweating, but we like it nice and warm,” Cope says. “But they’re very nice about it.”
Wheeldon marvels at Cope’s butterfly transformation from an unsung member of the Royal Ballet to Broadway star. After fruitlessly searching for his Lise in multicity auditions, he cornered Cope one day at the Royal Ballet between shows of “Swan Lake.” He’d heard she could sing and asked her to prove it. She was nervous about the backstage acoustics, so he led her to a dressing room and thrust her into one of the shower stalls. (Fully clothed, no running water, he hastens to add. This wasn’t “Black Swan.”) She sang “The Man I Love,” and he was sold.
Cope acknowledges “An American in Paris” crosses boundaries, not just in dance but also in music, with a full orchestra playing Gershwin’s concert scores as well as some of his most popular songs. Dance-wise, she says, “we’re tipping slightly over the edge because we have people in pointe shoes. I think for some, as soon as they see people in pointe shoes they worry they’re seeing something they won’t understand.”
But all three of these ballet transplants — Wheeldon, Cope and Fairchild — feel certain that their show will prompt a reassessment of their art form.
“This show pushes the envelope,” says Fairchild. Because the movie is so well-known, he says, “it can reach the masses and show them a different way of telling a story that oftentimes just gets stuck at Lincoln Center.”
And that might be the greatest impact, beyond making money and touring and whatever else may be in the show’s future. Maybe this Broadway musical can turn audiences on to ballet and prompt them to seek more of it. Wheeldon says he has faith in ballet’s ability to touch a broad public, given “the recent emergence of young choreographers who are excited about making ballets again, with old-fashioned qualities, with social connections onstage. What Jerome Robbins was pushing for — abstract work that has a feeling of community, and story ballets.” He names Alexei Ratmansky at American Ballet Theatre, Justin Peck at New York City Ballet and Liam Scarlett at the Royal.
“For a while it felt like I was on my own, and now there’s a team of us, moving away from purely physical, impressively technical but soulless ballet toward ballets that connect on a human level with the audience.”
He relaxes his posture, and finally leans back.
“I think this is a good time for thoughtfulness on Broadway.”
An American in Paris music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by Craig Lucas. Direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. At the Palace Theatre in New York. www.anamerican inparisbroadway.com