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BWW Interviews: Debut of the Month - AN AMERICAN IN PARIS' Leanne Cope

Leanne Cope recently made the "leap" from ballet to the Great White Way to make her Broadway debut as Lise Dissan in the new musical, An American in Paris. The role, portrayed by Leslie Caron in the 1951 movie, which also starred Gene Kelly, earned the dancer a 2015 Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.

The stunning musical, directed and choreographed by Tony winner Christopher Wheeldon, and featuring music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, tells the romantic tale of a young American soldier, a beautiful French girl and an indomitable European city, each yearning for a new beginning in the aftermath of war.

Today, the triple threat speaks to BWW about her memorable meeting with her film counterpart, her dream musical theater role and her Broadway debut, which she calls a magical evening that will probably never be topped!

Are you as surprised as anyone that you wound up on a Broadway stage?

Well I started as a ballet dancer from the age of 5, but when I got to the age of 16, I got told, many, many times, that I didn't have the right body for ballet. And I always loved musical theater. So at 16, I did consider going to a musical theater college. But then I got into the Royal Ballet and I thought, 'If I'm going to do ballet I have to do it now,' so I kind of stuck with it. So yes, I'm very surprised to be here. And I think if I had gone to musical theater school at 16, I wouldn't be here in this role, because it needs such a ballet-based background. I'm really glad I made the decision that I made and that I had 12 years with the Royal Ballet and now I've gotten into this. So I made the right choice I guess!

I heard you had a very unusual audition with [director/choreographer] Christopher Wheeldon for the role. Would you mind sharing the story?

Well, I was actually working for Christopher in London at the Royal Ballet, and I got a Facebook message from him saying, 'Oh I heard that you used to sing in the choir at school. Would you like to sing for me?' He requested I sing, "The Man I Love." And so I learned the song and I auditioned for Christopher at the Royal Opera House, in between a double show of Swan Lake. I sang in the shower cubicle of the star's dressing room because the acoustics were best in there. I didn't know what it would be for at the time, there was no mention of An American in Paris. I just thought that maybe he needed someone to sing at a new ballet. And it wasn't until a couple of months later that I got an email from Telsey Casting Agency, about how it was handling the new musical An American in Paris, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and I went, 'Oh! So that's what I was doing!'

That's incredible. And now that you have made the transition from ballet to musical theater, what have you found to be the biggest challenges?

Oh there's been a huge amount of challenges, because really all my life I had never spoken on stage before, so to find my voice was a huge challenge. But I was very lucky to have a great singing teacher here in New York who helped me and also acting coaches as well, they helped me to find my speaking voice, I really didn't know my own voice at all. So that was a challenge.

And also, walking into that rehearsal room for the first day and knowing that you're surrounded by people that had many, many more years of experience in musical theater and knowing that you have to be up to the standards that they were, that was a huge challenge. But everyone was very supportive of myself and Robbie [Fairchild], and I think once they saw us dance, they understood why we had been cast in the roles, and that we have a steep learning curve. And hopefully now we have established that we are on a level that the director was hoping we would reach.

You absolutely are, both of your performances were flawless.

Thank you!

The production had it's debut in Paris. That must have helped you immerse yourself in the story.

Yes, yes, it was wonderful. To do An American in Paris, in Paris, I mean this was my first experience in musical theater, so I was like, 'Oh, maybe it's always like this. Maybe Oklahoma always previews in Oklahoma!' [laughing] But it was my first experience, and especially to be playing one of the few French characters in the show, because most of the leading men are Americans, Max [Von Essen] of course plays a frenchmen, but to be playing a french lady in France was very daunting, but it was the best research there could possibly be. Living in Paris, I tried everyday to sit in the cafes and watch the french women, because they are very unique, their confidence and their sexuality, which I wanted to try to find with 'Lise', so that was wonderful research.

And I would also walk along the Seine everyday and the Galleries Lafayette and the Paris Opera, and just walk around the streets which Lise would have walked on. And now when I step on stage every night, I picture the real Paris, that they have created around us.

I understand that in between the Paris run and the New York run you had a meeting with a very special lady.

Yes! We had a six-week break in between and I went home to London and I went back to the Royal Ballet to see my husband play the Mad Hatter in Christopher's "Alice in Wonderland." And I walked through the stage door and I saw someone standing there and I said, "Oh my goodness, I think that's Leslie Caron.' And very unlike me, I went up to her and said, "Oh I'm sorry to bother you, but are you Leslie Caron?" and she said, "Yes, and are you Leanne Cope?" And I couldn't believe that she even knew I existed! And she asked if she'd be seeing me dance at the Opera House that evening and I explained that I was taking a year's leave from the Royal Ballet to be in An American in Paris. And she rang me up a week later and we met for tea. And she had two hours with me and she was so open and so honest, and she told me about how wonderful Gene Kelly was, how for her, like me, she was a ballet dancer. Gene Kelly had found her in Paris, he had watched her dance the ballet and she came to Hollywood two weeks later and made the film. And it was just the most wonderful story. And she was full of advice. The most wonderful thing she said to me was, "Lise is yours now."

It was so wonderful to know that I had met the only other person that ever played Lise. She was so gracious to pass the role to me and let me try and have a hint of her and try to pay homage to her but also she gave me the freedom to find my own version of the character.

What a beautiful story. And speaking of Lise, do you see any similarities between yourself and her that you bring to the performance?

I guess, the fact that she's a ballerina! She's a lot younger than I am, so there's a naivete to her, I mean I would love to be Lise. I think she's a very, very special person and everyone who meets her falls in love with her. So that's not similar to me, I've never had three men fall in love with me all at once. [laughing] I have one lovely husband, who loves me, but she's a very, very special person and she has a glow about her and an aura, so I'm just lucky that eight times a week I get to try to be her.

I know it was a while ago now, but could you take us back to the night that you made your Broadway debut and share what that was like.

Oh, it was such an emotional day because my family came to New York. My parents and my husband and my brother and his girlfriend. They hadn't been able to see the show yet, you know they heard things about it at the end of the phone, but for them to be there to see the end result, for me was one of the best things of the evening. And the fact that it was my debut as well, I thought, how am I ever, ever going to top this experience, because it's once in a blue moon that you get to originate a role, and for it to be my debut all in one. And the American in Paris cast has become my family here and I love them all dearly. Having that experience in Paris made us all very, very close. It was really a magical evening, I don't think I'll be able to top it, ever.

Well, I'm guessing the night of the Tony Awards came close!

Yeah, that was pretty close! I was lucky enough again to have my husband here, he flew in especially for the Tonys and it was a crazy day. But to be honest, I think the nomination day was almost crazier because, I never, ever thought, I mean I didn't come here to win awards or to be nominated, it was never in my hemisphere, in my universe that this would happen. So the day of the nominations was pretty crazy. But the day of the Tonys, and the six weeks leading up to that, was a little bit stressful, because when you performed at the Awards you wanted to do the best for your show. More than anything, I would have loved for us to have won Best Musical but unfortunately it didn't happen, but it was such an amazing night and I'd never been in Radio City Music Hall, so to be able to go in and sit and watch the performances was crazy. And the women in my category, to meet Kelli O'Hara and Chita Rivera and Kristin Chenoweth and Beth Malone was crazy, crazy to be in a category with them. I mean, even now I can't quite believe it. I don't think it will hit me for a couple of years that my name was actually even uttered in the same breath as them!

I guess the question is, if you have the choice, which path will you take next? Back to ballet or continue on the musical theater track?

It's very, very difficult because a couple of weeks ago, the Royal Ballet were here at Lincoln Center and I went to go see them and watching my friends perform was fantastic, they're at the top of their game, the Royal Ballet is one of the leading companies in the world. The fact that I danced with them for 12 years is incredible and I'm very lucky enough that my director has offered me my job back. So when my contract is up here I have the opportunity to go back to the Royal Ballet. I never imagined I'd be here in the first place, so maybe this was the one, my one opportunity and then I go back to my normal life. But I would like to think that one day, I can be part of another musical. If anyone's looking for a ballerina who can sing and act, call me - that would be wonderful! And maybe even become involved in something that is completely different from what I think I am, someone very different from me. My favorite musical is Chicago, and I would love to play Roxie Hart. I think that I could find that very different side of me that would be really good fun to play someone so off from me. So who knows. If An American in Paris ever went to London, I would love to bring Lise to London. To be home and playing this role would be a dream come true!

About Leanne Cope

Leanne Cope trained at the Royal Ballet school and graduated into the company in 2003. She has created several roles for the company and has built a strong relationship with The Royal Ballets Artist in Resident Liam Scarlett who describes her as having 'a presence on stage like no other.'

Copes creations include Emily Dimmock and Annie E Crook (Sweet Violets) Gretel (Hansel and Gretel). Other repertoire with the company includes Clara (Nutcracker) Princess Louise (Mayerling) and many more. Leanne is excited to be making her Broadway debut and would not have achieved this without the support of her friends, family and husband.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is currently playing at The Palace Theatre 1564 Broadway New York, NY 10036 (Broadway and 47th Street). For tickets and additional information, visit anamericaninparisbroadway.com

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS production photos by Matthew Murphy

Photo credit: Walter McBride



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