EXCLUSIVE: Robbie Fairchild, a Broadway lead and former New York City Ballet principal dancer, will star in the stage version of Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 Oscar-winning movie The Artist, set in the 1920s when movies found their voice with the advent of talking pictures.
Fairchild received a Tony Award nomination for An American In Paris, another show based on a celebrated movie when it premiered on Broadway in 2015. Two years later, he helped launch that show in the West End.
In The Artist, he will play Silent Era matinee idol George Valentin, who finds his career torn away from him when the talkies arrive.
The part won French actor Jean Dujardin the Best Actor Oscar.
The Artist, co-written for the theater by Drew McOnie and playwright and screenwriter Lindsey Ferrentino (Amy and the Orphans, Ugly Lies the Bone), will have its world premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth from May 11 to May 25, 2024. Productions in London and the U.S. are bound to follow.
Director and choreographer McOnie told me he has also cast relative newcomer Briana Craig (Singing In the Rain, 42nd Street) to play wannabe headliner Peppy Miller, the role performed by Bérénice Bejo in the movie version.
During the summer ,I saw a workshop of The Artist’s first act with the splendidly poetic Fairchild playing Valentin.
However, Craig was not available at that session, which took place in the uppermost floor of the mammoth Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road.
“Aha, she’s our secret weapon,” McOnie teased when we discussed Craig.
McOnie said Craig had attended some of his dance classes and he remembered her when he and casting director Will Burton began casting for a series of early workshops of The Artist. “Briana was quite exceptional and stood out” during the search, said McOnie.
He noted that the chemistry between Fairchild and Craig “was absolutely palpable the moment they started working together.”
It’s a story that follows characters — one at the beginning of their career and one more experienced. ”It was really magic to see the meeting of Briana and Robbie, these two people at very different stages of their careers,” McOnie said. “It’s really inspiring watching Briana learn so much from Robbie, and in turn Robbie learning so much from Briana with their different skill sets.”
The beauty of the show being dance-led, McOnie observed, is that ”you’re experiencing the story through that added element of poetry and it requires the audiences’ imagination, a sort of leap of faith, in which you’re able to imagine what is being said at times, and of course that is passed through your own emotional filter.”
People at workshops and private showings “have been surprised at how emotional and moving it is,” McOnie told me — a view I share.
Gary Wilmot (Anything Goes, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk), one of the most versatile (and funniest) actors I know, will take on the role of studio boss Al Zimmer.
I asked McOne whether Hazanavicius had given approval for the casting.
The director and choreographer, who runs a production company under his own name, shook his head and pointed out that Fairchild’s name had been in the mix when McOnie and Georgia Gatti, executive producer at The McOnie Company, concluded the deal with Hazanavicius and The Artist film’s producer Thomas Langmann and production company La Petite Reine.
“The idea of working with Robbie was sort of at the genesis; we were talking about him at the beginning,” McOnie said.
He added that “Michel is so trusting … he said to us right at the beginning, ”You are creative people … go and do what you need to do.”
Smiling, McOnie said that he and his team welcomed Hazanavicius’ trust. “It’s very rare not to have to be jumping through those gaps all the time.”
The creative team includes set and costume designs by Tony and Olivier Award winner Christopher Oram (Wolf Hall Parts I & II, Red, Frozen), music by Tony winner Simon Hale (Girl From the North Country, Get Up Stand Up!), lighting by ZoeSpurr (Good, Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World), sound by Tony and Olivier winner Simon Baker (Matilda the Musical, A Christmas Carol), video by Ash J Woodward (The 47th, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), puppetry by Maia Kirkman-Richards (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and casting by Will Burton CDG. The associate director/choreographer is Ebony Molina and the musical director is Chris Poon.
The Artist is a McOnie Company production produced by Theatre Royal Plymouth, The McOnie Company, Playful Productions, Bill Damaschke, Stephen and Nancy Gabriel and Underbelly.
McOnie told me that there have been “good rumblings” from West End theater owners keen to transfer The Artist from Plymouth.
“There are opportunities internationally too,” he said.
“A lot of American interest, actually. For a story based in Hollywood, with an American writer and American as well as British producers, it’s very important for us to feel like an American and a British piece of theater.”
Also, because the show’s language is dance and music — words aren’t spoken until the talkies arrive –language is not a deterrent. It can play anywhere. “The West End isn’t our only sights,” McOnie said.
One important casting decision was settled during the show’s development.
In the movie version a real terrier played a pivotal role.
McOnie told me that for a moment, because he’s a dog lover, he’d considered using a real canine on stage.
“But the reality is, weirdly, that you actually wanted the dog to do things beyond what a real dog can do … in the element of the film obviously, you can edit short clips together whereas we wanted the dog to be a poetic gesture in the way that the rest of the production is poetic,” he explained.
So the dog will be a combination of puppetry and a top-notch dancer.
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