Q&A With Christopher Wheeldon

Q&A With Christopher Wheeldon

Christopher Wheeldon (©Paul Kolnik)

An American in Paris, the Broadway musical based on the 1951 Oscar-winning Best Picture, opened at the Palace Theatre on April 12. On April 13, local critics crowned Christopher Wheeldon, the show’s director and choreographer, as the Great White Way’s latest wunderkind. “Not since West Side Story has dance been used to such overwhelming effect on Broadway,” praised Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic. It’s early days yet, but when Tony Award nominations are announced on April 28, theater buffs can expect to see Wheeldon’s name on the list. And if you’re a betting man or woman, put your money on the former dancer with the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet: He’s on pointe to waltz away with the Best Choreography prize when the awards are handed out on June 7.

Q: You’ve jumped in at the deep end, wearing two hats: director and choreographer of An American in Paris. Does Christopher, the director, ever argue with Christopher, the choreographer? Or are the two of you in perfect sync?

A: Actually I work quite well with myself … chuckle. Although I do have to look at the show objectively and be tough on myself as a choreographer. I can always try to make things dance. The challenge has been balancing the storytelling in a way that allows the book scenes, songs and dances to work together as almost equal partners.

Q: You’ve said that Jerome Robbins has had the most influence on your work in ballet because you worked closely together at New York City Ballet. Robbins was also a mighty force on Broadway, as a director and choreography of shows like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. You seem to be following in his path. Did he ever “talk Broadway” to you? And if so, has that been of value to you in creating An American in Paris?

A: Jerry never spoke to me about Broadway. Reading a recent biography was very useful, though. He was relentless in his search for clear storytelling through movement. It’s very different choreographing for a musical. Storytelling is number one. Then you look for creative movements to tell the story but you cannot get lost in your own pursuit for inventive movement, it must be about story first.

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. (©2015, Matthew Murphy)

Q: Your two leads, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, are classically trained dancers. When casting the other dancers in the show, did you look primarily for the classically trained? Or did you seek out something different, yet complementary?

A: I really wanted a mix of personalities and dance skills in the show. This American in Paris dances from beginning to end and not just ballet, but jazz and tap. I did however look for dancers who were able to shift from one style to the other. We have a total of five pointe work girls in the show, all of them former classical ballet dancers or on a leave of absence from their companies. I also wanted to dispel the myth that dancers can’t really sing. This is a show filled with Gershwin [songs] and it was important to me that it sounded just as good as it looked. These guys all sing.

Q: In general, how would you rate Broadway dancers? What do they bring to a project that the classically trained dancer might not? Or is a dancer a dancer, whether he or she wears jazz, tap or ballet shoes? 

A: Broadway dancers are amazing people; they are strong, resilient and highly professional. They have different skills to ballet dancers, they approach drama in movement differently, they are used to working from a book. They often sing and act very well also. It has been wonderful watching the Broadway folks guide the ballet dancers and the ballet dancers inspire the Broadway dancers to raise their level of classical technique. Each day they all take an optional ballet class together provided by my assistant.

The “Fidgety Feet” number from Act II of An American in Paris. (©2014, Angela Sterling)

Q: Why do you want to branch out from ballet and create for and become a part of Broadway?

A: I love theater, I’ve grown up around it and I think that when musical theater is good, there is nothing like it. It is the crashing together of all the art forms in a very satisfying way.

Q: Everyone remembers his/her first Broadway show. What was yours? Did it make a huge impression on you at the time?

A: Cats at the New London Theatre in London. I was a child of the mega musical era. Les Mis and Phantom. My favorite productions of my youth were a Richard Jones Into The Woods with Julia McKenzie as the witch and Anything Goes with Elaine Paige.

Q: The show is An American in Paris, and you are an Englishman in New York. Has this city ever inspired you to dance down the streets à la Gene Kelly? If you were to spontaneously burst into dance in New York, swing on a lamppost, splash around in the slush, where would you be and what would you hear on the soundtrack?

A: The first time I came to New York at 19 years old, and in a rather brash show of exhibitionism. I did a series of piquet turns around the Lincoln Center fountain like in the opening credits of Fame the TV series about the High School of Performing Arts. It was winter and I almost wiped out on the ice. Was fun though.

» An American in Paris, Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, at W. 47th St., 877.250.2929, americaninparisbroadway.com