It's been a Broadway tradition for more than half a century: Before the opening of every musical, a member of the chorus is presented with the Gypsy Robe, a treasured dressing gown embellished with hand-sewn mementos of previous musicals. When the cast of "An American in Paris" gathered onstage for the ritual hand-off, performers making their Broadway debuts were asked to step forward. Almost everyone did, recalls Robert Fairchild, the show's Tony-nominated star.
"It was so cool," he says. "It was just so crazy. We were all doing it for the first time."
Shortly after, he was singing and dancing his way through "I've Got Beginner's Luck," which could be the show's theme song. Fairchild, a popular principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, had never been in a Broadway musical. And neither had his Tony-nominated costar, Leanne Cope, a member of the Royal Ballet with no extracurricular experience in the West End.
FULL COVERAGE: Tony Awards 2015
Moreover, Christopher Wheeldon, the A-list ballet choreographer with one Broadway musical to his credit, was directing for the first time — and is up for a Tony Award for both choreography and direction.
"Everyone in this whole project took a gamble on everybody," Fairchild notes. And the gambler in chief, lead producer Stuart Oken, now has delirious reviews, sold-out houses, and 12 Tony nominations to show for his daring.
Broadway has long been awash in musicals based on Hollywood films, but with its long dance passages re-creating postwar Paris and advancing the story, "An American in Paris" looks nothing like them. Nor does it look much like the movie. Oken maintains that adapting "An American in Paris" was "not a no-brainer," despite its six Oscars, its celebrated George Gershwin music, and its performances by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
"There's a perception that it kind of holds up as a film," Oken says, "but it doesn't. It's a Hollywood backlot movie that lacked a reason for existing other than to celebrate the Gershwin songbook. You read the stories about when the movie was made, and it was 'the ballet cost more than the film, the ballet was this, the ballet was that.'"
The groundbreaking 16-minute dance sequence to Gershwin's 1928 "American in Paris" suite, Oken thinks, "is beautiful, but it doesn't feel earned."
Oken, with his then partner, Van Kaplan, decided that if you're going to make a stage version of a movie famous for its dancing, "You don't want to hire a director who wants to put a ballet at the end of the story. We wanted to find somebody who wanted to make the ballet intrinsic ... which meant we had to find somebody who was a director-choreographer, somebody who had absolute ballet chops."
The search led him to Wheeldon, whose sensational career as a ballet choreographer had begun at New York City Ballet in 1997 and who in 2005 had given the company a one-act "American in Paris" ballet set to the Gershwin suite. Like Jerry Mulligan, the Gene Kelly character in the film, the central character in the ballet was a painter smitten with a young Parisienne, but that's where the similarities ended.
Wheeldon says the musical quotes exactly one small step from the ballet, and on a recent morning, Wheeldon and Fairchild demonstrate it for the benefit of a photographer and a reporter.
Their easy camaraderie testifies to their long years overlapping at New York City Ballet, which has a long history of intermittently overlapping with Broadway. The company's repertoire includes not just "Sleeping Beauty" and "La Sylphide" but "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," which the company's founder and guiding genius, George Balanchine, created for the 1936 Rodgers & Hart musical "On Your Toes"; "West Side Story Suite," an anthology of Jerome Robbins' dances from his great 1957 collaboration with Leonard Bernstein; and Wheeldon's own 2002 work, "Carousel (A Dance)," based on the plot of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein show.
Balanchine, who had recruited Robbins as co-head of NYCB, and Peter Martins, who holds the reins today, all allow, even welcome, elements of Broadway showmanship to dribble into their work.
Still, when Oken approached Wheeldon with his idea for a new Broadway musical based on Vincente Minnelli's film, Wheeldon hesitated.
"It took me eight months to say yes," he says. It wasn't that Broadway didn't intrigue him. He'd grown up seeing musicals like "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Guys and Dolls" in London. Leaving England at 19 to join New York City Ballet, he recalls, "I booked myself into every show on Broadway." And when he choreographed "Sweet Smell of Success" in 2002, he'd gotten and enjoyed "a taste of that wonderful Broadway family experience you have making a musical."
He felt ready to choreograph "An American in Paris" for Broadway; it was the prospect of directing that made him "sweat a little bit." Oken was convinced that Wheeldon could handle both ends of the job, having seen Wheeldon's first three-act ballet, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," at the Royal in 2011. "I thought it was the best musical I saw that year," Oken says.
And having already put playwright Craig Lucas to work on a book that would make the impact of World War II on the characters an important part of the story, Oken persuaded Wheeldon to come on board, telling him, "We want what you do."
Now that Wheeldon and Fairchild are naturalized citizens of Broadway, they've been analyzing the differences between their home turf at the ballet, whether at Lincoln Center or in European opera houses, and what they've discovered at Broadway's venerable Palace Theater.
The first thing Fairchild mentions — and Wheeldon immediately assents — is how the space itself changes the nature of the experience. "It's like an incredible force of nature," Fairchild says. "The enthusiasm, the chemistry, the energy that you feel from everybody onstage — it comes alive and it pops in such a smaller venue."
Without the "big chasm" created by an orchestra pit designed to hold a full-scale orchestra, Wheeldon suggests, performers feel more connected to the audience. Fairchild agrees. "You really feel like you're putting on a show for these people," he says. "They are coming to the theater for two hours and 40 minutes to be entertained. A lot of times in the ballet world, it's like we're fish in an aquarium and they've come to watch the spectacle."
Fairchild took singing lessons and acting lessons to play Jerry Mulligan. "I worked my butt off," he says. And if this ex-GI, who fought through World War II in France and stayed in Paris to paint, has little in common with Fairchild's handsome ballet princes in white tights, the dancer feels perfectly at home in the part. "I have a lot of roles at New York City Ballet that are this kind of jazzy, Gene Kelly-esque type movement," he says.
Wheeldon sees Fairchild as an "all-American dancer" in the mold of former NYCB stars Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villella and Damian Woetzel. "He's quintessentially American," Wheeldon notes. "You wouldn't see that style of dancing at Paris Opera Ballet or Royal Ballet." And Jerry Mulligan, he adds, is an "all-American guy, grounded and earthy." Wheeldon notes that Jerry's dance vocabulary in the show comes not from Gene Kelly's work in the movie, but "from the combination of the jazzy angularity of the Gershwin music and Robbie's natural style as a dancer."
Kelly isn't the only ghost hovering over the show; songs associated with Fred Astaire have been interpolated into the score of "An American in Paris" on Broadway. Fairchild isn't fazed.
"In my mind, you can't be compared to them. They are the end-all and the be-all. And I owe so much of my life to them — the inspiration they've given me, the road that they paved for male dancers. I just get excited for the opportunity to dance in their shadow."
He's also excited about the nondance aspects of "An American in Paris," after being "silent for 10 years onstage and then to have some different way of expressing yourself."
The learning curve for him and for Wheeldon has been steep but interesting.
"In the studio choreographing," Fairchild says, "it just comes out of Chris like this force. As a director, he really takes his time. And if he doesn't have the answer, he says, 'Leave that with me for a second.' He has to talk to the book writer, so many people — it's not just his ideas."
Wheeldon finds that something of a relief. "When I walk in the room to make a ballet, it's me and my pianist and maybe a ballet master. Everyone waits for me to take the first step." He had to get used to the collaborative development process and the much larger creative team on "American in Paris." Unintentionally quoting one of the Ira Gershwin lyrics in the show, he says, "It's wonderful. You feel supported, and everyone is focusing on the same thing. Thankfully, we all got on very well."
Wheeldon intends to continue commuting between Broadway and ballet. Fairchild says he feels "very connected" to New York City Ballet and will return when his leave ends. But there are no twinges of regret at having missed the company's spring season at Lincoln Center to star in "An American in Paris."
"Honestly, I can't picture myself doing anything else at this moment in time," Fairchild says.