When Christopher Wheeldon was eight years old and growing up in England, his parents took him to a symphony orchestra concert. On the program was George Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris, a 20-minute evocation of the city in the 1920s, with the honk of taxi horns and saxophones announcing the jazz age. Young Christopher couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“I remember loving it, but also craving some dancing to go along with the music, because it was just a concert,” he says. “I think I ended up asleep in my mother’s or my father’s arms. But I do remember loving the music.”
Sleep-inducing, too, was the famous MGM musical based on Gershwin’s music, An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly dancing his way into the lovely arms of Leslie Caron.
“I actually found the movie quite boring,” Wheeldon says. “I only wanted to watch the dance at the end because it was so spectacular and beautiful – but the story itself … As a kid, I was far more attracted to The Wizard of Oz and even Singin’ in the Rain. It just had a more appealing story in a way.”
Wheeldon overcame these childhood aversions. In the early 2000s, the former ballet soloist and rising choreographer was involved in discussions about a possible stage production of An American in Paris. In 2005, he made his own dance piece set to Gershwin’s music for New York City Ballet, where he was resident choreographer. By 2014, Wheeldon was both director and making the dance for a fully staged musical of An American in Paris, based on the MGM movie and using Gershwin’s hummable and eminently danceable tunes. It opened in Paris and then on Broadway, with former NYCB principal Robert Fairchild as Jerry (Kelly’s role in the movie) and, as Lise, Leanne Cope, formerly with the Royal Ballet.
The musical is now being brought to Australia for a national tour, starting at Brisbane’s QPAC in January, in what will almost certainly be a tonic for the pandemic-weary. Wheeldon’s version differs from Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film in several crucial ways, not least that he has cast ballet dancers, not Broadway hoofers, in some of the roles. The Australian tour of An American in Paris is presented with The Australian Ballet, which is supplying several of its dancers. The cast is yet to be announced.
Wheeldon is speaking from New York on what is his Saturday afternoon. Broadway has reopened after 18 months of Covid darkness, and Wheeldon is hard at work on his next venture, a musical about Michael Jackson. Rehearsals started this week ahead of previews in early December. Wheeldon is clearly preoccupied because he wasn’t quite expecting this writer’s pre-arranged phone call. He’s on his way to get a haircut, and can I call back in an hour?
Wheeldon, 48, is one of the hottest choreographers of ballet on the planet. Along with Alexei Ratmansky, he is credited with reviving the tradition of narrative ballet, or at least putting a 21st-century spin on it. When Wheeldon made his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the Royal Ballet in 2011, it was the first new evening-length story ballet there since 1995. (The Australian Ballet did it in 2017.) His other pieces include a ballet of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and a version of The Nutcracker set in Chicago’s poor south side.
Now he’s back on the phone, hair trimmed, and explaining how his version of An American in Paris is different from the movie that produced yawns in him as an eight-year-old. For starters, he and book writer Craig Lucas have slightly backdated the story of ex-GI Jerry Mulligan and his adventures in Paris from the early 1950s to the immediate post-war period, when Paris was emerging from the shadow of Nazi occupation. Wheeldon says it makes sense that Minnelli and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner didn’t dwell on the dark side.
“One of the selling points of those MGM blockbusters was that they were just purely beautiful and colourful, and full of joy and life – to help lift people’s spirits and take them out of that terrible time,” he says. “We were able to go back in there and go, ‘Well, Paris was devastated by the occupation – the deal they did with the devil was that they got to keep their city. Paris was still Paris. But I think the spirit of the city was really destroyed. And that’s where our show begins.”
The story is essentially a romantic tangle involving Jerry, an aspiring painter, and others in the artistic milieu. Lise is a ballet dancer, Adam a composer and pianist, and Henri the heir to an industrial fortune who wants to be a nightclub singer – and who is in love with Lise. Further complicating matters is a wealthy American philanthropist, Milo Davenport, who has eyes for Jerry.
Wheeldon says the estates of George and Ira Gershwin, the composer’s lyricist brother, gave him essentially free rein over his choice of music. Naturally, he has wheeled out some of the Gershwins’ best-known songs, including ’SWonderful, I Got Rhythm, Stairway to Paradise, and They Can’t Take That Away From Me. He also has used instrumental pieces, in addition to An American in Paris, such as the mysterious minor-key Second Prelude, and the Second Rhapsody (sometimes known as Rhapsody for Rivets). The show opens with the Concerto in F and a dance for Jerry and Lise. From the outset Wheeldon signals that this is not a tap-dancing spectacular a la Gene Kelly, but much closer to his world of ballet.
“The first six minutes of the show are dance – about the city under occupation and starting to emerge, and the meeting of these two young people,” he says. “Tapping your way through that just seemed a little bit disingenuous coming from me, and it just didn’t seem to be the right vocabulary.
“I’m not a tapper, and Gene Kelly was a great tapper, and much of the choreography in the movie is a tap vocabulary. I’m from the ballet, obviously, so my take on the show was more based in Broadway jazz ballet technique.”
Similarly, Wheeldon’s conception of the extended dance sequence, set to Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris, is different from Kelly’s and Minnelli’s in the film. The movie version is a tour of Paris, with designs inspired by the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy and other French artists. The dreamy sequence, filmed on an MGM studio lot, cost close to $US500,000 in 1951 dollars.
Wheeldon thinks it’s kind of “pasted on at the end”, and he wanted the ballet in his musical to be part of the story, a coming together of the characters with a natural inevitability. It happens in the theatre, as Lise dances the new ballet that Adam has written, and she imagines, in a pas de deux, that her partner is Jerry. Unlike the movie with its picture-book Paris, the musical’s designs by Bob Crowley are pared back, with abstract blocks of colour. It’s a response to Gershwin’s music, rather than an illustration of it.
“What was fun for me was playing with the layering of the jazz rhythms, and the soaring romantic melodies that float above them,” Wheeldon says. “There is so much contrast in that piece, so much variety. There is lots of opportunity for changes of colour, and that’s how we ended up designing the piece.”
Unfortunately, Wheeldon is unable to travel to Australia to mount the show here, as he is busy with his Jackson musical, MJ. The show is set around Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous tour, and there has been speculation about whether it will go into the allegations of child abuse brought against the singer (reports say it doesn’t). A Broadway newcomer, Myles Frost, is in the title role and Wheeldon says he is excited about the youthful energy in the show.
“One of the things we’ve worked really hard to do is to not fall into the trap of making a tribute show,” he says. “We’re making a piece of art. He’s not impersonating Michael, but of course we’re looking for performers who can capture the spirit and the essence of Michael both vocally and with the dance as well.”
The Australian tour of An American in Paris will visit five capital cities. Local producer Torben Brookman of GWB Entertainment says the show is unusual in that it has broad commercial appeal while also being a showcase for dancers from classical ballet.
Discussions were started with The Australian Ballet before the pandemic about the company being a partner in the show, and it has come on board as an investor, along with other stakeholders. David Hallberg, The Australian Ballet’s artistic director, saw An American in Paris during its Broadway run and he knows Wheeldon well. Wheeldon last year made a duet for Hallberg and Sara Mearns called The Two of Us, set to songs by Joni Mitchell.
“It’s exciting to be collaborating with him in a new capacity together,” Hallberg says. “Following the standard open audition process, we’re pleased to say that some of our dancers have been successful in securing key roles in the production.”
Wheeldon says it’s been a joy to give ballet dancers the opportunity to work on a big musical.
“What was wonderful is that it brought people out of the woodwork: ‘Oh, ballet dancers can sing and act, maybe we should look at whether we can do that too’,” he says. “The traditional triple threat on Broadway is someone who can dance, sing and act. But when you’re asking for someone to have a world-class ballet technique, and do the jazz, and sing and act – it’s a big ask.”
To which the flat-footed can only reply: Nice work if you can get it.
An American in Paris plays at QPAC in Brisbane from January 8-30, followed by Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Brisbane tickets go on sale October 20.