Todd Ellison has worked on more than a dozen Broadway shows. He’s conducted symphony orchestras and pops concerts. He’s steered the music for productions ranging from “42nd Street” (in 2001) to “Spamalot” (2005) to “La Cage Aux Folles” (2010).
But conducting and supervising the music for “An American in Paris” was, he said, “absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done on Broadway … it uses every one of your senses for a full 2 ½ hours.”
The George and Ira Gershwin musical — inspired by the 1951 movie of the same name — opened on Broadway in April 2015, won four Tony Awards (including best choreography and best orchestrations) and closed in October 2016.
But a U.S. tour began immediately afterward, and the ballet-heavy show, about an American soldier post-World War II who remains in Paris to become a painter and falls in love with a French ballerina, debuts at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday
Ellison, who is based in New York, chatted recently about his thrill of working with Gershwin’s score, the delight of watching ballet dancers blossom into actors and singers, and why the show will make your soul feel complete.
Q: Overseeing the music of George Gershwin must have been a career highlight.
A: There are the usual suspects in the show — the standard show tunes. Then you have this other catalog that nobody knows except the die-hards — the “Concerto in F,” the Gershwin preludes — and we use that music throughout and you’re just mesmerized by the beauty of the ballet happening on stage. It’s amazing to think he wrote all of this in the same period of time. I grew up seeing “My One and Only” and “Crazy for You,” the Gershwin shows in our lifetime, and I never thought, I’ll get to do a Gershwin show. And then I get the crème de la crème.
Q: What did you learn from working with his music?
A: This was my 17th Broadway show and it was an incredible learning experience. I go into every show wanting to learn something. This one, you have to learn how to conduct for ballet dancers. You have to know the choreography enough to follow the dancers. It really was an eye-opening experience for me. It’s not your traditional Broadway dance. We have a tap number; we have the regular show-tune dancing. But then you have this incredible ballet choreographer putting his spin on Gershwin music. The two leads on the tour are wonderful. Sara Esty (“Lise Dassin”) was an understudy on Broadway and she’s phenomenal. To see her do her artistry was breathtaking. The same with (male lead) McGee Maddox (“Jerry Mulligan”).
Q: How does the stage version differ from the musical?
A: I was brought in during their Paris run and (musical score adapter/supervisor) Rob (Fisher) and (director/choreographer) Christopher (Wheeldon) had worked on which songs to use, which sections of the ballets to keep and to make some judicial cuts. The basic plot of the movie is exactly the same, but we have more songs and interaction with the characters; it’s a complement to the movie. And the movie is beautiful. I always thought someone should turn it into a musical.
Q: Did you have anything to do with picking the cast for the U.S. tour?
A: Oh yeah, and we wound up with beautiful dancers. The thing that always cracked me up about working with the ballet ensemble was asking, “Who here has ever sung in a group before?” and maybe four or five would raise their hands. To see them progress over the next few weeks and realize, “Oh, I have a voice,” was great. Here, they’re finding their voice and have an opinion and invent their character — that was a foreign concept with most of them. They’re very confident in their dancing, but they had to learn to be actors and singers. To see the joy on their faces. … Some have said, “I don’t think I could go back to the ballet now that I’ve found my voice.” All across the board, it was learning by doing.
Q: The show ran for a year and a half on Broadway, it premiered in London earlier this year and is set to tour the U.S. into next year. What do you think is the appeal?
A: The music is what people respond to, that they remember the songs. The beauty of dance with this music takes it to an entirely different artistic level. The familiarity of the movie and the beautiful love story that it was, that all works in its favor. And everyone’s love of Paris. It is a loving tribute to the city of Paris. You walk in and are transported to a totally different place and forget what is happening in the outside world and see these people doing these incredible moves onstage. And then it’s over and people say, “It’s so short,” and I say, “What do you mean? It’s over 2 ½ hours!” Musically, it never stops. It’s not like “Les Misérables,” which is constant (music), but it’s not the kind of show you can conduct and think, “What am I having for dinner?” If you’ve done that, you’ve missed something. It was a rewarding challenge. That music is so glorious. It’s like your soul feels complete because you’ve been able to bring this beautiful music to life.
“An American in Paris”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $30-$125. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, http://www.foxtheatre.org.