From the opening notes of George Gershwin’s sweeping melody, audiences at An American in Paris can sense they’re about to experience an extraordinary musical. As American soldier Jerry Mulligan contemplates his future in post–World War II Paris, the city comes to vivid life, setting in motion an enchanting love story told through a seamless combination of story, Gershwin songs and glorious dancing. Now entering its second year at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, An American in Paris is riding high as the most award-winning musical of the 2015 season, with plans in place to bring the show to audiences across America and around the world.
Since opening last April 12, An American in Paris has been playing to near-capacity audiences at one of Broadway’s largest theaters, making it the most-seen new show of 2015. A national tour is set to open on October 25 with a two-week engagement in Boston; several international productions are also on tap, appropriate for a musical that began its journey to Broadway at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
Adapting a beloved, Oscar-winning movie for the stage might seem like a sure thing, especially when “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “The Man I Love,” and other hits by George and Ira Gershwin are part of the package. But An American in Paris needed a 21st century vision to breathe fresh life into the romance between aspiring artist Jerry and dancer Lise, his love-at-first-sight dream girl, created on film by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The Broadway producing team found their visionary in Christopher Wheeldon, a British-born ballet star turned choreographer who made his musical-theater directorial debut with An American in Paris.
The 43-year-old Wheeldon’s choreography displays a deeply emotional quality, as showcased in a recent 60 Minutes report on An American in Paris. (Click below to watch the segment, which was seen by almost 10 million viewers and sparked traffic on the musical’s website to its highest level since opening night.) Wheeldon is something of a Renaissance man, having created some 90 dance pieces of all kinds, including a full-length version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” His belief, illustrated in the 60 Minutes piece, that choreography “is like painting music” meshed perfectly with George Gershwin’s lush melodies, which he calls “the driving force” behind An American in Paris.
“Our show is comprised of famous songs and sweeping orchestral works that are rhythmically dynamic, jazzy, lyrical, and melodious,” explains Wheeldon. “Song, dance, and book scenes [by Tony nominee Craig Lucas] work hand in hand to tell our story.” The song list differs in some spots from that of the 1951 film, and the setting is pushed back to 1945 so that the effect of the war on each character can be explored. “People have said that the music works so well with the story we devised, it feels as if it had been written specifically for our show,” Wheeldon says with satisfaction.
Beyond his ability to stun Broadway audiences with the show’s flowing opening sequence and electrifying title ballet, Wheeldon happily created a blockbuster tap number for “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” The result: a Tony Award for Best Choreography, one of four wins among the show’s dozen 2015 Tony nominations, in addition to Best Musical awards from the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle.
Casting An American in Paris with ballet stars who can sing and act (including Tony nominee Leanne Cope as Lise and Garen Scribner as Jerry) alongside veteran Broadway performers (including Tony nominees Max von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz as Jerry’s pals and rivals), Wheeldon coaxed breakthrough performances from everyone. It helped that he had received expert coaching himself in the 1990s at the New York City Ballet from Broadway legend Jerome Robbins. “There was no better way to learn the craft of musical theater than being in West Side Story Suite,” Wheeldon said just before opening night.
In addition to sublime music and choreography and great chemistry among the actors, An American in Paris is greatly enhanced by the Tony-winning work of scene designer Bob Crowley (who also designed the show’s Tony-nominated costumes), projection designer 59 Productions, and lighting designer Natasha Katz. Postwar Paris is evoked in scenes set at a café, a townhouse, a penthouse apartment, a ballet studio, the banks of the Seine, and other locations. Quite simply, this is a gorgeous, classic show unlike any other on Broadway.
In his Tony acceptance speech, Christopher Wheeldon emphasized his belief in “the unspoken power of storytelling through dance.” A year later, he’s thrilled that his vision has been embraced by Broadway theatregoers. “People are surprised at how excited they are about dance,” he says now. “They think it’s challenging, when actually it’s as delicious as everything else in the show. An American in Paris offers something for everyone — great singing, acting, and dancing.”