Road to the Tonys: Keeping ‘An American in Paris’ On Point, Backstage and On Stage

Looking for Robert Fairchild, the Tony-nominated lead actor of “An American in Paris”? He’s probably standing in an ice bath up to his thighs. Or maybe hanging upside down.

Fairchild does both after each performance of “American in Paris,” now up for a dozen 2015 Tony Awards. It’s not the usual post-show routine for a Broadway actor — but then, the show’s cast isn’t the usual group of Rialto regulars. Drawing from both the theater world and the dance world, the “American in Paris” team went national — and, in one case, international — to achieve the rare mix of skill sets required to tackle a large-scale musical with the rigorous dance demands of ballet-world choreographer — and first time Broadway director-choreographer — Christopher Wheeldon.

Now, thanks to the the show’s burgeoning Broadway success and a national tour queued up for 2016, they’ll have to do it all over again.

“You need certain people who can do ballet at Chris’ level, the front-row ballet dancers, who can then be middle-row in tap and back-row in jazz,” said producer Stuart Oken. “You have to find people who can do it all, but are extraordinary in one or more of them.”

The casting search for “Paris” extended to six cities around the country to find dancers who can sing and have the right combo of ballet, tap and jazz skills. Most of the featured players in this redux of the 1951 MGM movie-musical were cast with Broadway alums such as Max von Essen, Jill Paice and Veanne Cox, but selecting the performers to play the lead roles of expat Jerry and Lise, the French woman with whom he falls in love, required special care.

Wheeldon found Fairchild among the principal dancers of New York City Ballet, where the director himself had been a soloist and a resident artist. For Lise, he looked across the pond to London’s Royal Ballet, where he’s an associate artist. He had a hunch that corps member Leanne Cope could do it, so he pulled her aside between performances of “Swan Lake” and had her sing Gershwin in a dressing room shower. It got her the part.

“Our biggest challenge will continue to be finding the performers with the right combination of talents to play Jerry and Lise,” Wheeldon said. “But my hope is that the success of the show will bring people out of the woodwork.”

At this point, producers and creatives must not only find new cast members, but maintain the ones they have. Fairchild undertakes his post-show rituals — a couple of minutes upside down on an inversion table, then five to ten minutes soaking his legs in an ice bath — to lengthen his spine and preemptively cool off muscles prone to swelling. It’s necessary, he said, to ensure his body’s up for dancing eight shows a week. (At NYCB, a dancer usually performs about three times a week.)

During the rehearsal period for “American in Paris,” associate director Jacquelin Barrett led a 9:00 am dance class, outside of rehearsal hours, as a way to keep performers in top condition. That doesn’t happen on Broadway much, but it’s de rigueur for a ballet troupe. “Class every day is like brushing your teeth,” Fairchild said. “You could go through your day without doing it, but you don’t want to.”

All the dancers in the musical’s ensemble attended that class every morning — and so did many of the Broadway veterans, both as a show of solidarity and as an extra training session for the production’s dance challenges. “I’ve had to move in shows before this, but this is the first time anyone has corrected my fingers,” von Essen recalled with a laugh.

Now that “American in Paris” is up and running, producers have subsidized gym memberships for the entire cast. “We understand how important it is to keep everyone healthy and in good condition,” Oken said.

As underscored by that regular dance class, the cast’s mix of experience and skill sets leads to a backstage culture that doesn’t look like many other shows on Broadway. Performers warm up at a barre before every show; actors roll out their muscles like dancers and ballet dancers do voice exercises.

The group learned early on that the theater types and the dance-world denizens approach their work with a very different vibe. “We’re very insular at the ballet,” Wheeldon said. “We’re focused on what’s going on within our four walls, so it’s been a wonderful surprise, the welcome we’ve received from the whole Broadway community.”

“The Broadway world and the Broadway community, they’re a whole other breed,” agreed Fairchild. “They’re so full of life. It might be because on Broadway, when a job is over, you have to go back out and audition, so your time together is heightened because you know it’s limited. In the ballet world, you know you always have next season with the company.”

Or, as von Essen puts it: “There’s a reserve and a quiet confidence for dancers. It’s different from the raucous Broadway crowd.”

By all accounts, the theater folks and the ballet veterans rubbed off on each other, achieving a cast-wide balance of skills and strengths that producers and creatives will strive to maintain going forward. “It’s very familial,” Wheeldon said. “There’s a lovely tennis match of inspiration happening.”

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