By Marc Snetiker
Updated May 11, 2015 at 07:05 PM EDT
Matthew Murphy

Of all the dozens of notable Broadway debuts this season, one actor has gone from relative unknown in the theater community to the leading man of the season’s biggest surprise.

Delivering the most exciting musical performance of the season in the 12-time Tony-nominated An American in Paris, Robert Fairchild is a fresh name in the Broadway community but a mega-star on the rise in the ballet world. He’s been dancing with the New York City Ballet for a decade, but this year made the transition to the Main Stem as Jerry Mulligan, the light-footed triple-threat role created by Gene Kelly in the original 1951 film on which the stage adaptation is based.

In his dazzling debut, Fairchild earned a Tony Award nomination for leading actor in a musical, but his recognition is just part of the ongoing wave of love for Paris, which tied Fun Home as this year’s most nominated musical. As the hubbub of awards season looms, Fairchild is finally settling in at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, where the idea of dancing ballet on Broadway continues to be a daily dream.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Opening night is behind you, the Tony Awards are ahead—how are you feeling this month?

ROBERT FAIRCHILD: I’m getting more and more settled in. It’s such an incredible time in my life. I’m debuting on Broadway in a brand new musical based on a film danced by Gene Kelly. How does it get better than that? I’m just trying to stay in the moment and soak it up, because I know things can happen so fast.

Like your first Tony nomination!

In the ballet world, we don’t necessarily have these award seasons like Broadway does. It’s just a force a nature. Everybody is wrapped around it and I’m just trying my hardest to not lose sight of the work I’m doing. I want to keep my head in the game. I don’t want to be the type of person who tries to do a really good performance in order to get an award. But if I got one, I would be absolutely over the moon.

The big story this year is that you’re doing Paris, your sister Megan did On the Town, and your wife Tiler did both Little Dancer and On the Town. Take me into when those three bits of news broke in your family.

Tiler’s Little Dancer had been in the workshop process for, I think, five years, so this was a slow-moving ship. We all knew about it and were really excited for her, and we all hoped it would become an opportunity to perform it somewhere. Then I started working on An American in Paris, and Megan came to see the presentation of it in the studio, and I think there was a little bit of, “If he can do that, I think I could!” [laughs] A classic Chorus Line thing. She was at a place in her career when she had just done all the classical ballets, all the really hard technical things, and she wanted to branch out and push herself in a different direction. So I got a Facebook message from the casting director for On the Town asking about Megan, because Tiler had done the workshop of On the Town, but it just so happened that Little Dancer, at the same time, was going to the Kennedy Center. And so Megan went and auditioned and used the exercise as a way to just learn and play and have a new experience, and they offered her the part in the studio.

Wow. And as the younger brother, it’s typically you who would follow the lead of your older sister, no?

It was really cool. At our wedding, she gave a speech and said something like, “I’ve always been so proud of you and I felt like everything I’ve done, you’ve been following me, and I feel like this next year, I’m getting to follow you,” and it was a really cool sentimental moment because I really did everything she did growing up. She convinced me to go to the School of American Ballet.

Forgive the question, but when did you first realize you had fidgety feet?

I always wanted to do Broadway. I always thought, once my ballet body failed me, once I didn’t look good in white tights anymore, it would be a great transition to dance around in a white tux on Broadway. But I didn’t know if it was going to be, like, mid-30s or something like that. But [Paris director] Chris Wheeldon came up to me and asked me if I could sing and I said “I think so,” and so I sang for them and they were pleased and I was like, wait, is this opportunity happening now? This isn’t how I thought it was going to be! But to have this opportunity was totally the right time and I couldn’t be more thrilled. And honestly, Broadway is so hard. Eight shows a week, it’s no joke. I don’t know if I could have done a role like this if I was in my mid to late 30s.

What’s been the most difficult change for you?

Well, I know how to prepare myself for a ballet and dancing, but vocalizing and singing onstage every night is a totally different body awareness. It’s about working to engrain a more humanistic way of being in your body as opposed to the dancer that’s always pulled up and ready to go twirl and fly. It’s grounded, it’s earthy. It’s in your body in a different way.

Tell me about your relationship to Gene Kelly here. This show tries to pay tribute rather than replicate, and while part of that challenge is on your director/choreographer, what was your part in that challenge?

I had to give up the idea of wanting to tap. [laughs] I really pushed to get some tap numbers in there for myself, just because that’s what I think of when I think of Gene Kelly. Just those amazing moments of tap. “I Got Rhythm” is like my favorite scene in the movie. So I worked Chris pretty hard, trying to get him to let me do it, but he stuck to his guns and he knew what he wanted, and he wanted Jerry to have a more jazz-ballet language. Which was fine with me! I’ll find some show someday that maybe I can tap in.

Did you have to pull away from Gene in your characterization of Jerry?

I didn’t want to pull away from it. I wanted to be at the center of it all, truest to myself, because if I’m going out and just trying to do what somebody else did, that’s not fun, that’s not creative. People will sniff it out and go, eh, it’s second rate, because who can compare to him? And so I wanted to stay true to who Jerry Mulligan was to me, and then on top of that, I had seen so many Gene Kelly movies and there are moments when I’ll do a step in the show and I’ll have just an image in my mind of what Gene Kelly was like on that movie screen, and kind of emulate it. I guess I just have little nods, little tips of the hat to him, because I feel like if I just try to do my own thing, I’m missing out on the fun of getting to be the next Jerry Mulligan.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from watching Gene Kelly movies?

He made you want to dance. It was a physical reaction. You felt so much joy from watching him. He made you happy, he made you want to celebrate. And I actually got a letter from one of his old family friends, who said something like, “Gene Kelly would have loved to see this. You would have made him so happy. He always said dance love, dance joy.” And I couldn’t think of more perfect words, because that’s what he was thinking, and that’s what you felt. I feel like we’re entertaining people, giving people a gift. Yes, you get a paycheck, it’s a job, but it’s kind of a service. You’re going out there, you’re grueling the eight-show-a-week schedule in order to make people happy and change up their week for two and a half hours. And if you can dance love, dance joy and give them that, then that’s something so cool to get to carry on in his tradition.

I imagine hearing from someone who knew him was huge for you.

And it kind of started even five years before that. I was performing at a dance festival and I did an interview and the first sentence was, “Gene Kelly was the reason why I wanted to dance.” So I got a Facebook message from Patricia Ward Kelly, who’s his widow, and she said, “I just want you to know Gene Kelly would have been so honored to know that he had inspired you to dance.” I couldn’t respond for two weeks because I was just so excited. I didn’t know what to say!

You premiered the show in Paris before coming to Broadway. Did anything from your time spent there translate into the performance?

The whole first scene, when I’m just walking around Paris. I have these really clear images of walking down the street or along the Seine, or turning the corner and seeing just the most charming little narrow street with all these shops in it. Placing myself in the 1940s and after this has all happened, even though it was a war zone and some of the streets were torn up, there was something about Paris that’s just magical. You saw people starting to breathe again and come out of their shells. Those clear pictures I have in my head make me so happy, and I remember just a few days ago, walking offstage and just having this huge “I miss Paris” wave come over me.

Is there a favorite particularly magical moment in the show?

My favorite has got to be watching that flag come down and then rush over our heads at the top of the show. It’s such an amazing feeling and it just sets off the show so well, and it just continues. It feels like that rush is the whole show for me. Another part I really like is when I’m downstairs getting changed into my “American in Paris” ballet costume, and I hear the “DUN-dun-dun, DUN-dun-dun” for the first time and I just see Gene Kelly with that top hat and that cane and it makes me so happy. It’s just such magical music.

Kids today have YouTube, and I have to wonder whether that helps or hinders someone who wants to be a dancer because it can be so informative but also intimidating. If you were a kid in this digital age, how would you be different?

I feel like one of the hardest things to find as a dancer is your sense of self, because you’re constantly looking in the mirror, comparing yourself to everyone around you and what you want to become someday. So being able to see so many different kinds of dancers just killing it online…if you don’t have that sense of self, it can be really destructive. But if you look at it as inspiration and say, “I have a gift, I’ve got certain talents that nobody else has and they have talents that I don’t have, but I have reasons to contribute,” if you can look at that and then just be inspired by them, there’s nothing better. You learn so much from watching and you want to be a sponge as a dancer. You want to take in the world around you and the people doing the same things that you are, and you don’t want to copy that but you want to be inspired by that.

An American in Paris runs at Broadway’s Palace Theatre.