NEW YORK - Leanne Cope built a career in the rarefied world of Britain's Royal Ballet. So it was something of a shock when acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon asked her to sing in a shower cubicle.
It was an unorthodox audition for Broadway's newest star, who made her New York theatre debut Sunday night in new musical "An American in Paris" - a recrafted, modernized version of the 1951 Oscar-winning film.
"I got a message from Christopher over Facebook saying I heard you used to sing in the school choir and would you be interested in singing for me?" Cope told AFP ahead of New York's star-studded opening night.
"It was a Saturday between a double showing of 'Swan Lake.' I went up to the changing room... and I sang for him in a shower cubicle because he said it would have the best acoustic." At the time, Cope had no idea what it was for, but after numerous auditions, she won the role of Lise Dassin, a French ingenue who falls in love with an American artist in after the liberation of Paris in 1944.
To play the role, she took a sabbatical from the Royal Ballet, where she is First Artist, swapping one of the world's finest classical dance companies for the razzmatazz of Broadway.
"Yes it's terrifying, but even my husband says you're a different person when you're doing this kind of theatre," she said.
"I think maybe I feel a little bit more at home here than I ever felt just doing ballet, so maybe this shoe fits."
A pure dream
Based on the book by Craig Lucas and Hollywood film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, the score is by George and Ira Gershwin and the musical has long ballet sequences choreographed by Wheeldon, who is also director.
It tells of the romance between Dassin and Jerry Mulligan, who competes for her love with a US composer and French resistance fighter turned cabaret star as they recover from the horrors of World War II.
"One of the big innovations was that we were able to speak about Paris in a more grounded and truthful context," Wheeldon told AFP.
"It is still a romantic comedy but the romance feels almost more potent because it comes out of this very dark period of history, which makes it very different from the film." The show made its world premiere in Paris in November, dismissed by one US newspaper as a "try out," winning rave reviews and selling out 40 performances at the Theatre du Chatelet.
To cross the Atlantic, it has been tightened and perfected into an incredible performance of elegant dancing, particularly by the exquisite Cope, stunning costumes and breathtaking sets.
Sunday's opening propels it into a crowded race for the 2014-2015 Tony Awards, one of 14 new productions making Broadway debuts in the two weeks leading up to the April 23 cutoff for nominations.
Jean-Luc Choplin, director general of the Chatelet that co-produced the musical, says bringing a show to Broadway is a dream.
"I'm telling myself I should just retire after that, I have achieved what I wanted to do or I should do another one!" he told AFP.
Working on the project for four and a half years, American producers Stuart Oken and Van Kaplan are hoping to make a big splash in New York.
"Part of your hope is that you're giving birth to something that can have a long life, whether it's in New York or productions around the world," Oken and Kaplan told AFP in a joint interview.
Their vision was to re-craft the Hollywood movie, but say without Wheeldon it might not have come together at all.
They were won over by his 2011 "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" for the Royal Ballet - "almost like a Broadway musical" - and his choreography for a 2002 Broadway production of "Sweet Smell of Success." "It's hard for us to point to another choreographer that possess the story-telling and ballet skills that were the prerequisite to even having a conversation," Oken said.
The crossover between ballet and Broadway also appealed to Wheeldon, a Royal Ballet-trained former soloist with New York City Ballet and one of the most prominent choreographers of his generation.
"Part of the excitement for me in doing this project was being able to bring together the more popular world of Broadway and the art form that I love so much that needs constant reinvention," Wheeldon said.