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An American in Paris

Tony Award-Winner Chris Wheeldon and Darcey Bussell launch An American in Paris

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

The hit Tony Award-winning musical An American in Paris transfers to London's West End in Spring 2017 following critically acclaimed runs in Paris and New York. Based on the much loved film of the same name, this highly original stage musical is a hybrid between classical ballet and Broadway glamour, and features a spectacular score of Gershwin hits staged by the incomparable Christopher Wheeldon of the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet.

After first premièring in Paris, the production went on to open at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including the top prize of Best New Musical. Wheeldon won the award for Best Choreography along with an award for Irish creative Bob Crowley whose incredible design work brings the show firmly to life in a brand new form.

Having recently announced the full cast of the London production, which will include the original Broadway stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, An American in Paris officially launched in London yesterday, as Chris Wheeldon introduced the London stars of his production which also include Jane Asher, Ashley Day, Hayden Oakley, David Seadon-Young and Zoe Rainey. Former Prima Ballerina turned TV host Darcey Bussell welcomed a select audience to the London launch, talking about her long relationship with Wheeldon and her own reaction to the New York production.

"I know Chris is a brilliant choreographer, but I was really scared", Darcey Bussell commented. "Taking on directing and choreographing a full blown musical - I thought he was mad! I was a little bit worried".

Her initial worries it seemed were unfounded, as she went on to describe her reaction to the musical:

"What hit me straight away was the quality of work, and that's not just from the stars of the show but the whole cast. The diversity of skills that they had to produce, from singing and acting but most of all the brilliant dancing that was produced - there is about four different genres of dance in the show, and of course classical ballet."

Ms Bussell, who is no stranger to Wheeldon's work, seemed delighted by his staging and was excited to see the show once again on the London stage.

"It was very impressive straight away" she went on, "I can't help with many shows that I watch to analyse the technique but straight away the choreography and direction were seamless. It had the classic big numbers from the show that you'd expect. I can't wait for you to see it. It's contemporary, it's new. The cast did not fail. It's rare for me to say, but I did not want the show to end."

Welcoming Wheeldon to the stage, the Tony Award-winner spoke about bringing the show home to London and how grateful he feels for its reception in both Paris and New York.

"It would be nothing but correct to say how extremely fortunate I am to be bringing this show to the West End. It's a little bit like a homecoming for me - it's been the most incredible two years and quite a journey for me."

Asking him for a particular highlight of the process, which has included numerous award ceremonies, benefits, galas and special events it was hard for him to describe a particular highlight.

"I think I'm just really proud of the show. I love working here and in a way it's the perfect coming together of my worlds. The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, growing up and training in London, moving to New York, becoming an American citizen...it's all of those ingredients wrapped up in one package. Musical theatre here is very very popular, it was my first theatrical experience as an audience member - my parents brought me up to see Cats. It had an enormous amount of dance, but still that was my first time being exposed to storytelling through movement."

Whilst he has certainly proved his metal in terms of choreography, working with actors on book scenes was certainly a new, and nerve-racking experience.

"Of course it was a huge responsibility and I was so grateful that our producers offered me this opportunity" he explained. "When I was first asked to direct and choreograph I initially said no, who am I to cut my teeth on a big budget Broadway musical? So it took some convincing, they promised we could take it slow. Cold sweats through the reading, slight nerves through the workshops, but once we started to understand how we were going to tell the story and the movement of the show I started to feel more confident."

"It was very much a learning experience, but I had a great group who were really supportive and dealt with my floundering. Then I realised being a director, yes you can study it and I read a lot of books and they all scared the living daylights out of me, actually being a director is a very personal process and you discover along with the actors how to tell the story, but you also have your own ways of pulling those characters together and getting the performances you need. There isn't really a manual - it's about storytelling. How you take that story and send it over the footlights to the audience."

Not only was Wheeldon aware of the challenges of being a first time director, but the task was made more intimidating by the weight of the show already being a hit film that so many people love. He explained how it was important to him and the whole creative team that the stage production would be a different experience:

"As a creative team it was really important to us not to recreate the movie. We wanted to find our own version of this story, a version where art inspires us to transcend the ashes of war. When they made the movie in the early 50s the war was still very close, emotions were very raw, so what we were able to do is place our version with a bit more historical truth. Allowing us to incorporate Paris as a character itself, recovering from this devastating time."

With the show premièring in Paris itself, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the occupation, the pressure to do a service to both the material and the city itself was certainly felt by all parties.

"We set it in a compressed moment that pays reference to the end of the occupation and the end of the war" he explained. "The incomparable designer Bob Crowley of theatre and of ballet, he came up with this magical world of Paris, rebuilding and filling with colour and life again after the occupation. It was a lovely validation for us that it was so well received by the Parisian audience - we were relieved."

Audience responses were firmly on Chris' mind in both Paris and New York, and once again he knows the reaction will be different in London.

"That's the big test, putting it down in front of an audience. I learnt that really in this show, seeing the audience's reaction and how it sits. I think audiences have become less attentive world wide - but that's another story...I do think this show delivers that in a way - it moves fast, it has a big romantic sweep, it's quite cinematic - there's never a dull moment."

"I hope the audiences will like it. If you don't like what's happening on stage you can always shut your eyes and listen to that glorious music. Everyone knows that music - they're in movies, commercials, they're covered by every great singer. You go in thinking you don't know the tunes but you come out knowing them all."

Having seen An American Paris on Broadway, I can firmly say that London audiences are in for a genuine theatrical treat, and like Ms Bussell can't wait to see the production once again, this time on London soil.

An American in Paris opens at the Dominion Theatre on 1 April 2017, following previews from 4 March 2017

 

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