NEW YORK — He is American. She is English. He is a newlywed. So is she. Both are top-notch ballet dancers. And they're both leaping onto a different stage.
Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope are making their Broadway debuts playing the leads in a musical adapted from the 1951 Gene Kelly film "An American in Paris."
Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and Cope, a first artist at The Royal Ballet, are singing and speaking dialogue in addition to getting their bodies ready to dance eight shows a week.
"To get this opportunity is the coolest thing in the world," said Fairchild. "I always love a challenge and this has been so much fun and so rewarding to get to push myself in ways I don't get to do every day at the ballet."
The dancers were brought together by Christopher Wheeldon, one of the world's top choreographers who is making his debut as a Broadway director.
Fairchild was always high on Wheeldon's list for the role of Jerry Mulligan, an ex-soldier who is trying to make a living as an artist in Paris. The two men had worked together before and Fairchild jumped at the new chance. After all, Kelly movies had inspired him to dance in the first place.
Wheeldon decided on casting Cope as Lise, Mulligan's love interest, after an impromptu singing audition. He said there was always something magical about her — "Your eye always went to her" — but he needed to know if she could handle the vocal responsibilities.
He asked if she could sing. She said no, unless you count the shower. So after impressing with some line reading, Wheeldon coaxed Cope into a dressing room shower at the Royal Opera House and she sang "The Man I Love."
"It was a very raw voice, but very pure and beautiful," recalls Wheeldon. "I said, 'OK, this is potentially one big messy risk but let's go for it.'"
The musical, which includes the Gershwin songs "I Got Rhythm" and "S'Wonderful," had a stop in Paris this winter and starts performances March 13 at the Palace Theatre.
The deeply romantic show has also been given a boost when both its stars recently tied the knot. Fairchild married New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck in June (He proposed in, of all places, Paris) and Cope married Royal Ballet star Paul Kay in May.
"It makes going out there and finding that true love so much easier because you know what that feels like," said Fairchild. "It's present in your life."
Fairchild and Cope have each taken a year's leave from their ballet companies and have dived into the Broadway schedule. That means they've learned tricks to protect their voices — a few no-nos are marinara sauce and Champagne (Both are too acidic).
To prepare for a 17-minute ballet toward the end of the show, Cope hits the gym and goes full-out for that same amount of time. "It's a good way to know that my body can be pushed to the extreme for those 17 minutes," she said.
While most dancers consider ballet to be the hardest dance style to master, Fairchild and Cope have nothing but respect for the musical theater triple threats they're meeting backstage.
"I've always respected this side of the business and I can now say, having been on both sides, that they are equals. They are absolute equals," said Cope.
The duo are part of a wave of ballet dancers enlivening musical theater these days, including Fairchild's older sister, Megan, who is starring in "On the Town" five blocks away, and his wife, who danced the title role in "Little Dancer" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
"It's a very exciting time for dance, in general," said Wheeldon, citing films like "Black Swan" and the "Step Up" franchise, as well as TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance."
Cope and Fairchild said they hope the walls between theater and ballet can continue to fall, leading to more storytelling in ballets and more technically gifted dancers on Broadway.
"I'm just hoping it will open doors to everyone," said Cope. "I hope that ballet audiences will come and watch musicals and I hope that if people who have never seen a ballet before come and see 'An American in Paris,' will then say, 'Actually, I'd quite love to see a ballet now.'"
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