Leslie Caron's career — and life — changed when Gene Kelly saw her dance with Roland Petit Company "Ballet des Champs Elysées" and cast her as the alluring shopgirl Lise in the film "An American in Paris." The 1951 film, in which Kelly co-starred, went on to receive six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Vincente Minnelli) and Best Cinematography, Color, and Caron went on to have a lengthy film career, starring in "Lili," "Daddy Long Legs" and "Gigi," among others.
"An American in Paris" has long been a favorite among musical fans. Packed with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, it tells the romantic story of an American painter living in France following World War II. And now, with a Broadway adaptation coming to the stage March 13, the same serendipitous fate that met Caron seems to have come to Leanne Cope. The Royal Ballet first artist is making her Broadway debut, as well as her American stage debut, with the production, which is directed by Christopher Wheeldon.
After being cast, Cope met with Caron for tea in London to discuss the role, and Caron shared stories of her own experiences during the film and advice for performing.
"She was a ballerina, acting and singing for the first time, and I feel that's the same for me," Cope said. "How lucky am I to almost, not only be following her footsteps in the show, but kind of in life as well, I guess." Along with advice and memories, Caron had an additional gift for Cope, who brought with her a photograph of Caron and Kelly taken during the production of the movie.
"I took it to the meeting, thinking, 'If this goes well, I'm going to ask if she can sign this for me,'" Cope said. "I also took her some roses, and she said, 'Oh, I have something for you.' She pulled out exactly the same photograph that she'd already signed for me.
"It was amazing," Cope continued. "We had a photograph taken together, and my mother said, "'You could be her daughter or her granddaughter. You look very similar.'"
Cope, who had performed as a young child in several musicals, had considered pursuing theatre throughout her education but had remained devoted to ballet until this unexpected opportunity came her way.
"I'd always loved musicals," she said. "I'd say it was an equal passion to ballet when I was growing up. I took the ballet route, but I'd always questioned... ballet is a very young career, and I thought I had to get my training and do it. When I got my job at the Royal Ballet, I was like, 'Do I really want to just do ballet?'"
Cope said she had considered joining an amateur dramatics society when she finished her career as a dancer.
"Then this happened," she added, laughing.
Co-starring with New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild, who is also making his Broadway debut in the production, Cope traveled to Paris with the cast when they debut the stage production at the Theatre Du Chatelet in Paris, France. Living in French society for benefited Cope's performance; she said she absorbed much of the style and culture of French women, which enhanced her performance.
"I used to sit in cafes and people watch all day," she said, "French women are extremely alluring, and they have something very... the je ne sais quoi. You can't put your finger on it. You know when you see them. They just have something very unique and special about them."
Portraying the allure and sexuality of French women was a challenge at first for Cope as she developed her character, who is 18 years old when the war ends and finds herself faced with several admirers vying for her attention.
"She's been in hiding since she was 14 years old. She comes out of the war, 18, and she's a young woman and has this natural thing about her," Cope said. "She doesn't know why these men are falling for her. But there's obviously something very special inside of her, so trying to find that has been quite difficult. English women don't have that. That was hard, finding this special thing."
That special thing is noticed by not one, but three, men in the musical who fall for Lise. ("What leading lady gets three leading men?" she asked, laughing. "I'm pretty lucky.") And while the world of love and marriage has changed a great deal since 1940s Paris, Cope is confident that the old-fashioned romance won't be lost on a 21st-century audience.
"I was very lucky to have met my husband when I was 16, and we instantly fell in love. I feel like I've experienced that, and it does happen," she said. "It is a very cynical world about love, but romance is still alive. Paris is an extremely romantic city. It's wonderful walkin along the street and seeing all of these people holding hands and proposals going on." The romance of the story, and of Cope having been cast as Lise is clearly not lost on Cope, who said her meeting with Caron encouraged her belief in her ability to play Lise.
"She told me to follow my heart and follow my instincts as well," she said. "[She said] that obviously I got the role for a reason, and I must have something of Lise in me naturally to go with that."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)