An American in Paris is full tilt Broadway and made its Australian premiere in our Lyric Theatre to rapturous acclaim and applause.
New York-based Hannah Ryan is at the helm of the Australian tour and heads up the enterprise in the role of Australian Staging Director. Coming to our shores from Broadway, where she first joined the An American in Paris team in 2016 and was most recently Resident Director of Hamilton: An American Musical, Ryan talks of how she almost manifested this assignment.
“The 18 months of Broadway being shut down in 2020 to 2021 gave me a lot of time to reflect. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work on some successful Broadway productions, but I’ve never had the chance to stage anything internationally. As I contemplated a career pivot, like so many during the struggles of COVID, I took some time to take stock of what it is I love and value in the performing arts and what it is that keeps me going. At the top of that list were the people, the collaborative nature of what we do, sharing ideas and building upon a collective trust.
“Another list allowed me to detail what I’d still like to accomplish and on that list was working with other people/cultures outside of the US. More specifically working in Australia. A few weeks later I was home visiting family in the summer of 2021 when Stuart Oken, the original producer, called me and mentioned the idea of staging An American in Paris in Australia and I nearly screamed “yes!” into the phone.”
So what does it take to remount a hugely lavish and intricate show which took Broadway and West End by storm; and take it across oceans, to Australia for the first time?
While Ryan describes the role of Staging Director as being the one to direct the cast and immerse them in the historical context of the piece, as well as maintain Director and Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s original artistic vision when it comes to the design of the show – this hardly begins to describe her wide and wonderful remit.
Ryan is the one that must unite the Australian Creative Team and harness their unique skill sets, diverse experiences and shared love for the story to create the magic we see on stage.
“Principal Dance Director Sean Kelly oversees the principal choreography and masterfully maintains Wheeldon’s intricate ballets. And Associate Choreographer Stuart Winter provides the specificity required for the actor-motivated scenic transitions as well as the more musical theatre/jazz style choreography. His inside eye, gained from having played so many of the roles on stage in London, has been extremely valuable.”
Ryan is the one leading the group meditation every day. Before rehearsals, the cast gather in a circle and sync their breathing. Expressions of gratitude, just to be on this wild ride together, come up again and again.
“Telling stories means more to me now than it did before. This period has taught me so much and the number one thing I will take away from this extremely challenging time is how lucky I am to get to do what I do. It’s an incredible and necessary gift to bring beauty, light, joy, and hope in the form of a story to the world. It's a responsibility I once took for granted and will never again.”
She is also the one in awe of her cast, just as much as they are in awe of her. This mutual respect is palpable with each and every interaction.
“It’s been incredibly affirming being here in Australia working with such generous and receptive artists who share the same love and passion for the story and the reality that we’re from opposite sides of the globe has yet to get in our way.
“It’s challenging enough to be a triple threat, to be expected to act, sing and dance within the context of a single production; and yet another to also dance a world class ballet beautifully and yet another to also hold the responsibility of establishing location scene-by-scene. Christopher Wheeldon’s complex vision requires all five of these skill sets of each performer.”
Ryan is the one, that despite knowing this show inside out and upside down, still can’t put a finger on what she loves most about the show. Though the opening just might be her favourite scene.
“With very few spoken words, gorgeous Gershwin orchestrations conducted beautifully by Vanessa Scammell, and exquisite dance we follow an artist’s journey from duty to discovery, inspiration, decision, release and finally witness his very first step towards liberation. The projections are detailed and impressionistic, the score soars, and the actors are truly dancing for their lives. It’s seven minutes of non-stop storytelling at its absolute finest.”
And she is the one that – six years later – still believes in the power of this show’s message.
“Though I’ll never understand the challenges of world war and what too many suffered during that time, living through a global pandemic has given me a more parallel understanding of what it’s like to live through challenging times, to lack community, and to have your entire life disrupted.
“To come out of that deprivation and to persist against all odds is something I’ve now lived, am living. There’s a quote near the end of our show spoken by our narrator that now speaks volumes. Adam says:
“Life is already so dark, if you’ve got the talent to make it brighter, give people joy and hope, why would you withhold that?”
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