Leanne Cope, the Tony-nominated star of “An American in Paris” on Broadway, never saw herself as a musical theater actress.
“I thought maybe once I’d retired I’d join an amateur dramatic society,” says the ballerina on leave from London’s Royal Ballet.
She was by no means a luminary of the celebrated troupe. Big ballet companies grade their artists by rank, like the military, and out of the Royal’s six ranks, Cope is in the second. From the bottom.
But then along came Christopher Wheeldon, director/choreographer of “American in Paris,” in desperate need of a female triple threat for the role of Lise, the young French woman played by Leslie Caron in the 1951 movie, which also starred Gene Kelly. In the musical, the character of Lise is altered somewhat; she is an aspiring ballerina who is also Jewish, and has lived through a horrible past.
Wheeldon needed an extraordinary performer who could dance, sing and act brilliantly, and his auditions hadn’t yet yielded the right person. So one day when he was visiting the Royal Ballet he pulled Cope aside between the matinee and evening shows of “Swan Lake.” He’d heard she could sing, and asked her to prove it.
“He was in London working on ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Cope recalls in a recent phone interview. “He’d heard I sang in school. I was in my warmup clothing, no makeup on. …We went into the female ballet staff dressing room, into the shower, and I sang ‘The Man I Love.'”
The rest has already become Broadway history; “An American in Paris” grabbed 12 Tony nominations, including nods for best original musical, Cope’s nomination for best actress in a musical, Robert Fairchild’s for best actor in a musical, and Wheeldon’s two for directing and choreography. (The awards will be given out June 7 at Radio City Music Hall, and will be broadcast on CBS.)
A good voice isn’t something most ballet dancers ever need—after all, when do they have the occasion to open their mouths? It’s exceedingly rare for a ballet to call for singing. (Jerome Robbins’s “West Side Story Suite,” adapted from his famed musical, is one of the few.)
Yet at the Royal Ballet School, which feeds students such as Cope into the professional company, singing is part of the curriculum.
“The music department believed it was important for us to learn to sing,” says Cope. She sang in the school’s choir throughout in her teenage years. “We sang ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ‘Carmina Burana,’ ‘West Side Story.’ They felt it was very good for us to learn about music, that it added to our knowledge as dancers to learn about music.”
Cope, a petite brunette with a merry smile and an abandoned, windswept way of dancing, had previously been singled out by the Royal’s Resident Artist Liam Scarlett for her musicality and dramatic ability: “She is just the most brilliant actress,” he says in a video interview on the company’s website. “Her versatility is wonderful, her musicality; the kind of sheer joy that comes from watching her dance is breathtaking.”
But until Wheeldon asked her to sing, Cope says, she never saw herself as having a theater career beyond dancing.
“But this role came along and it fit well,” she says. “I feel lucky this role came about when it did; it’s like the stars aligned. I feel very privileged to be taking this journey.”
Cope says she hopes the audience, too, will take a journey. Perhaps ticket buyers will become so enamored of all the dancing in the show that they’ll be inspired to take in a ballet performance.
“Ballet sometimes seems unapproachable,” Cope acknowledges. “It’s like when I go to the opera, I get a little bit scared. I think it’s too highbrow for me. But when I have gone I really do enjoy it.
“It’s a similar thing with ballet,” she says. “It’s exactly the same as dancing in heels, it’s just on your toes. And maybe people who wouldn’t see a classical ballet would come and see a show and maybe say, ‘Now that I’m seeing that, maybe I’ll pop up to Lincoln Center.’ And maybe more ballet audiences will see more musicals. So I’m hoping it will bring different audiences to both.”