By the time his biggest dance moment arrives, in the dizzying final scene of Broadway’s “An American in Paris,” Robert Fairchild is pretty drained.
“That ballet comes at end of the show, and you’re exhausted,” says the Tony-nominated star of the show, a ballet dancer who can slink, sing, act and be so breathtakingly honest in the role of Jerry Mulligan, the tender-hearted G.I., that everyone else tends to blur beside him onstage. “But every time it starts I think, ‘I’m doing the ballet in “American in Paris” that Gene Kelly did!’ And I get chills.”
Fairchild says he owes his career as a member of the New York City Ballet to Gene Kelly, who made Jerry Mulligan indelible in the 1951 film. “He’s the reason I dance, seriously,” says Fairchild in a recent phone interview.
When he was a child, his mother introduced him to dance films, and Fairchild was especially taken by those that featured the tap-dancing Kelly. “We rented all the old Hollywood classics, and seeing him was such inspiration. He tells the story through movement and song just like you would in a scene. It’s not like, ‘We’re going to do a dance break here.’ It’s so fluid, the storytelling process.
“He’s got it all,” Fairchild continues about Kelly. “And he was really into ballet, I don’t think a lot of people know that. He took it very seriously.”
As fate (or will?) would have it, Fairchild grew up to possess a similarly sporty, muscular movement style to Kelly’s. “We both have very meaty legs,” he says. “We’re very grounded. And adding a little Fred Astaire class on top of the gritty athleticisms, to combine it with the complete opposite, is confusing to the eye and that’s what makes it interesting.”
“Every once in a while I try to pay tribute to him in the steps I’ve been given” in the show, he says. A favorite spot to add some Kelly-style cool is in the “jazzy kind of beatnik step” in the slow introduction to that final dream ballet with his co-star Leanne Cope, the ballerina who dances the role of Jerry’s true love, Lise.
Fairchild was so determined to follow in Kelly’s footsteps in this show that he tried to talk director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon into letting him tap dance.
“I love to tap. I really wanted to tap in the show.” How hard did he try to convince Wheeldon? “I was trying pretty damn hard, I must say,” Fairchild says with a laugh.
Maybe he’ll get to show off his time step in another show. Or maybe he’ll make the leap of his idol Kelly, and shift from Broadway to Hollywood. (After all, MGM executive Louis B. Mayer discovered Kelly while he was starring on Broadway, in “Pal Joey.”) Surely no theater newcomer’s future has ever looked rosier.
But for now, Fairchild is simply luxuriating in his new medium, which has offered all kinds of discoveries. Such as singing: “To use my voice feels like such another layer of challenge. I really love it.
“I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “It’s such a full-bodied experience.”