Leanne Cope swapped life in the corps de ballet for the bright lights of Broadway in An American in Paris. Jane McGowan meets the Richmond actress as she prepares to re-create the role of Lise in the West End
Picture the scene: a big shot theatre producer spots a chorus girl as she dashes off stage to change for her next number. He grabs her by the shoulder. “Hey kid – you wanna be a star?” he growls, cigar clenched firmly between his lips. “Sure,” she answers timidly before being whisked away to his waiting limousine, leaving a line of jealous dancers scowling in her wake.
Yes, I know, it’s the hackneyed plot of countless 1930s Hollywood musicals, but for Richmond-based ballerina Leanne Cope, it’s not a million miles from how she landed the plum role of Lise in the multi-award-winning production of An American in Paris, which arrives in the West End in March.
OK so Leanne was not just any chorus girl but a First Artist with the Royal Ballet and the producer was Christopher Wheeldon – a choreographer and director who had long been familiar with her work. But nevertheless, Wheeldon spotted something that has sent the ballerina into the musical theatre stratosphere wowing audiences in both Paris and New York.
“Christopher first contacted me through social media, just asking me if I could sing,” explains Cope. “As a ballerina it’s a strange question to be asked and he didn’t say why he was asking.”
Cope replied saying yes, she could sing a bit and had been in the choir at school. Wheeldon then asked her to learn the song The Man I Love, which is one of the big numbers from An American in Paris. She heard nothing more until Wheeldon turned up unexpectedly during a performance of Swan Lake at Covent Garden.
“I had just come off stage, I had full swan make-up on and feathers in my hair and he took me into one of the shower rooms of the Royal Opera House as he said the acoustics would be best in there,” she laughs. “I sang The Man I Love for him and he filmed me on his phone. That was my first audition and I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks.”
The show, which opens later this month at the Dominion Theatre, is a stunning reinvention of the Oscar-winning musical, which starred Gene Kelly as newly demobbed GI Jerry Mulligan desperate to make a name for himself as an artist and Leslie Caron as Lise Dissin, the French ballerina caught between her feelings for Jerry and his friend Henri to whom is engaged.
And although this new show features many of George and Ira Gershwins’ showstopping numbers, such as I Got Rhythm, S’Wonderful and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, Wheeldon’s version offers a darker view of post-war Paris.
“We have moved the show back five years to the liberation of Paris,” Leanne says. “The Nazis have just gone and the start of the show is the Parisians tearing down the Nazi flag. So, yes it’s quite a bit darker than the film. My character Lise is a Jewish girl who has been in hiding during the war and our show begins with her first steps into the world as a young woman.”
The role has already earned Leanne a clutch of awards, but there can be no higher praise than that bestowed by Leslie Caron, the Hollywood legend who created the role and who has called Leanne a “jewel” who performs “beautifully”. The two women met for tea in London to discuss the role, an experience Leanne can only describe as “amazing”.
Tea with showbiz royalty is a long way from the Bath dancing school where a five-year-old Leanne first tried ballet. She fell in love with it and at the age of 11 was encouraged to audition for the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge – George II’s former hunting lodge that is the dream destination of little ballerinas the world over.
“I didn’t realise at 11 years old that this could be my job – that I could be a ballerina,” says Leanne. I just thought ‘Wow, how amazing to go and dance everyday’.”
And although Cope loved life at the school there was one real downside, which was of course being away from home.
“I genuinely enjoyed my time at White Lodge,” Leanne says with obvious warmth. “I almost get more homesick now. But to go away at 11 from my parents and brother, who for all our teenage years we didn’t spend together, was hard. We have huge gaps in each other’s lives and in my parents’ lives too. Not being able to be together on birthdays was tough.”
Leanne admits that at the time she never really dwelt on how hard the separation from her family must have been for them, but with thoughts of starting her own family on the horizon, the idea of saying goodbye to your child at such a young age is terrifying.
“I have huge admiration for my parents for letting me go,” she says. “They weren’t pushy at all. They had never been to a ballet, they had never heard of White Lodge. We lived in Bath and if anyone had asked them where the daughter was going to school and they had said White Lodge, people would just have gone, ‘Where the hell’s that?’.
“They gave me the choice and told me that just because I had got in, I didn’t have to go. And I really took up until the last minute to decide. But I am so happy they let me go and I wouldn’t have had this wonderful life without having gone to the Royal Ballet School. But I do get sad about not having all those years at home growing up.”
Her sacrifice paid off and Leanne was asked to perform with the company while still in the Upper School. She was offered a full-time spot on completing her studies, a huge achievement considering places were only given to two or three dancers per class.
“I was a lucky one as I was used a lot as a student – if they hadn’t got enough swans for Swan Lake or mice for The Nutcracker, they would come and get us. So I had done a few ballets, which made the transition to the company quite easy.”
But after 20 years of non-stop dancing, the 33-year-old admits she was just beginning to think about life after ballet. After marrying her teenage sweetheart fellow Royal Ballet soloist Paul Kay – who actually proposed on stage during a performance of The Nutcracker by slipping Leanne a note during their duet – in 2014, Leanne says thoughts naturally move to having children .
“As a dancer, your body is your tool, so it’s very difficult when you are a performer to think about it,” she says.
Credit: Matthew Murphy
Coincidentally, before the idea of a role in An American in Paris was even a possibility, Leanne had been planning a move into musicals, albeit in a somewhat smaller way.
“I remember saying to my husband, that when I stopped dancing I may join an amateur dramatics company. Not performing would leave such a void, so I was just thinking of ways to keep that going. I had even started looking into finding a society in Richmond.”
Luckily fate had other ideas and within weeks of that first ‘shower’ audition, Leanne was whisked to New York to undergo several more auditions before finally being told the role of Lise was hers. And although she had danced on stage hundreds of times and in some of the most impressive theatres in the world, it suddenly dawned on her that she had never spoken, let alone sung, in front of an audience before.
“As a ballerina you are always told to be quiet,” she says. “So having a microphone attached to you and having to sing in front of 1,700 people and speak not even in my own accent but in a French accent was a huge pressure,” she admits.
But for Leanne, the rehearsal period was actually the most terrifying.
“Once you’re out there on stage and you’re looking out into a dark auditorium you can almost pretend you are alone,” Cope reveals. “But rehearsal studios are different and you have everyone else around you. When you’re sat on the stage with the darkness surrounding you, it’s almost easier.”
The show opened to great acclaim in Paris before hitting Broadway in March 2016 and was an immediate hit with the US press and audiences alike. “I didn’t read the reviews at first in case they had written something horrible, which would have made me want to swim home from New York,” she laughs.
Thankfully, and with a Tony Award nomination under her belt, Cope has arrived back on these shores by safer means and thoughts of am dram and babies must definitely be put on hold as Leanne prepares for opening night.
“I would love to have a family, but what’s going on in my life is so exciting that it may have to be put off for a while. Having this opportunity to open an original show in the West End is something that I think I should concentrate on for the moment.”
And no doubt her concentration will pay off and the awards for the dancer aiming for the stars will come flooding in.
- An American in Paris, Mar 4 – Sept 30, The Dominion Theatre, London. Visit nederlander.co.uk/dominion-theatre or call 0845 200 7981
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