"Five, Six, Seven, Eight": The Return of the Director-Choreographer

Special Features   "Five, Six, Seven, Eight": The Return of the Director-Choreographer Rob Ashford, Kathleen Marshall, Casey Nicholaw and Susan Stroman, 2011 Tony nominees for Best Director and Best Choreography, discuss their double-duty careers.

Casey Nicholaw
Casey Nicholaw Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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It was the 1992-1993 Broadway season, and Rob Ashford and Casey Nicholaw were doing the Broadway grind as dancers in the Gershwin musical Crazy for You. Susan Stroman had just earned a Tony Award for the production's choreography, which melded tap and ballroom into an ecstatic dance spectacle that left both audience and cast light-headed when the curtain came down.

Ashford and Nicholaw were stretching on their dressing room floor between shows — both now have a distinct memory of this moment — when Nicholaw said, "We need to get our reels together if we ever want to be choreographers."

Over at the Broadhurst Theatre, another young dancer named Kathleen Marshall was doing just that. Marshall had, at one time, been Ashford's dance partner in summer stock. She had just left the national tour of Cats to be the assistant choreographer to her brother Rob (later of "Chicago" film fame) for what would be the next Tony-winning Kander and Ebb musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

It's almost two decades later, and Ashford, Marshall, Nicholaw and Stroman are still on Broadway — but now they're calling the shots as thelatest crop of director–choreographers. All four received double Tony Award nominations this year, in the Best Direction and Best Choreography categories. It's a homecoming for the foursome, who came of age at a time when critics were lamenting that Broadway had seen the last of great showmen like Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Gower Champion, whose work as director-choreographers left indelible marks on West Side Story, Chicago, A Chorus Line and Hello, Dolly!

 

Susan Stroman leads a rehearsal
photo by Paul Kolnik

"I remember people saying that," Ashford says. "It was a calling in a way. It made us say, 'Oh, there's room for us.'" The latest group is carrying the torch with this past season's Broadway productions of How to Succeed in Business... (Ashford), Anything Goes (Marshall), The Book of Mormon (Nicholaw, co-directing with "South Park" creator Trey Parker) and the now-closed (but tour-aimed) The Scottsboro Boys (Stroman).

Though all four got their start as choreographers, the transition to director–choreographer felt like a seamless process. "I'm a storyteller of dance," Stroman explains. "It's a natural stepping- stone, because when I choreograph, I choreograph for characters."

According to Marshall, "When you direct and choreograph, what's wonderful is that you get to sort of create the whole world in that way. You get to decide how we're going to get from one place to another and what it's going to feel like. You create the overall design of how it's going to look, move and feel."

Rob Ashford in rehearsal with Daniel Radcliffe
photo by Ari Mintz

Ashford notes that he and his contemporaries approach staging from a unique viewpoint. "You're not afraid of movement," he says. "You know how to mine every move for what it's worth, even in book scenes. It also frees you up as a creator. You don't need to feel like you need to fill your stage with scenery."

Marshall, who compares her work as a director–choreographer to scoring a movie, says, "You need to know when to move, but you also need to know when to stand still. The scenes have a distinct purpose."

"In a musical the songs are the touchstones of the story," Nicholaw adds. "So you need to be sure that the scenes build into those songs well and that the transitions out of the songs also work seamlessly."

One of Ashford's musical touchstones in How to Succeed... is the show-stopper "Brotherhood of Man," in which leading man Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) shows off some impressive dance skills. It's no easy feat creating a number that gets audiences cheering, but the work, Ashford explains, is rooted in the character: "I wanted to only tease the audience with his dancing in the early part of the show, and then let Dan as a performer do his big bit when the character of J. Pierrepont Finch does his as well. I think it's the combination of Finch and Dan Radcliffe scoring in the same moment that's exciting for an audience to watch."

 

Kathleen Marshall in a March Anything Goes rehearsal.
photo by Krissie Fullerton

For Stroman, such moments are what bring an audience into the story. She recalls her Tony-winning musical Contact, in which a central, non-dancing character is finally pulled into the movement and reclaims his life. "Everyone could relate to him and feel, 'Maybe I could do that,'" she says. "I think people are drawn to those kinds of stories about overcoming obstacles. What's marvelous is when you can tell that kind of story through dance. There's nothing like it."

Adam Hetrick is staff writer at Playbill.com.

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