Sara Esty plays the leading role of Lise Dassin, the Leslie Caron role in the 1951 movie). Photo: Matthew Murphy
Sara Esty plays the leading role of Lise Dassin, the Leslie Caron role in the 1951 movie). Photo: Matthew Murphy



“An American in Paris” plays the Fox Theatre for eight performances Aug. 15-20. Details, tickets HERE or at 855.285.8499.


MUCH LIKE GENE KELLY plucked Leslie Caron from the ballet world to star in the 1951 movie, Sara Esty was lured away from Miami City Ballet, where she worked for nine years.

“My heart is bursting,” she says, of playing the leading lady in the first national tour of An American in Paris. “I still have a hard time believing everything that’s happened.”

The "American in Paris" company.
The “American in Paris” company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

At 28, Esty bested some 2,000 other dancers and joined Britain’s Christopher Wheeldon to build a stage musical based on the Academy Award-winning film. Both feature George Gershwin’s lush and lively music (I Got Rhythm, ’S Wonderful, They Can’t Take That Away From Me) and brother Ira’s nimble lyrics.

The musical opened in April 2015 at Broadway’s Palace Theatre and played for 18 months, earning 12 Tony nominations and winning four awards, including one for director-choreographer Wheeldon, whose dances emphasize ballet.

Like Caron in the movie, Esty is a pixie-ish brunette, about 5-feet-2, with expressive eyes. She has the elusive ability to convey weightlessness when lifted and can sing, too. She was part of a select chamber choir in high school in Maine and did “Embraceable You” for her audition with Wheeldon.

She was in the Paris ensemble on Broadway but specifically cast as the alternate for Lise (the Caron role). In the movie Lise works in a perfume shop; Wheeldon made her a professional ballerina.


The stage musical, initially three hours long, played two months at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with, Esty says, audiences “chanting on their feet.”

Etai Benson plays a composer and, like leading man Jerry Mulligan, is a WWII veteran. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Etai Benson plays Adam Hochberg, a composer and WWII veteran. Essentially, it’s the role Oscar Levant played in the 1951 movie. Photo: Matthew Murphy

“To do a show that takes place in Paris, then step outside and actually be there — it was incredible, the most authentic experience for bringing this show to life. It was the greatest gift to soak it all up, memorize the streets and monuments, get all the sounds and visuals in our heads, then bring it back to New York.”

An American in Paris is about romance in Paris. It tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier and promising artist, and Lise Dassin, a French ballerina. Each seeks a fresh start after experiencing the cruelties of World War II.

The musical, now a tighter two hours, takes place in 1945, several years before the film does, so WWII is a more recent distress, especially for Lise, who is Jewish.

Yet its essence remains true to George Gershwin’s composition, which premiered Dec. 13, 1928, at Carnegie Hall. The composer called his An American in Paris score “a rhapsodic ballet … written very freely … the most modern music I’ve yet attempted.” His intent in the opening section, he said, was “to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city, and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

In reviewing the stage version, The New Yorker described scenes that “melt into and out of one another,” noting that scenic designer Bob Crowley “puts a soft edge on Paris, as if we were seeing the city reflected in the Seine.”

Fast-forward to the national tour. With Esty’s promotion to leading lady, the company needed a new alternate. “I wish we could clone you,” associate director and choreographer Dontee Kiehn told her.

They did, sort of.

Best friends and sisters Leigh-Ann (left) and Sara Esty share the road and the role of Lise. Family photo
Best friends and sisters Leigh-Ann (left) and Sara Esty share the road and the role of Lise. Family photo

Esty is an identical twin. She and sister Leigh-Ann began doing ballet at age 3, first with Maine State Ballet and, beginning at age 18, with Miami City Ballet. Leigh-Ann stayed in Miami two years longer than Sara, who was in Paris with the musical. It was their first major separation.

“We learned we could survive as individuals and even do well,” Leigh-Ann says. Now 31 and traveling the country together, they sometimes share a short-term apartment instead of booking hotel rooms.

Just as Sara was on Broadway, Leigh-Ann is part of the ensemble and usually plays Lise at Sunday matinees. In Costa Mesa, Calif., earlier this year, Sara became ill, and in Act 2 Leigh-Ann played Lise. She likes to think that the audience might never have noticed, if not for the required announcement.

There’s no envy between the two. “We were always raised to be each other’s biggest supporters,” Sara says.

“We’ve always known that we’re the most important friends either of us will ever have,” Leigh-Ann adds. “We treasure each other, want the best for each other and above all, we genuinely love each other.”

Says Sara: “We have this incredible bond that’s hard, almost impossible, to explain to most people.”

Hard to explain, maybe, but still pretty wonderful.

The company, in all its splendor, in "An American in Paris." Photo: Matthew Murphy
The company, in all its splendor, in “An American in Paris.” Photo: Matthew Murphy

About Julie Bookman

Julie Bookman has written about the arts, entertainment and literature as a freelance journalist and, coast to coast, on the staffs of three daily newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has interviewed such legends as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Liberace, Mary Martin and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

View all posts by Julie Bookman