New York City Ballet's ties to Broadway run deep. Company founder George Balanchine choreographed several shows, including On Your Toes, the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical that hatched the ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. NYCB founding choreographer Jerome Robbins was a towering figure on Broadway, having worked on more than a dozen musicals, including Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. And NYCB dancers have pirouetted occasionally between Lincoln Center and Broadway stages.
Still, it's safe to say that there's never been an NYCB-meets- musical-theatre moment quite like the present. In the coming months, three principal dancers — Megan Fairchild, Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck — are set to take leading roles in three new theatrical shows.
Megan Fairchild leaps in first as the aspiring Broadway dancer Ivy Smith, aka Miss Turnstiles, in a revival of On the Town, the 1944 musical based on Robbins' Fancy Free, in previews this month at the Lyric Theater.
Tiler Peck follows with the title role in Little Dancer, a new musical based on Marie van Goethern, the ponytailed model for Degas' famous sculpture of a 14-year-old ballerina. The show is helmed by Tony Award-winning director Susan Stroman, who has choreographed ballets for NYCB and begins performances Oct. 13 at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center. And Nov. 22, Robert Fairchild makes his debut as Jerry Mulligan, the titular role in An American in Paris, a new musical inspired by the 1951 movie musical starring Gene Kelly and directed by internationally renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. After a two-month run at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the show is scheduled to begin Broadway previews at the Palace Theatre next March.
Three dancers, three different back stories. Peck has had her role the longest, landing the part three years ago. But she is also a Broadway veteran. She made her debut at age 11 as Gracie Shinn in The Music Man, directed by Stroman. She learned about Little Dancer when Stroman came to NYCB to choreograph Frankie and Johnny...and Rose in 2011.
Little Dancer presented Peck with an opportunity to reawaken acting and singing skills she put on hold to pursue ballet. "Acting has always been pretty comfortable for me because I did it at such a young age," she says. In preparation for the show, she has been singing regularly and doing extensive character development, and has read up on Degas and his young muse. "I love the character. She goes through about every emotion that any human being can," she says.
Peck relishes the creative freedom that comes with originating a role. "This part was tailor-made for me so it fits like a glove." Still, seeing herself for the first time dressed in Marie's signature tutu with a satin ribbon in her hair was a shock. "I was surprised at how much I looked like her."
Fairchild learned he was headed for Broadway in a phone message left by Wheeldon. It said, "I think I might have the wrong number. I'm looking for a Jerry Mulligan." His odyssey had begun two years earlier, when Wheeldon asked him to sing for An American in Paris' creative team. "Singing was something I did casually that I had received positive feedback on," says Fairchild, who has sung onstage while performing as Riff in NYCB's West Side Story Suite. "Now I get to do it on a Broadway stage, with an orchestra, singing Gershwin songs — that is something I never thought would happen!"
Winning the role was a proverbial dream come true. "I always wanted to work on Broadway," he says. "And I first knew I wanted to dance because of Gene Kelly. My mom bought me the 'Singin' in the Rain' film one year for Valentine's Day, and I was so blown away by this man who embodied everything I loved about dance."
For now, Fairchild, like Peck, is splitting his time between rehearsals for the show and performing with NYCB, a feat he plans to continue as long as he can. "I'm still a ballet dancer. As much as I want to go head first into this process, I want to stay true to the work I've been doing all these years," he says. Unlike the other two dancers, Fairchild didn't entertain dreams of Broadway. "I never thought I would want to do any kind of dancing where I would have to act and sing," she says.
That changed when Fairchild, her younger brother, sent her a text message saying that the casting director for On the Town was wondering if she'd like to audition. "I thought, what?" she says. But that soon became why not? "This fell out of the sky into my lap, and I'm going with it," she says.
As a dancer who enjoys the storytelling aspects of Coppélia and The Sleeping Beauty, Fairchild was pleasantly surprised by the connections she discovered between acting for the theatre and for the ballet. "The first thing the acting teacher had me do was sense my body and my surroundings. And I thought, that's what we do all the time in ballet," she says. Her concerns about delivering lines before an audience evaporated once she enveloped herself in her character. "Being able to actually speak when I act is fun — and it's a lot easier than miming," she says.
And singing? "I'm working with a voice coach and taking this seriously, but my character is learning to sing."
The mysterious planetary alignment that brought about this unprecedented Theater District migration has an additional twist: the three dancers are real-life family, as Fairchild's brother, Mr. Fairchild, is newly married to Peck. "It's nuts," he says with a laugh. "I'm not sure how it all happened, but there it is."