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Directing ‘An American in Paris’ kept Wheeldon on his toes

Christopher Wheeldon succeeded in his move from ballet to the stage.

Jennifer S. Altman For The Boston Globe

Christopher Wheeldon succeeded in his move from ballet to the stage.

NEW YORK — Christopher Wheeldon may be a superstar choreographer in the ballet world, but when he was first approached by producers about directing a stage adaptation of the beloved 1951 Vincente Minnelli film “An American in Paris,” he turned it down. He was less worried about the iconic weight of the Oscar-winning film — ranked ninth on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Instead, Wheeldon wondered if he was prepared for such a high-stakes endeavor, since he hadn’t helmed a Broadway show before.

Sure, he’d choreographed the Tony-nominated 2002 musical “Sweet Smell of Success.” But the proposition of carrying a financially risky Broadway musical on his back was a whole different ballgame. Besides, few choreographers this side of the legendary Jerome Robbins and modern dance heavyweight Twyla Tharp have successfully transitioned from ballet stardom to Broadway.

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“I didn’t really feel like I was ready to just dive in on a multimillion dollar musical for my first directing job in the theater,” Wheeldon says during a conversation at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, where he’s overseeing rehearsals for the show’s tour, which launches in Boston on Tuesday for a two-week run at the Wang Theatre.

“Not having ever worked with actors before, I just wasn’t sure. How do you direct an actor? I just didn’t really know where to start,” Wheeldon says. “The things that actors expect from you as a director is different from what dancers expect from you as a choreographer.”

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Wheeldon, who had been heralded by a New York Times critic in 2001 as “the most talented classical choreographer of his generation,”eventually overcame his reticence.

His intoxicating adaptation of “An American in Paris,” with its mix of dialogue scenes and lavish dance sequences choreographed to Gershwin classics like “I Got Rhythm” and “ ’S Wonderful,” opened on Broadway in the spring of 2015 to glowing reviews. Critics described it as “rhapsodic,” “one long sustained swoon” and “just plain gorgeous.” It captured the Outer Critics Circle award for Best New Musical and was nominated for 12 Tonys, winning four, including the choreography prize for Wheeldon.

The 43-year-old Brit says he didn’t have a strong attachment to the movie, despite its status as a cinematic classic, beyond relishing the exhilarating 17-minute dance fantasy with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron cavorting across the City of Light. In 2005, he created an “American in Paris” dance piece for New York City Ballet inspired by that climactic sequence in the film and featuring the jazz-influenced Gershwin symphonic suite from 1928.

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Wheeldon, who served as principal guest choreographer with the Boston Ballet in the early 2000s, had seen a theatrical production of “Singin’ in the Rain” years ago that he describes as largely a carbon copy of that 1952 film, and he wanted to avoid that trap on “An American in Paris.” Book writer Craig Lucas had also come to the same conclusion. “None of us were interested in just making a re-creation of the film on stage,” Wheeldon says.

While the glossy MGM film depicts an idyllic, picture-postcard version of Paris, Lucas chose to shift the action from the early 1950s of the film to just after the end of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Paris, so that the wounds of wartime still feel fresh.

“The romance then becomes far more potent. Wartime brings people very close together, and I think having the story kind of emerging from this really dark place was helpful,” Wheeldon says. “We also wanted to make Paris a character, so that audiences saw the color and the life and the beauty coming back into the city after such a devastating time.”

The outlines of the story — about an American G.I. and promising artist named Jerry who falls for an enigmatic young woman named Lise — remain similar to the film, but the characters have been fleshed out and some of the stakes have been raised. Lise, who is Jewish, has been turned into an aspiring ballerina. She feels torn between her blossoming love for Jerry and her obligations to Henri and his French family, who protected her during the occupation. The men, Jerry, Henri, and Adam, all grapple with traumatic memories of war and an abiding love for Lise. Jerry, who was shipped off to fight despite his pacifism, is torn between Lise and a romance of convenience with Milo, a wealthy American art patron who takes an interest in his art. Fellow ex-pat Adam is an acerbic American composer, and it’s intimated that Henri, an aspiring singer, may be gay.

“They’ve all got some baggage,” says Wheeldon.

The score features songs from the film as well as other memorable Gershwin tunes, including “Fidgety Feet,” “The Man I Love,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

Working with theater actors for the first time proved to be one of Wheeldon’s biggest challenges, and it was a constant process of discovery. “Directing is a team effort. It’s not just a director sitting in front of rehearsal saying ‘Act like this’ and the actor doing what they’re told. It’s much more of a conversation,” he says. “I realized that you can’t really study to be a director. It’s a very personal thing. So I really had to figure it out for myself — and fast.”

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His dancers had a lot to learn as well. Garen Scribner and Sara Esty, who play Jerry and Lise on the tour, were both part of the original Broadway company. Scribner was the regular Jerry alternate and took over the role on Broadway this year, and Esty, a Maine native, served as the alternate for Lise. Both came from dance backgrounds, so they spent hours working with acting and singing coaches.

“We were all learning together in the room. And what’s great about Chris is that he’s so flexible and encouraging as a director. He’s so free,” Scribner says. “We’ll ask questions or suggest something and he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s talk about it.’ ”

Narratives have always come naturally to Wheeldon, he says. His adaptations of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” (2014) and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (2011) for the Royal Ballet Company have been acclaimed for their complex characterizations, wide emotional range, and intricate storytelling.

Indeed, he says, with a laugh, “In some ways, it’s actually much harder to tell a story in ballet. It’s much easier to tell a story with a script.”

Still, with so much at stake and a nearly $12 million capitalization on the line, Wheeldon admits that bringing the production to life was a “nerve-wracking” experience, and he says his dancers got to see him go through what he calls his “sweaty moments.”

In the end, proving himself under the bright lights of Broadway has been a key turning point in Wheeldon’s trajectory, and he’s excited about future possibilities there.

“Going from that place where I wasn’t sure that I could handle even putting together a reading to being nominated for a Tony for best director was an absolute leap in a relatively short period of time,” he says. “So yes, it was a lovely moment because I felt like someone was opening a new door, and now I am stepping into a whole new world of opportunities.”

An American in Paris

Presented by Citi Performing Arts Center. At the Wang Theatre, Oct. 25-Nov. 6. Tickets: Starting at $35, 800-982-2787, www.citicenter.org

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.
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