John Moyle explores the lavish theatrical production of American in Paris – soon to commence its Sydney season – interviewing original Broadway lead Leanne Cope and other key creatives.
When composer George Gershwin wrote the orchestral piece An American in Paris in 1928, little did he know that it in 1951, with lyrics by brother Ira, it would become the centrepiece of one of the greatest film musicals of all time.
Directed by Vincent Minnelli, and starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in her first film appearance, the screen musical instantly became famous for its many hit tunes and the 17-minute tour de force balletic climax that has never been equalled onscreen for its fluidity and ease.
Since 2014, An American in Paris has been reworked as a stage production that has been performed in Paris, New York City, London – and soon, Sydney, when GWB Entertainment and Opera Australia bring the extravaganza to the Theatre Royal Sydney for a limited run, featuring original Broadway leads Robert Fairchild as Jerry Mulligan and Leanne Cope in the role of Lise Dassin.
“The show starts with the liberation of Paris and what the audience finds out later in the show is that Lise is Jewish and we can all imagine what she has been through in the war as she has been hiding in Henri Baurel’s household,” Cope told The Sentinel.
“She is a young ballerina with hopes and dreams of becoming an established ballerina and she finds herself in a tricky love triangle.”
Cope’s casting in the role comes from left field, as she was an established dancer with the Royal Ballet, having reached the position of First Artist.
In a scenario that could have been worthy of a musical itself, she was spotted by the play’s director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in 2014 when she was performing Swan Lake.
Wheeldon heard that she could also sing and got her to audition with an impromptu performance backstage.
“Once I auditioned for the role I had to learn to sing and act so it’s has been a long journey of many hours with some amazing coaches from New York to London,” Cope said.
“We kind of forget that it is the finished product you see on stage but there are so many people that help us get there from vocal coaches to acting coaches and people who help us work on our accents, plus the ballet and dance coaches as well.”
Cope’s onstage partner Robert Fairchild is a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and his partnership with her in An American in Paris has been lauded as being as magical as that of Kelly and Caron.
“To share the stage with such a tour de force as Robbie is a privilege and a curse at the same time as you have to try and match him and he is such an incredible artist and a true triple threat … he can sing, act and dance,” Cope said.
Anchoring the production is the role of the narrator Adam Hochberg.
Played by Opera Queensland’s Jonathan Hickey, Hochberg is an American former serviceman who has stayed in Paris to pursue his dreams of becoming a composer.
In the film, the role is designated as Adam Cook – one of the numerous differences between the musical’s book and the film.
“The name of the narrator was changed from Adam Cook to Adam Hochberg to make it more evident that he is Jewish, and that is important as the show is set post WWII,” Hickey said.
Hickey is a seasoned musical theatre tenor having started at age 11 with lead roles in Oliver, My Fair Lady and The Wiz.
He has also performed in the Hayes Theatre Co productions of Aspects of Love and The Fantasticks, and has regular roles in Opera Queensland’s open stage touring programs.
“I am one of the three main male leads, or the three musketeers as we are called, and I work with Jerry and Henri and we all happen to fall in with Lise and I end up getting hired to compose The American in Paris ballet,” Hickey said.
“My main number’s ‘But Not For Me’, which I get to sing with Ashleigh Rubenach, plus I get to sing ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ and a tap number in ‘Stairway to Paradise’ and I sing ‘Can’t Take That Away From Me’ at the end, so I’ve got some great numbers.
“I’ve got a bit of dancing in a dream sequence, but I am definitely not a ballet dancer so I do a lot more of the character work.”
While the Sydney production of An American in Paris promises to be pure escapism there is no doubt the production tackles the issue of anti-Semitism and has resonance with the current situation in Ukraine.
“Anti-Semitism was prevalent in Paris at end of the war and now when you turn on the news it is almost like turning on the news in the 1940s and seeing the destruction of the beautiful cities in Ukraine is similar to the destruction of the beautiful cities in France,” Cope said.
With a cast of 32, including six swings and such musical theatre luminaries as Sam Ward, Anne Wood and David Whitney, theatregoers are guaranteed to have their spirits lifted by this production.
An American in Paris plays the Theatre Royal Sydney from Friday, 29 April, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit https://americaninparis.com.au.
John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.
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