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Following on from the official London launch of An American in Paris, we spoke to cast members of the production to hear more about the show and their preparations ahead of rehearsals, which begin in January 2017.
An American in Paris features a score by George and Ira Gershwin with a book by Craig Lucas. After a world premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris the musical opened on Broadway in 2015 where it went on to be nominated for 12 Tony Awards. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon it features set and costume design by Bob Crowley, lighting design by Natasha Katz and sound design by Jon Weston.
British dancer Leanne Cope will reprise her Drama Desk and Tony-nominated role of Lise Dassin, alongside Robert Fairchild who originated the role of Jerry Mulligan. The London cast will also feature Jane Asher as Madame Baurel, Haydn Oakley as Henri Baurel, David Seadon-Young as Adam Hochberg and Zoe Rainey as Milo Davenport. Ashley Day will play the alternate Jerry Mulligan, replacing Fairchild in the role from June 2017.
DOH: Ashley, congratulations on such a wonderful role. How are you preparing for the demands of bringing Jerry to life?
AD: I started the day after my contract was sorted, so I'm doing three ballet sessions a week. I'm in bootcamp, which is amazing, it's a luxury to be able to put through this! I had always done ballet, that's how I started. My first job was for Matthew Bourne, so I always had it somewhere, but it wasn't in the forefront of my mind. As soon as I heard the show was coming I was back in class.
DOH: What was it like auditioning for Chris Wheeldon?
AD: I did my own thing. I knew the people who had done the show in American and the calibre of performers who had done it before, so I was under the impression that it wasn't going to go my way so I was very relaxed, which was great. I met Chris and after the first thing I ever did for him he said “let's do it again, but do it your way...don't think about being a ballet dancer.” I think that's going to be the difference between myself and Robbie – I am a musical theatre guy who dances, and now I'm being trained to be as good as I can be at ballet, but I'll be coming at it from a different angle.
DOH: Will your background in musical theatre help you to bring a different quality to Robbie?
AD: I understand both areas. I love ballet, I have huge admiration for it and the way the dancers work, I think it's incredible. Chris is so lovely – when you go to meet a ballet choreographer in your mind you think they will be so strict and grumpy, but he's just so lovely. He's so open to discuss things, it's so good. In that one moment that Chris said to me in the audition “do it your way” I think I know I'll have enough space to do it my own way. It's not fun for any audience member to see someone who has just stepped into a role, I'm not interested in that and I know Chris isn't. We'll find my own Jerry with him.
DOH: What was the first thing that struck you when you watched the New York production?
AD: That I'm going to be exhausted! The first thing I was really blown away, I couldn't really take it all in. I tried to not just watch him but watch the whole show, but of course I was just fixed watching him. Has he got a break yet? Wow no – he's still going. Exhaustion – that was my first role. I've done roles a bit like it before where you have to live like a nun, this is another one. How I live my life, I love to push myself – this is just an extension of that. And then of course Bob Crowley's designs. I was completely gob-smacked by the design and how it moves. It's like Chris has choreographed scenery. That's one special thing about the show – it just moves so beautifully.
DOH: What do you think London audiences will enjoy about the show?
AD: I think it's very nostalgic, which I think England is. Everyone loves Gershwin songs, so I think people will love the music. I think we'll have two audiences – the ballet world who have never seen a story like this and the musical theatre world who have never seen ballet like this. It's a hybrid – I don't think London has seen anything like it.
DOH: Do you have a particular favourite section of the score that you're looking forward to?
AD: There's a jazz section in An American in Paris the ballet in Act Two, it's the last jazz section and it gets very jazzy. That's the point where I think my three year old dancer inside will be screaming “I can't believe I'm doing it!”
DOH: What initially drew you to the role of Madame Baurel?
JA: For one thing how often do you get asked to be in a huge musical when you can't really sing or dance? I read it and it's a lovely part, I love the film, I love the music – a friend of mine who had seen it in New York was there when I got the call, she said you have to do it.
DOH: Had you seen the show in New York?
JA: I haven't...I think getting to this stage now I won't. I keep thinking should I nip over and see it, but I think it'll be nice to do it from the script.
DOH: How do you approach the script of a musical, do you treat it differently to a play?
JA: It's the same thing I think, the way you approach it. It's so difficult to talk about these things without sounding pretentious – you're always looking for the truth in it to a certain extent. Theatre is never true, it's an approximation, portraying a truth through another artifice.
DOH: What struck you initially about your character?
JA: Trying to understand this woman, she has tried to shelter Lise from the Nazi's all the way through which is an incredibly brave thing to do. And it's obviously had an effect on her, making her so over-wary and almost paranoid, she's become ultra correct as a sort of protection, letting herself slip having had these years of having to pretend. It's given her this apparent dryness and hardness I suppose which is clearly not what's going on underneath as with so many people. And I think it's rather nice to see the warmth come through, she's actually quite a sad woman who loves her son so much more emotionally than you first see. That's what I've got from reading it, and I'm sure when I start working with Christopher we'll bring out much more. He's charming, just so lovely. We sat in a room with intense heat – we just chatted and read a bit of the script and we just clicked.
DOH: Are you a fan of classical ballet?
JA: Not especially if I'm honest, I've seen a lot. I enjoy it, but there's something about classical ballet where you know how it's going to work, I can't quite appreciate the way that real ballet fans get excited about the shape of the leg, I maybe don't get it.
DOH: Do you still get nervous as a performer?
JA: Oh yes, in anything I ever do. It really never gets easier because you know how hard it is. When you're young I think you feel you can do anything. It doesn't get any easier, obviously you acquire a reputation so you don't want to let people down, then you get the obvious nerves of will I forget my lines or will I fall over?!
DOH: Zoe, congratulations on your performance – does it now suddenly feel very real?
ZR: Yes! We were cast in May so it's lovely to get to meet everyone and it feels real – even though we have another three months to go. I guess because I've been doing some plays I need to get my singing back to full strength. I went to America to see the show, and I'm going to Paris. I've had a really busy period with the Branagh Season so it's nice to be able to now focus on it.
DOH: What excited you most about the show when you saw it in New York?
ZR: I think its uniqueness. I'd never seen anything quite like it. I knew there was a lot of ballet involved and I knew it was Gershwin, but I didn't expect anything that I saw. It was beautiful, moving and transformative – that's what hit me the most. How dance can move you so completely.
DOH: And how much dancing does your character get to do?
ZR: Enough to be interesting! I get to do Ginger Rodgers style dancing – no pointe shoes for me, that would be a disaster! I started musical theatre dancing from aged 7 then I studied at ArtsEd, so I do have a musical theatre dance background, which is very different. I'm excited to get involved in the ballet barre classes to learn something new. I want to embrace it and enjoy it.
DOH: Were you nervous when you first met Chris Wheeldon?
ZR: He is possibly the nicest person in the world. He's so open and so generous. He was not only kind but just adorable, there was no judgement in the room. It's hard when you go in and lay yourself on the line, but it was judgement free.
DOH: What are you most excited about discovering with your character Milo Davenport?
There's quite an emotional scene and I'm really excited to explore that and find Milo. Jill [Paice] has a great vulnerability and warmth with the character and I love that idea, trying to find a balance between the money woman and the woman who has fallen in love and totally lost her heart. She's light a haute couture travelator – every time she comes onstage she has a new outfit!
An American in Paris opens at the Dominion Theatre from 4 March 2017.