Dance maven takes big step: London offers choreographer helming break.
That would seem less unusual if he weren't a West Virginia-raised, Gotham-based Broadway vet and Tony-winning choreographer who works consistently in New York but has yet to make his mark here as a director.
After seeing his choreography spotlighted in the Oscarcast's Beyonce-Hugh Jackman number earlier this year, U.S. ands will have a chance to see the hyphenate's helming work when the Donmar's production of "Parade," which Ashford directed in London in 2007, gets a run starting Sept. 24 at Center Theater Group's Mark Taper Forum, with a cast that includes T.R. Knight.
Although a brewing revival of "Brigadoon," to have been directed and choreographed by Ashford, got yanked from the 2008-09 Broadway season (in a move attributed by producers to the unavailability of appropriate Rialto houses), he's onboard to helm a potential revival of "Promises, Promises" that could materialize on the Rialto in the spring.
Still, it remains surprising that Broadway baby Ashford has gotten his two big directing breaks--"Parade" and his current, glowingly reviewed production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," starring Rachel Weisz--across the Pond. Chalk it up to simple flukes of timing and opportunity, say Ashford and those who've worked with him.
"Somebody at some point had to say, 'I want you to direct,'" says Donmar a.d. Michael Grandage. "It just so happened that I was the one to do it."
Like former actor Grandage, Ashford started out as a performer, scoring his first Broadway credit in the 1987 revival of "Any thing Goes" and going on to appear in shows including "Crazy for You," "Victor/Victoria" and the 1998 preem of "Parade," on which he also served as assistant choreographer.
He stepped up to full choreographer for 2002 outing "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (for which he picked up the Tony) and has gone on to choreograph "The Wedding Singer," "Curtains" and "Cry-Baby" on Broadway--not to mention the Grandage-directed Donmar staging of "Guys and Dolls" and 2006 West End revival of "Evita," both helmed by Grandage.
Ashford and the director met when the choreographer was in London for the 2003 U.K. bow of "Millie," just as Grandage was on the lookout for a choreographer for "Guys."
By that time, Ashford was clearly on the path toward becoming a director-choreographer along the lines of Jerry Mitchell or Kathleen Marshall (for whom he'd worked as associate choreographer on "Kiss Me, Kate," "Seussical" and "Ring Round the Moon").
Grandage, who as a.d. of the Donmar programs the theater's season, was first to give Ashford a shot at it. "He talks a non-dance language," he says. "His approach is something that comes entirely out of developing the narrative. He's not interested in creating a picture for the sake of a picture."
Michael Ritchie, a.d. of Center Theater Group, noted the same thing when Ashford was at CTG working on the pre-Broadway tryout of "Curtains." "It was always about telling the story and not about creating a dance step," he remembers.
Ashford's experience as a choreographer informs not just his work on musicals but also his take on straight plays. One of the central conceits of his "Streetcar," in which a vivid scene from Blanche's past is enacted in fragments throughout the evening, came about as Ashford grappled with how to handle the scene transitions in Tennessee Williams' script.
"As a choreographer, transitions are part of the body of things you're expected to do," Ashford says. "I wished we could stay in Blanche's head during those transitions. It ended up making her feel completely sane and completely mad at the same time."
Ashford's return to "Parade" involved some fairly significant rejiggering of the show in order to scale it down to fit in the Donmar's intimate 250-seat house (vs. Lincoln Center Theater's massive Beaumont stage where Harold Prince helmed the preem production).
The musical centers on Leo Frank, the Jewish factory manager accused of raping and murdering a young girl in the American South in 1913. For the Donmar version, the ensemble was reduced by almost half (to 15 thesps, many cast in multiple roles) while composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and book writer Alfred Uhry worked in a handful of new songs and added some Civil War-era context.
"My estimate is it's about 80% the same and 20% different," Brown says of the two versions of "Parade." "We decided to treat it as an alternate interpretation. I don't think it supplants the original version."
Ashford says his history with the piece, as both performer and assistant choreographer, helped shape his directorial perspective on it.
"As the assistant choreographer, I was able to sit outside it a lot," he says. "We ended up simplifying the show out of necessity, and with fewer people to follow, it brought the story of Leo and his wife, Lucy, to the fore."
A future life for the Taper's "Parade" isn't something that's currently in the works, although those involved would be open to it based on aud and critical response.
Either way, Ashford will go on to prep for the potential run of "Promises, Promises," which has Craig Zadan, Neil Meron and the Weinsteins on the list of attached producers.
But even if it's not with "Promises," Ashford looks likely to get his first Broadway credit as helmer-choreographer soon.
Collaborators note that his demeanor is another thing that makes him well-suited to directing. "Rob manages to project an enormous amount of authority in the room without being a dick," Brown says.