For his work on the musical An American in Paris, Christopher Wheeldon won a Tony award for Best Choreography in 2015. This adaptation of the 1951 Gene Kelly film was the celebrated British ballet dancer and choreographer’s first time directing for the Broadway stage.
In advance of An American in Paris beginning a run at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco on Tuesday, Sept. 12, KQED spoke with Wheeldon about the production.
Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, like “‘S Wonderful,” inspired you, in part, to take on this project. How did you go about incorporating their music?
It’s interesting you brought up that song because I was just watching Funny Face and the opening credits to the film include “’S Wonderful.” It’s an oft-sung song. In the context of our show though, we were looking for ways to make all of these songs feel like they were written for An American in Paris. When of course they weren’t.
We felt that it was a great way for our three principal men to express the fact that they were all in love with the same girl. It just lent itself beautifully to that part of the story. It’s fun to hear it sung by three men and the male chorus. The ladies join in at the end, but it’s primarily a male-dominated song. It’s staged with a lot of movement — three guys in three different locations, all singing about the same girl.
All of the songs that we ended up using we felt served the story, or we found a way for us to weave our story around them. It was just a process of elimination, and then tailoring the story to work with the lyrics.
As a choreographer for the ballet, how did your approach to dance differ when creating a Broadway musical?
The challenge of choreographing for a musical is it has to serve the story. It’s quite often treated as second-class citizen, which in this show it isn’t, thankfully. One of the reasons why I agreed to do the show is because the producers were really keen on the choreography being a primary storytelling language.
Dance acts as an equal partner. Obviously, the book scenes are very important, as are the songs. You’re dealing with three different ways of telling a story and integrating them to make a successful whole. Whereas at the ballet, it’s all about the dance. You’re not worrying about how long the book scene should be, or if the dance is too long to work with the song, or whether we’re overstaying our welcome in the dance. In making a musical, it’s about balance between those different elements.
As you began to choreograph, did you review Gene Kelly’s performance as Jerry in the film?
I didn’t study his performance in An American in Paris. It was not one of my favorites. I liked Singin’ in the Rain, which was my absolute, all-time favorite when I was growing up. I didn’t have a huge opinion on Kelly’s performance in the movie because we decided from the get-go that we were going to make our Jerry something quite different. I only went back to watch the movie after we had already opened in Paris.
The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella wrote that your work with Wendy Whelan at New York City Ballet transformed her from “a rather dry dancer” into a tragic heroine. Could you speak to how you work with dancers?
Writers will always find ways of expressing how they feel about a particular artist. I never set out to turn Wendy into a tragic heroine, but somehow it’s as much about what they unlock in me as it is about what I unlock in them.
People see different things because we work so much in the abstract in ballet. It’s so open to interpretation, whereas something like An American in Paris is less that way because you’re telling a story and there are parameters that you have to fit within.
Do you miss the feeling of dancing on stage?
I do it in the studio enough. I don’t miss the pressures of having to do it as part of a performance. I still have that expressive outlet in front of my cast, or when I’m creating. I certainly don’t miss performing in front of an audience.
‘An American in Paris’ plays at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco from Tuesday, Sep. 12 through Sunday, Oct. 8. More information here.