Christopher Wheeldon: ‘I’d never directed, so An American in Paris was a leap of faith’
Christopher Wheeldon trained as a child at the Royal Ballet School and then graduated to join the Royal Ballet at 18, before moving to New York to become a principal with New York City Ballet. Just 10 years later, his dancing days – at least on stage – were over, and he had successfully transitioned to become a full-time ballet choreographer.
Since then, he’s been constantly busy: in the past few years, he’s been back with the Royal Ballet, creating its first full-length new work for 20 years with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011. This was followed by The Winter’s Tale in 2014.
Wheeldon has also worked regularly with New York City Ballet (where he was appointed resident choreographer in 2001), American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, where he’ll return next year to create a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other projects have involved companies in Europe and beyond, such as the Dutch National Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet and the Bolshoi.
In fact, Wheeldon’s roots are in musical theatre and that is where he can found today. He is bringing his production of An American in Paris from Broadway, where it won him the 2015 Tony award for best choreographer, to the West End’s Dominion Theatre, where it has just opened.
“I grew up on musical theatre. My parents were both members of an amateur dramatic society, and they loved theatre, so we’d go to the local theatre [in Somerset, where he grew up], and we’d go up to London to see shows here. Some of the first shows I saw included the original 42nd Street at Drury Lane, which must be 30 years ago. I also saw Cats, Phantom, Les Mis – all those big blockbuster shows – early on,” he says as we chat in the Dominion’s Freddie Mercury bar, a mini-shrine to the late singer, whose spirit infused the long-running We Will Rock You at this theatre.
But An American in Paris couldn’t be further from the brash, rock-concert aesthetic of the Queen musical, instead offering an undeniably old-fashioned wallow in great Gershwin songs illustrated by a lot of dance.
“I always say this show is really born from the music,” Wheeldon acknowledges. “But there’s no reason to even attempt to take a brilliant Oscar-winning movie and try to put it on stage unless you can do something different with it. We were backed by the generosity of the Gershwin Trust telling us we didn’t have to use all the music from the film, but could have anything we wanted. I was conscious and sensitive to the songs you have to have, but we also asked which were the great Gershwin songs that you could use in a surprising way – and also the songs that people really don’t know.”
There have been numerous examples in the last 30 years of new shows fashioned out of the Gershwin back catalogue, from Broadway’s My One and Only, Crazy for You and Nice Work If You Can Get It, to Chichester’s A Damsel in Distress in 2015. “The thing that distinguishes us,” says Wheeldon, “is how much pure orchestral classical music we also use. There’s probably about 30 or 35 minutes of pure dance to orchestral music in it, all told.”
It wasn’t Wheeldon’s first experience of working on a Broadway musical: in 2002, he was part of the team on Nicholas Hytner’s short-lived stage musical adaptation of the film Sweet Smell of Success.
“That was the most amazing experience. I was 26 years old and working with Marvin Hamlisch [who composed the score], John Guard [who wrote the book], Nick Hytner and John Lithgow [who starred in it]. It was a real education. But the ballet world called back and I went back.”
Wheeldon is now 43, so that’s quite a gap between musicals, but it has partly been about finding time to timetable a return to the genre: “Knowing how much of a commitment a musical is, especially of time, it’s hard when you are held on stage by an opera-house schedule, in which things are planned years and years in advance.
“Musicals tend to have a way of suddenly springing up. They get the money, and then it’s go, go, go. So you can’t do them unless you leave your life open.”
Bringing An American in Paris to the stage
A new musical also has a more intricate development process, which involves many other collaborative players, unlike a dance piece where the choreographer is the main person in the room. When Wheeldon was invited to join the team for An American in Paris, a couple of the pieces of the jigsaw were already in place: “The producers had already asked Craig Lucas to write the book. They had seen and loved Light in the Piazza, as had I. It was a stunning show on every level – musically and visually challenging. It was everything I enjoy about new musical theatre – the kind of production that expects you to do a little bit of the work and meet it halfway.”
Also already on board was Rob Fisher, who adapted, arranged and supervised the musical score. Wheeldon in turn brought on designers Bob Crowley (for set and costume) and Natasha Katz (lighting).
Choreographing a dance-based title such as An American in Paris seems a natural fit for Wheeldon. “The film is more tap-based, aside from the ballet at the end, but it feels that it would be right for producers to approach a ballet choreographer,” he agrees. “But I’m not sure about directing it as well. That was a leap of faith on their part, because I’d never directed before. I’d only directed in the ballet, but that’s very different.”
He admits to lacking experience of the work that would be required in terms of development. “I didn’t have any understanding of that. I was quite naive in imagining that a writer writes a script and then a director makes it come to life. I didn’t realise how much work falls on the director’s shoulders to work with the writer and the musical director to shape it. But it’s full-on and wonderful, because at the end of it you come away feeling like you’ve really crafted something.”
Part of the challenge, but also the reward, was being able to approach it as a new work. “As a creative team, we asked, ‘What would George and Ira and Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly do now, if they could make this now? What could they say in this production that they couldn’t have said back then?’ They couldn’t set it in post-war Paris because the story was so new and raw. They couldn’t have talked about the persecution and disruption of Jews in Paris. MGM would have said ‘no way’ – the studio would have told them to make a beautiful celebration of life. That’s what was needed then. We’ve been able to make a beautiful celebration of life, but make it more potent by placing it in a more grounded, truthful, historical context, which, 75 years on, you can do.”
Finding the right performers
One of the biggest challenges was casting the show. “I was determined that we were going to manage it,” Wheeldon says. “But I had an agreement with the producers that they must be artists that would successfully capture some of the spirit of the originals [Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the film] but who were also their own Jerry and Lise. I didn’t want the audience chattering that they were lovely dancers but it was a shame they couldn’t sing, or that it was a pity about their acting, as happens so often when ballet dancers do shows. I believed there had to be a pool of talented people who could do it all. But we had to work hard to find them. We looked at many dancers and held extensive auditions all around America, not just in New York and LA but also in San Francisco, Chicago and Salt Lake City.”
Eventually, they settled on Robert Fairchild, a principal with New York City Ballet, and Leanne Cope, from London’s Royal Ballet.
“Robbie was an original idea from the beginning. I’ve known him since he was 16 and I had an inkling he’d be right. But he wasn’t a shoo-in – I wasn’t going to go with him just because I knew him. His singing was raw, but tuneful and he had a nice tone. And similarly Leanne had a lovely soprano.”
Wheeldon continues: “Both displayed very strong instincts as actors, but neither had acted before. Part of me was anxious: as a first-time director, I thought, ‘Shouldn’t I be working with experienced actors?’ I’d be trying to shape these guys, not knowing what I was doing. But in fact, it was to all our benefit: we were all learning together, and none of us was shy about asking for help or reaching out to other directors and friends to ask for help. And we all felt a great sense of achievement at the end, with both of them being celebrated as good actors and singers as well as dancers and being nominated for Tonys. They’re proper triple threats – it was worth all the hard work.”
Q&A: Christopher Wheeldon
What was your first non-theatre job? Making egg mayonnaise sandwiches at a restaurant near Guildford when I was at the Royal Ballet School.
What was your first professional theatre job? I was a child dancer with the Royal Ballet and appeared in the Royal Opera’s Rigoletto when I was about eight.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t be afraid to say no. It’s taken me a long time to learn that. I used to be too British and polite, but it’s only now in my early 40s that it’s okay to use it.
Who or what was your biggest influence? In dance, Jerome Robbins and Kenneth MacMillan.MacMillan was still alive when I joined the Royal Ballet and he encouraged me to practise choreography. I never met George Balanchine, but dancing in his work for New York City Ballet was an influence. Outside ballet, my dad has been a big influence.
What’s your best advice for auditions? My advice is for directors and choreographers holding them. Always respect the fact that these people are putting themselves out for you, so look them in the eye and let them sing their song. Don’t cut them off, even though it will take a few more minutes of your time. I love the audition process – the fearlessness of performers, who often know they are not quite right for the role but come in and do their best. It’s a privilege to be sung to all day – who gets that in their life?
If you hadn’t been a director and choreographer, what would you have been? I used to say a chef, but I’m not precise enough as a person: I’m too spontaneous.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I shave for a premiere. I let my hair grow during rehearsals, but there’s something about a clean face and a fresh look on first night that gives me confidence. I broke it a couple of years ago, and on the night I sat there the whole time, fearing that it would fail miserably. Of course it didn’t, so I’m a little over it now, but on first night I’ll be clean-shaven.
Wheeldon is equally enthusiastic about Ashley Day, the British musical theatre actor who will take over from Fairchild as Jerry in June and until then is his alternate in the role. “It was another leap of faith. When he auditioned, I thought, ‘This kid is fantastic – he’s so Jerry.’ From the moment he walked in and I paired him with Leanne, there was such chemistry; he’s also drop-dead gorgeous. But I worried that we’d dance him and I’d be disappointed because he’s not Robbie and might not have a high enough level of technique to make it work.
“Ashley had certainly not done this kind of dancing for a while, but there was something about his energy, and I knew he’d work till he dropped to get there – and he has. He’s been in ballet class and pilates every day, reshaping his body, and he’s been incredibly focused on working on this show. He’s the kind of actor who really loves the challenge of something new, and this certainly offers him something he’s never done before.”
The same is true of Wheeldon’s own involvement in the show. “The whole show has been done in the spirit of pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones to try something different. Out of everyone, I was probably the furthest out of mine. As hard as it is to take risks and step out of your box, I’m now a big believer that no matter how uncomfortable you are, it will be okay. But if it isn’t, you’ll learn from that and not do it again.”
Musicals, of course, have long drawn on the choreographic talents from the dance world. Matthew Bourne, for instance, has done Oliver! and Mary Poppins. Today, Wheeldon is quick to credit him: “Matt has always been the greatest of our generation of storytellers through movement, largely because he’s such a great director. In the US, there’s the tradition of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins – crossing over from dance to musicals. To me, Robbins is the still the ultimate great as a director and choreographer. We’re cross-pollinating all the time and learning from each other; when I go back to ballet I take some of the things I’ve learnt from musicals.”
But there’s one key difference between working in contemporary dance and musicals: the luxury of time.
“In dance, we don’t have the benefit of weeks and weeks of previews and out-of-town try-outs. That’s a luxury in this world – to be able to fine-tune and perfect things. Essentially, this is our fourth go at An American in Paris. We did it in Paris first at the Chatelet, which was great because they work a bit like an opera house and everything is constructed there, then Broadway, on an American tour and now in London. For me, this is a wonderful moment where we can fine-tune, polish and present the show in its best light so far.”
Christopher Wheeldon’s top tips for aspiring Choreographers
• Find any opportunity to practise your craft. Whatever size it is, do it – something great could come out of it and inform your next work.
• Take risks and step out of the box.
• Try to get lots of sleep.
By contrast, The Winter’s Tale, which Wheeldon will be reviving with the Royal Ballet on its forthcoming Australian tour, had only 12 performances. “To be able to sit with a show like American in Paris for so long is rare, but you learn about who you are as an artist through repeated viewings. I’ve never had that experience before. But with that comes some responsibility and pressure. I sometimes feel like I’m a bad parent because I’m away from them for a long time. The kids have been out on the road with An American in Paris in the States, and I try to go back when I can. I saw them in Miami after the New Year, and then in Dallas three weeks ago. I’ll see them again in LA, when they open there the night after we open here.”
Once a show like this takes on a life of its own, Wheeldon has to learn to let go a bit – and happily surrenders the teaching of it to new casts to others. “I’m not good at that. I don’t know my work that well, as my head has often moved on to the next show that is coming up. But I’m very lucky – the team we have is amazing, and my associate who’s been with me from the beginning will go out and get it ready, then I work with them once it is done.”
The ultimate satisfaction is getting the show in front of appreciative audiences. “It’s been a long process, but it has been so worthwhile. London audiences have really connected with it. One of the reasons I believe La La Land is so successful – and I say this not to diminish it in any way because I thought it was a beautiful piece of film-making – is that people want joy right now. They want something beautiful and romantic to hold on to, because it’s all a bit joyless out there. That’s perhaps an overstated thing. It’s easy to say that people want joy because the times are dark, but I believe it – they do.”
And An American in Paris certainly provides it.
CV: Christopher Wheeldon
Born: 1973, Yeovil, Somerset
Training: Royal Ballet School
Landmark productions: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Royal Ballet, 2011), The Winter’s Tale (Royal Ballet, 2014), An American in Paris (Broadway, 2015)
Awards: Tony award for best choreographer for An American in Paris (2015)
Agent: Tobias Round, the Round Company