By Donalevan Maines
Two shows a week, Ryan Steele steps out of the ensemble to play the leading role in the Tony Award-winning musical interpretation of the film classic An American in Paris, on stage through March 5 at the Hobby Center.
“I get to dance some of the most beautiful choreography and sing [George and Ira] Gershwin [tunes]. It’s the perfect storm of beauty,” says the out triple-threat.
To borrow a line from “I Got Rhythm,” who could ask for anything more?
Steele has visited Houston before, when he danced in the ensembles of Carmen and Carousel for Houston Grand Opera at the Wortham Center. Now, he’s back as the twice-a-week alternate for Garen Scribner, who headlines the tour as Jerry Mulligan, opposite Sara Esty as Lise Dassin.
Highlights of the stage musical’s score include the Gershwin classics “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” “But Not for Me,” and “Stairway to Paradise,” along with the title song and orchestral music to “Concerto in F,” “2nd Prelude,” “2nd Rhapsody,” and “Cuban Overture.”
The book of the musical was penned by out playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Light in the Piazza, and the upcoming Broadway musical version of the 2001 French film Amélie).
Steele was only two months out of high school in Walled Lake, Michigan, when he got cast as Baby John, a Jets gang member, in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story.
“I started dancing when I was six, taking classes in ballet, tap, jazz, and hip-hop, but I hadn’t sung,” he says. “I had to learn quickly. I got to New York and learned to train my voice correctly, building it like any other muscle. I had to land on my feet.”
Two years later, when West Side Story closed, Steele leapt to Billy Elliot the Musical, then played Specs in the original Broadway company of Newsies, another musical version of a favorite film, whose book was written by Harvey Fierstein. Steele was the company’s original dance captain and a nominee for a Fred and Adele Astaire Award in the category of Outstanding Ensemble in a Broadway Show.
Next, Steele played a henchman and danced in the ensemble of the original Broadway company of Matilda the Musical, before segueing into the role of Rudolpho. (We remember Rudolpho from when the show played at the Hobby Center: he was the mother’s sexy, chiseled Latin ballroom dance partner.)
Meanwhile, the new musical An American in Paris debuted at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2014, before bowing on Broadway in April 2015. From its 11 Tony nominations, it won trophies for Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations, Best Lighting of a Musical, and Best Scenic Design of a Musical.
“The design is absolutely remarkable,” says Steele, who also praises the direction and choreography of Tony Award-winner Christopher Wheeldon. “He has really created this layer of movement. The sets dance. The colors and backdrops dance.”
Oscar fans know the 1951 movie An American in Paris as the original musical that upset two esteemed dramas, A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun, to win the 1951 Academy Award for Best Picture. It also scored trophies for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay), Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture), Cinematography (Color), Art Direction/Set Decoration (Color), and Costume Design (Color), along with an Honorary Oscar for director/choreographer Gene Kelly, who starred as Jerry.
“Our production is inspired by the film,” says Steele. “It breathes new life into the story in a way that Hollywood in 1950 couldn’t. They are two different, equally beautiful, pieces.”
Steele danced in the 2015 Oscar ceremony, while the 2008 Academy Award-winning film Milk (Best Actor, Sean Penn; Best Original Screenplay, Dustin Lance Black) notched another milestone in Steele’s life.
“My mom and I went to see Milk, and I came out in the car afterwards,” he says. “My family is so amazing. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. Now, living in New York, every year I go to Gay Pride, and I make it down to Stonewall to honor those who came before us. I keep my ‘student brain’ going, always asking questions and learning about our history.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.