(Photo: Johan Persson)
S'marvelous indeed: there's no other way to describe the grace, panache and irresistible ease that ballet star Robert Fairchild is bringing to his starring part in the West End’s An American in Paris, repeating his performance as Jerry Mulligan that won a Tony nod and Drama Desk Award for his Broadway debut in the same part in 2015. With Tony winner Christopher Wheeldon's production due to open March 21 at the Dominion Theatre, and Leanne Cope again inheriting Leslie Caron's screen role as Lise Dassin, the instantly charming Fairchild spoke to Broadway.com about crossing performance genres from ballet to musical theater and crossing the Atlantic to reprise this career-redefining role.
How does it feel to be reprising a role—i.e. Jerry, the American in Paris of the title—that you've lived with on and off now for the better part of three years?
The thing is, I'm still contracted with New York City Ballet, and [Ballet Master] Peter Martins has been so incredible. I just go in and say, "Hey, this is happening," and he'll go [raises voice in mock-alarm], "Again!?!?" I'm so excited to be doing [Jerry] again and also feel as if I have done the show so many times now that it really feels as if it is in my bones.
Was it always a no-brainer for you that the West End would follow Broadway?
Well, it was a huge dream, but I didn't even think it was possible. Some of the cast in New York were saying, "I hope they ask us to go to London," and I was, like, "You guys would go to London? How long: six months? A year?" We went to Paris knowing that Broadway was going to happen but once Broadway finished, I didn't expect anything else to happen. Now, I feel—had this not happened—as if I would have been devastated. I'm so happy to be part of this show again and to take it to another beautiful and amazing city and share it.
Is returning to a part something that is familiar to you from ballet?
Every time a new season rolls around, there's at least one ballet you've done before: I've probably done [the ballet of] Romeo and Juliet maybe 20 times. But in dance, you get clever because you try and find ways to keep it all fresh in terms of movement, whereas I have found with acting that it is easy to feel fresh because you're literally bouncing back between the person in front of you and also the audience, who are different every night so they can change the rhythm of a scene.
Did you, therefore, feel like an emissary from one world (dance) to another (musical theater)?
The dancing in our show was where I felt like an ambassador from the dance world. People would say to me in New York that they had seen the show eight times, they loved it so much and had just bought tickets to City Ballet for the first time as a result, and that was very exciting, too. As artists, especially in the performing arts, it really is a community, and what happens is you have your niche and then you try and push yourself as far as you can.
How did you feel about having to sing in a leading role onstage?
That always felt like a challenge but also like an opportunity to push myself even more. I had taken singing lessons growing up and was in the choir in high school, but as a dancer, the level at which I put expectations of myself is very high, which is also due to years and years and years of knowing my body. So, Broadway felt like a crash course: I was trying to feel as comfortable with my voice as I was with my body.
Aren't the two skill sets entirely different?
They're polar opposites, just polar opposites. I know my body but to understand what it means to breathe, and how that relates to forming a character, has been something entirely new. They're such opposite disciplines that it felt like I was meeting a whole new me.
Had you been angling to have a go at a Broadway musical?
Yeah, I always thought I wanted to do Broadway, I just didn't know that it was going to happen smack dab in the middle of my ballet career at age 29! But because it has, I am keeping one foot in each world as long as I can.
Were you a theater guy before this musical came your way?
I've always loved to go and see shows. I saw [the revival of] Hair seven times; I was in love with that! God, it was so fantastic, that original cast with Sasha Allen. Now I know so many people in the world of Broadway and what not that when I go to a show, I know at least someone in it; the theater world is so amazing.
What was it like at the end of 2014 trying this of all shows out in the city where it is set?
I remember when we first rehearsing in New York thinking to myself that I wasn't feeling how I do when I'm onstage and that I have got to figure this out. And the minute we set foot on the stage of the Chatelet in Paris, I felt as if I was home: it was one of those really cool moments when you realize where you belong and how lucky you are to get to be there and you can't necessarily do that in a fluorescent-lit studio. The Charlie Hebdo attacks happened the day after we left the city, so being in Paris was an especially bonding experience for the cast that was there.
Is there a resonance, too, to what the show says about the importance of art in difficult times?
When there's real shit going on, art is the answer. I know what it feels like to be an artist when there's real oppression and hatred and demonstrable things happening. We are all living in this world today, but the artists' response to what is happening around them is the art that they make, and that has to count for something.
What's on the horizon once you return to New York and your home in ballet? More musicals?
The hope is definitely that more of these shows will come along and that I can still perform and entertain because the stage really feels like my home. The wish is to keep telling stories in ways that my body will allow me to do.