Ashley Day talks about his journey to An American In Paris

Ashley Day, one of Britain’s most accomplished young performers in musical theatre is settling into his lead role as Jerry Mulligan in the West End’s latest hit musical An American In Paris. Garnering more five star reviews than any other production in living memory, An American In Paris is probably the most demanding of shows on its cast members – it’s not just singing, dancing and acting in one of London’s largest theatres (the huge Dominion, where We Will Rock You played for 10 years), it’s singing to new arrangements of some of Gershwin’s best loved classics, it’s dancing that embraces the most challenging techniques of the ballet stage and it’s acting that requires the projection of emotions from the body as well as the voice and the face. It is a show that places huge demands on the physical and mental make-up of its cast, 8 times every week.

For Ashley Day this is no overnight success, it is something that he has worked for all his life. Although, going into this show he may not be the best-known star in the West End, he has certainly been part of some of the most successful shows of the past decade. Here he talks to Overture’s CEO Pat Hayward about his journey which for now, ends with him in an ice bath in the star dressing room of the Dominion, which many of his theatre and music idols have used before him.

“My first introduction to An American In Paris was when I was 9 or 10 and I sat down and watched the video of the film. Even at that age, I recognised that this was different and that for me ‘An American In Paris’ was Gene Kelly and I formed an emotional attachment to the film. I saw it before ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, and only say that because people talk about Gene Kelly and Singin’ In the Rain; whereas my Gene Kelly film is ‘An American In Paris’.”

Ashley went on to say, “In fact I’ve never really had an emotional attachment in the same way to ‘Singin’ In The Rain’. What gave me the relationship with the film was the ballet, which was unlike anything I had ever seen before and then “I Got Rhythm” with the kids, it was him tapping, just funny and being a kid myself, I guess.”

“My next exposure to An ‘American In Paris’ was when I saw it advertised as a stage production in Paris and I can remember being really angry and thinking why didn’t I know about this, why didn’t my agent tell me about it or get me an audition? I can remember the first poster for the Chatelet production and thinking that looks cool, like it doesn’t look like a commercial West End or Broadway show. I then looked into it and saw who was playing the roles and who was directing it, Chris Wheeldon, and thought okay, now I understand.”

“I knew about Chris, in fact I’d seen his ‘Alice’ which was probably the first ballet I had actually sat down and watched on tv. It seemed to have a lot in common with the musical theatre world and that is what excited me. It was funny, the Red Queen and the tapping Mad Hatter and the set was, wow, an amazing design by Bob Crowley who has done a lot of ballet but his main focus is theatre. I can remember googling everything about Chris Wheeldon and seeing footage of the Paris rehearsals, not knowing that the show would move to Broadway and then on to the West End.”

“When the show did move to Broadway my mum was over there and I said that the first thing she had to see was ‘An American In Paris’. She called me straight after seeing the show and told me that this was the show for me. Because I knew about the show and who was playing the lead roles, principal dancers from the world’s leading ballet companies, I thought it would never happen for me and so I told her to see another show, one that I thought I would stand a good chance of appearing in if it did make a transfer. I didn’t see the show myself until the 6th July 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact by that time, I had already secured the role and so when I sat down in the Palace, 7 rows from the front, I thought “right this is what I’m about to do”, a scary thing watching a show you are going to be in and in unknown territory. Garen Scribner was playing the Jerry role and I kept thinking is he going off? No; is he going to take a water break? No; gosh this part is bigger than they told me. The whole thing inspired me, it was very different from what I thought a musical interpretation of ‘An American In Paris’ would be like.”

“It was just over a year ago when I secured the role, the spring bank holiday at the end of May in 2016. When I registered my interest in the show, as soon as it was talked about making the London transfer, I considered it a long shot, but one I would be prepared to move mountains to get. The audition process was arduous; we were at Rambert, Sadlers Wells, Pineapple and other spaces, all in London, I think there were 9 auditions in total. The first audition I had was with 7 musical theatre guys who all dance, so they were sussing out who could do it or had classical technique and could develop through a project. For the first six or seven auditions, I just went along with the process, enjoying them and having a laugh with the other candidates. They were seeing all these guys from the Royal and other major ballet companies, ones that might fit the casting profile of the Broadway show. So, I don’t think I’ve ever been as relaxed as I was through this process. Believing that if I made it as far as meeting Chris, he would take one look at me and say no, you are not the classically trained ballet dancer I need.”

“I learned ballet a long time ago and I thought in my head, ballet choreographer, they are a certain way and they want a certain thing. When I did meet Chris for the first time, we had a morning; there were six boys and six girls, all from leading ballet companies apart from me who was the only one from a musical theatre background. It was one of the strangest days of my life because I was in a holding room with a bunch of people that don’t belong in musical theatre, yet I was the one that felt very out of place. There was little talking and I was trying to be the clown and calming everyone down as the tension was horrendous. They were confident through the morning dance sessions but by lunchtime, the nerves kicked in as they prepared for the acting scenes in the afternoon.”

“So the first time I danced for Chris it was the first solo in ‘Beginners Luck’ and I did it having been with Emma Harris, the resident dance supervisor and we’d spent a lot of time getting everything as technical and clean as possible. I was thinking very much as I’m a ballet dancer for this and then I did it once for Chris and he said, “Great, now let’s do it your way, just relax and forget about your technique and just dance”. That was the first moment that I thought, interesting, all the others here are ballet dancers and here I am being asked to do something different.”

“He was so open to seeing someone do it a different way, which I don’t think the others could do. In the afternoon I sung and did the scenes; I can remember going in there and thinking here I am the token musical theatre boy, you’ll probably all having a laugh at my expense. They then made a cut, which left two boys and one girl. I popped out to Pret to grab some water, thinking this is crazy I’m still here, I got back and then Leanne Cope appeared (the original Lise, who happened to be in town on a 4-day break from the Broadway production). Apparently, she’d been in a café waiting to be brought up to read with whoever and I went in and read with her and sung. At that moment something happened, it felt right and it felt like a partnership.”

“The following day I was called back and I danced, I was there for about 50 minutes, just me and a table of 15 people, sweating like I’ve never sweated before and then a nervous week later I got the call. That’s when it all began, the training, the reshaping and a complete restructuring of my regime. I had a week’s break when I went to New York and saw the show and on my return I had a couple of week’s intense preparation before having to focus 6 days a week on being Jimmy for a new production of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’. I did manage to keep up my training and pilates, as well as doing Millie rehearsals, which were in the heart of Leicestershire, and then once we opened I’d come back to London on Sunday and see ‘An American In Paris’ choreographer, Jackie Barrett on Mondays, to set out the week’s routines for me to follow.”

“I’ve always been super fit, but for this role I needed to be fit in a different way and so every aspect of my life had to be changed. Jackie was so strict with me from the outset, now I couldn’t get off that plan. She has taught me so much about nutrition, health, my body and life – she is just the best what I call ‘Ballet Doctor’. She has incredible experiences looking after the dancers in The Royal Ballet and has built me into the performer that can handle 7 performances a week in what is the most demanding role in the West End.”

“We have a daily routine which culminates with a 30 minute ballet bar routine ahead of the evening performances, a normal day involves ballet classes, pilates and specific gym exercises. The physical aspect of the show does not allow you to ignore the fitness programme. Only occasionally, do I allow myself a day off and have a lie in. There is also Moira McCormack, a physio from The Royal Ballet, who is part of the team and is with us every day, a luxury that probably no other West End show has. She looks after us and can coach us through injuries.”

“With Robbie returning to the States, some say the pressure is really on me to carry the show; but I find that exciting and I’m more than ready to take the weight on my shoulders. I know I can do it; it’s been a long time coming and the grafting that I’ve put in has prepared me for this like nothing else I’ve ever done.”

The NEW trailer for the London production of An American In Paris

“People ask me what am I, a dancer, a singer, an actor? Well over the past 10 years if someone had called me a dancer I would have been offended, just because in musical theatre the term can be deemed as degrading, referring to individuals in the ensemble. It’s somewhat sad that I think like that and probably that is why I haven’t danced for a while, but also I couldn’t make a career out of what I really want to do just as a dancer. But now I am proud to call myself a dancer, knowing that the world is beginning to recognise all the other skills I can bring to the stage”

“However, dance is where it all started for me. I was three and pushed my way into my older sister’s dance class. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to dance, there were no pressures, if anything my parents tried to calm the enthusiasm. The class was ballet, tap and jazz and I must admit that ballet was my least favourite, but that’s what we all did every week at Mrs Blake’s little studio down in Bexhill. She was great and had a lovely school. I made my stage debut aged four at Bexhill’s splendid De La Warr Pavilion, a venue that holds so many wonderful memories of my exposure to musical theatre. I think the show was called ‘That’s Entertainment 93’ and Mrs Blake was very proud of us.”

“Every year for my birthday treat I would be taken on a trip to the West End to see a show. I think it was my ninth birthday and we’d been to see Oliver! at the Palladium and upon making enquiries I was invited to audition and I was in the show. I was still at primary school and I remember my whole class came up to see me in the show, my first professional gig. Its where I discovered that I could sing and so an elderly lady, local to where we lived, Mrs Margerson, who was a vocal coach, put me through my paces with her musical theatre repertoire, learning vocal disciplines that would stand me in good stead for the future.”

“It was around this time that I started going once a month to Junior Associates at Royal Ballet on a Saturday, I could have gone twice a month but that would have meant missing jazz class in Bexhill. I enjoyed the Royal Ballet class, as it was all boys, a change from Mrs Blake’s where I was the only boy, so it was good to see that I was not on my own.”

“When I was eleven, there was the crazy period of changing school and I already knew I wanted to pursue performing arts and that academia was not high on my personal agenda and so the local comprehensive school was not up for consideration. It was a choice of White Lodge, The Royal Ballet School or ArtsEd, all of which meant that I would have to leave home. We then found this little school in Brighton and decided to give it a go.  Stonelands School Of Ballet And Theatre Arts was such a quirky individual school and I think my focus, ambition and characteristics were developed there; probably not something that would have been nurtured in one of the larger environments. I was able to study and practice every aspect of performance being encouraged to stretch myself to become a complete performer. I had two important tutors in school, Kay Shepherd, who taught jazz and tap and was a choreographer and so was very encouraging about musical theatre and I consider an important mentor. The other was Fleur Jones, who was my ballet instructor and for the first time I began to enjoy ballet – it’s a very black and white discipline, it’s either right or wrong and I think for the first time I got to understand that.”

“Later on, in the last year of school, when I was supposed to be preparing for GCSEs, I couldn’t wait for Thursday’s edition of The Stage to see if there were any open auditions. I just wanted out of school and get on with the real business of performing in musical theatre. Finishing school at 16 meant that decisions had to be made on next steps, everyone in my class were going onto to traditional colleges and I did know that was not what I wanted. I ended up going to Birds in Sidcup where I told them I didn’t want to do three years, so they let me join their second year programme. It was whilst there I wrote to Matthew Bourne and he accepted me into his company and I performed in The Nutcracker both in London and Tokyo. It is the only time I have been in a dance company and for me it was great, as it was still very much like being in a school environment with classes every day and being focused and then my eyes were opened suddenly to the world. When I found out that Matthew Bourne was going to do ‘Mary Poppins’ I asked him for an audition and got a part, opening in a brand new stage musical in the West End.”

“Of all the shows I’ve been in I guess ‘Book Of Mormon’ did most for me. It followed a period of disappointment and growing personal disbelief, so this opportunity came at exactly the right time. There was such a huge buzz around the opening and within a week I was there playing the lead character Elder Price, a role I played more than 250 times. I loved that show and it was good for my confidence, it was a big singing role, something I hadn’t really done before and proved that I can do this.”

“’Mormon’ led to the lead in the very successful 2015 tour of ‘Oklahoma!’ where I was able to act, sing and perform the Agnes De Mille ballet scene and now it’s ‘An American In Paris’, all very different types of roles and shows. And that’s what I want more of, it’s tough in the theatre but unlike tv you get the challenges of playing to a live audience, you get the opportunities of playing diverse roles in very different productions and you continue to learn from everyone around you. I love theatre and whilst I can continue performing, I will. Next, I would like to step into something that is being written, a new show, a new role and something that I can mold. So, keeping my eyes and ears open for that opportunity; But now it’s back to the business in hand, entertaining 2,000 people in what critics have labelled the most exciting, exhilarating show London has ever seen.”

Patrick Hayward talked with Ashley Day – June 2017  – on behalf of Overtures