Choreographer brings ballet-studded musical to Broadway

By bringing ballet to his Broadway musical, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon hopes to keep audiences on their toes too

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm

When Christopher Wheeldon was growing up in England, the only child of parents involved in amateur theatre, he amused himself by building stage sets in his bedroom. The one he liked best was inspired by Starlight Express, with toy car tracks recreating the whirling pathways of the 1980s roller-skating rock musical.

"It was Theatre Geeks 101 for an eight-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 theatre dreams fully coming true: An American in Paris, the first Broadway show Wheeldon has directed as well as choreographed, opened at the Palace Theatre on April 12.

The biggest challenge was being courageous and sticking to my guns

The show begins with a big dance number, closes with a 14-minute ballet and, with ballet dancers in the leading roles, it relies on dancing 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 make-up 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. 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. 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 traumatised Paris just emerging from the second world war, 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-soldier 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 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' musical in which the dancers speak and sing.

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. 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. 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," he says.

Robert Fairchild says the show pushes the envelope. And 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 Centre." 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 Ballet. "For a while it felt like I was on my own," he says, "and now there's a team of us, moving away from purely physical, impressively technical but soulless ballet towards ballets that connect on a human level with the audience."

He relaxes his posture and finally leans back. "This is a good time for thoughtfulness on Broadway."

The Washington Post