Arts

‘An American in Paris’ dances onto the screen

Christopher Wheeldon directed and choreographed the 2015 Broadway musical “An American in Paris,” which he has helped make into a film.
Jennifer S. Altman For The Boston Globe/file 2016
Christopher Wheeldon directed and choreographed the 2015 Broadway musical “An American in Paris,” which he has helped make into a film.

Christopher Wheeldon was widely renowned as a choreographer of ballet when he took on the new challenge a few years ago of directing and choreographing a Broadway musical.

To be sure, this particular Broadway musical played to Wheeldon’s strengths, because it was about as dance-heavy as it gets: “An American in Paris.’’

Featuring songs by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by Craig Lucas, “An American in Paris’’ is set in the titular city in 1945, at the end of World War II, and tells the story of a complicated romance between a French ballerina and an American GI who has aspirations to be a painter. It’s best known for a 1951 film version that was directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred legendary hoofer Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

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Wheeldon ended up winning a Tony Award for his choreography on the sublime 2015 Broadway production, while also earning a nomination for his directing. (A touring production, also sublime, came to Boston’s Wang Theatre in 2016.) So you can understand why Wheeldon might want his work on “An American in Paris’’ preserved for posterity.

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A new film of the stage production, co-directed by Wheeldon and Ross MacGibbon, does just that. Filmed during the musical’s run in London’s West End and featuring Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, who starred in the Broadway production, “An American in Paris’’ will be in area theaters on Sept. 20 and Sept. 23. (A list can be seen is at www.anamericaninparis
cinema.com
). The Globe spoke with Wheeldon by phone.

Q. Tell me a bit about the filmed version. What made you want to transfer it to the screen?

A. We wanted to capture the production, especially with its original stars, Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Ross MacGibbon really understands how to make dance dynamics come alive on the screen. We’ve been inspired by the live broadcasts that we do in the UK directly from the Royal Opera House. The Royal Ballet has been doing live cinema relays of productions.

Q. Did you feel pressure to live up to, or escape from, the classic Vincente Minnelli/Gene Kelly film version of “An American in Paris’’?

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A. We always had the film in the back of our minds, right from the get-go, when we were creating the stage production. We all loved the film, but none of us felt it would be wise in any way to replicate it. It’s a wonderful piece of art that is very much of its time. We set out to make a production for the stage that’s of today. That [1951] film was made for camera; this production is shot in a proscenium arch. We talked a lot about ways to get the camera into the action a little bit more. Quite often as an audience member you’re seeing these extraordinary dancers who are also extraordinary actors, but you’re seeing them on a vast canvas, in a vast setting. You’re never closer than 20 or 30 feet away from the orchestra pit. That means you’re not seeing the expressions on dancers’ faces. There’s another layer that goes with that. Close-ups enable the cinema audience to actually see the skill of these actors and how expressive they are with their faces, not just their bodies. It’s kind of wonderful.

Q. Do you think this film of “An American in Paris’’ will expand the audience for dance?

A. I think so. The return of the movie musical has been huge. “La La Land,’’ and even going as far back as “Chicago,’’ and dance movies like “Black Swan’’: Those are mainstream movies that are bringing dance to the general public. At “An American in Paris,’’ we’ve overheard audiences saying “If that’s ballet, well, I love it.”

Q. Did your experience on Broadway make you want to return there with another show?

A. I really enjoyed it. It’s all-consuming. Working on a big Broadway musical, you put your life on hold for a couple of years. Things happen slower than at the ballet. At the ballet we’re given a five-week rehearsal period and then boom! It’s opening night. But working on a musical is a very rich collaborative experience. You form really deep bonds with your cast and creative team.

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Q. For you as a choreographer, what is the starting point in devising a dance? Is it the story, the characters, the music, the mood of the piece, the needs of the show?

‘Close-ups enable the cinema audience to actually see the skill of these actors and how expressive they are with their faces, not just their bodies.’

A. You have to put the needs of the show first, and you have to be very clear on what you’re trying to communicate through movement at that moment. I do like to have to serve a story, to find ways to communicate clearly to people who don’t necessarily watch dance all the time.

Q. What are the unique challenges of being both the director and the choreographer on a show? Presumably it allows you more control. Does that have a payoff in terms of executing your vision?

A. It’s much easier to fight with your choreographer when you are the choreographer [laughs]. It does allow me to realize a complete vision. But I also love the experience of serving as the director, the person who makes the stage pictures come alive. It is very satisfying when you sit back and see that you’ve been able to create a world.

Interview was edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.