Actor, singer and ballet dancer Leanne Cope is a genuine triple threat. A Broadway star plucked from the corps de ballet, she’s also something of a ‘rags to riches’ story following acclaimed runs in Craig Lucas and Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of the classic Gershwin movie An American in Paris. The production won her awards and plaudits galore, the opportunity to be dressed by Anna Wintour and lunch with the film’s original Lise, legendary French actress Leslie Carron. As Australians get the chance to see screenings of the London production, Limelight caught up Leanne at her home in the UK where she’s in the process of filming the show for posterity.

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. Photo © Johan Persson

Not many ballet dancers get to star in a Broadway musical – how did you land the lead in An American in Paris?

Christopher Wheeldon was making Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at The Royal Ballet – which was where I used to work – and he sent me a message on social media, saying I’ve heard you used to be in a choir and I’d like to hear you sing – would you learn The Man I Love? And so I went straight on YouTube, listened to every version I possibly could, and a couple of days later he grabbed me between a double show of Swan Lake. We went up to one of the dressing rooms where he put me in the shower cubicle with feathers in my hair and I sang The Man I Love with an iPhone shoved in my face. That was my first audition [laughs]. Not the most conventional try-out.

Definitely not… So what happened after that?

A couple of weeks later I received an email from a casting agency in New York telling me about An American in Paris and Christopher Wheeldon, so I though, okay, that’s what this is about. I didn’t think had a chance, because the they had the whole of Broadway – the whole of America – to cast this part from. They were never going to cast an English ballerina who’s never spoken onstage before. But I went through the process before ending up at the final audition in New York and I got the part. We did a six-week workshop and found out at the end that we were going to Paris to open the show there. While we were in Paris we got a Broadway theatre, so we then opened on Broadway, and we finally opened in London, so it’s been a big a chunk of my life for nearly four years, and it’s been life changing.

Did you ever hesitate about doing it?

Yeah, I did. Even on the day of the audition, I was like “no, this is stupid, I’m not going to go”, and my husband was like “oh, come on, when in your life can you say you’ve auditioned for a Broadway show? Just do it, what have you got to lose?” I’m so glad I went because otherwise none of this would have happened.

An American in Paris. Photo © Johan Persson

What was the greatest challenge, apart from dodging the moving scenery?

[laughs] Yes, the scenery was quite difficult! I’d never done any acting before – other than as a ballet dancer where you have to act in a way, but obviously you don’t speak – so suddenly having a voice and to have to project was quite scary actually. Singing was scary too, because I think I have the only stand-alone solo moment in the show. It was terrifying. But I’d say talking, and equally the dancing – to have the responsibility for doing that 17-minute ballet every night – was scary. Because I wasn’t a principal dancer. I was in the corps de ballet, so I was never the one ballerina in the front. I was one of 32 swans, so to suddenly be the lead ballerina was a big responsibility. In New York I used to sit on the stage during Stairway to Paradise, and as the kick line happened I’d get this twinge in my stomach knowing the ballet was coming, it was like an automatic response in my body that I suddenly got nervous for the ballet.

On Broadway and in London you were doing eight shows a week? Was that an eye opener for you?

Yes, absolutely. In the ballet, I’d say on average we probably do five shows a week, so to do eight was a big shock. You can’t give it all on Monday because by Saturday night you will have nothing left. So, knowing how to pace yourself but still do the best show you possibly can on that day, that was a huge learning curve and building up that stamina was hard. Of course, when you’re on stage and the adrenaline kicks in you just do it. Whatever pain you are in walking down from your dressing room seems to disappear as soon as you step on the stage.

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. Photo © Johan Persson

How much of the show changed during the creative process? 

A huge amount. Everyday there was new dialogue. My name changed; songs changed – we used to sing Our Love is Here to Stay, that was cut from the show. It was learning from the audience what they reacted to. We were lucky that the Gershwin Estate let us use the whole Gershwin canon. I feel like I’ve heard nearly every piece of Gershwin I could possibly hear. They spoke to Ira’s nephew about how George and Ira would write together When George wrote the orchestrated version of An American in Paris he actually lived in Paris where he found taxi horns and orchestrated it so it really sounds like you’re there.

You say your name changed in the show – do you know why they called her Lise Dassin and didn’t use Bouvier, which is what it is in the film?

It was probably to do with the fact that Lise was going to be Jewish. They needed a name that was legitimately a French Jewish name, and Bouvier wasn’t.

There were quite a few changes between Paris and Broadway. How substantial was that?

Hugely substantial. The show was about half an hour longer in Paris. Parisian audiences didn’t mind sitting through a show that was nearly three hours long, but they realised that Broadway audiences would not. They like the message to be fairly direct, to get to the point quicker. So, there was a lot that had to be cut. And I think they realised that what Craig Lucas (the book writer) was saying through words, Christopher was also saying through dance. They had to make a decision, do we want to say this verbally or through our bodies, so that nothing was ever said twice.

An American in Paris. Photo © Johan Persson

I believe you also met Leslie Caron who played Lise in the original film?

Yes, that was amazing. I met her totally by chance at the opera house in Paris. I was going to watch my husband [Royal Ballet soloist Paul Kay] dance, and she happened to be at the same performance. I thought, I can’t let this opportunity go by, so I’d better go and introduce myself. Her daughter was there too so she took my number and we met for tea about three days later. I thought she was just being polite and that we’d meet for 20 minutes and that would be it, but I think we sat for about three hours! She told me all about how she’d got the role – how she was dancing at the Champs-Élysées and Gene Kelly came to see a performance and said that’s the girl I want in An American in Paris. He got her to do a screen test a couple of days later and within a week she was in Hollywood. It was a crazy amazing story – suddenly she’s out with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Nureyev and Baryshnikov. She’s an incredible lady and she has an amazing memory – plus amazing advice on how to get through eight shows a week.

What did she suggest?

Eat well and sleep well. And do a class every day. She still exercises every day, and I think she’s around 85 years old now.

And what did she tell you about playing the part?

The most wonderful thing she said to me was, “Lise’s yours now”, which I still find quite emotional. At that point, we were the only two people ever to play the role of Lise, and she basically gave it to me, and said she’s yours now. That was the biggest gift she could give me. She also said to me that when they made the MGM movie, it was in the 1950s and the war had only just finished. They couldn’t make the true version of this. Soldiers did stay in Paris, but they were traumatised by war. They didn’t want to go home, but not because they wanted to stay in Paris. Some of them were embarrassed. They had shell shock and they couldn’t deal with facing their families. That’s not the picture they created in the movie, but it is the picture we created in this musical. Our show is set 10 years closer to the occupation. After she saw the show in New York, she said she found it very emotional because as a young girl she’d lived through the occupation in Paris. She had to walk past Nazi soldiers; she had to queue up for bread; she saw dead soldiers in the street. She found our show very emotional and so much closer to the truth. For her, suddenly, someone was telling the true story.

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. Photo © Johan Persson

Do you have highlights from that four-year process?

There have been so many! Opening the show in each country was amazing. Getting to perform at the White House for Michelle Obama was incredible. Myself and Robbie [leading man Robert Fairchild] got to perform the pas de deux at the White House. I think we finished the matinee on Sunday, got straight on the train to DC, performed on the Monday, got on the train back to New York and was back in the theatre on Tuesday. Getting to go to the Met Gala was insane! Anna Wintour came to see the show and then a week later, myself and Robbie received an invite to the Met Gala! Getting to record a cast album was great; getting to go the Tonys; performing at the Tonys; the Grammy nomination… It’s been the gift that keeps giving. And now the show’s closed, getting to make this movie, and having something to maybe look back on in 10, 20, 30 years’ to show children or grandchildren what nanny used to be able to do [laughs].

Finally, what are your plans once all that is over?

I’m auditioning, and I have a couple of meetings with some very interesting people coming up. There’s nothing definite that I can say right now, but I’m definitely veering more towards the acting side of things – so more musicals and plays, and maybe some TV work. I think the ballet shoes will be getting hung up for a little while.

An American in Paris is showing across Australia at Palace and Event Cinemas on Wednesday May 16