From Paper Mill to Modern Millie: Choreographer Rob Ashford Comes Into His Own

From Paper Mill to Modern Millie: Choreographer Rob Ashford Comes Into His Own If you are going to stage a wholly reconceived, classic musical like Pippin, you'd better have magic to do. And a tough skin.
Jack Noseworthy and Jim Newman in Pippin.
Jack Noseworthy and Jim Newman in Pippin. (Photo by Photo by Jerry Dalia)

If you are going to stage a wholly reconceived, classic musical like Pippin, you'd better have magic to do. And a tough skin.

Rob Ashford, the New York-based choreographer responsible for the new dances at the Paper Mill Playhouse's all-new production of Pippin, admits that tackling this controversial new production was a bit daunting. A veteran of the Paper Mill, Ashford choreographed last season's Up, Up and Away -- The Music of Jimmy Webb, which, like Pippin, was directed by PMP Artistic Director Robert Johanson.

The up-and-coming Ashford has had his hands in a number of recent high-profile shows, including choreographing this season's Encores! concert version of the Sheldon Harnick musical Tenderloin and serving as an associate choreographer under Kathleen Marshall for the Off-Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night and the Tony Award-winning revival of Kiss Me, Kate.

Working on Pippin, Ashford admits, is like living in the shadow of Fosse. "And that's quite a shadow to be standing in!" he laughed.

"Pippin has always been a very special show to me," Ashford said. It was one of the first professional jobs he had as a dancer, performing the original Fosse choreography in 1986 with Ben Vereen. "I felt that Fosse did a great job. I loved the show," he explained, adding that his admiration for the original work made his job to re-conceptualize the dancing much easier. "I never thought, 'I have to fix this,' and that freed me up to try it in a new way. I'm a great fan of the original."

To alter the dances would have been inconceivable, he says, without the new orchestrations by David Siegel and the new dance arrangements by David Chase.

"One of the most enjoyable aspects was working with [composer-lyricist] Stephen Schwartz and [librettist] Roger Hirson. It was very special to them and to me. To sit with Stephen in the studio with David Chase and to brainstorm [about the new dance arrangements]… it was very exciting. And I think Stephen was very happy with the new [updated] arrangements.

"We didn't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. 'Love Song' is a beautiful song. A lot of the ballads didn't need any tinkering. But we're using different instruments than they used in '72, like synthesizers, and that means creating different sounds. But what we really dealt with was the dance music, at least in my involvement. We wanted to make sure the music didn't sound dated or compel us to imitate Fosse.

"We stripped out the vaudeville layer that Fosse added -- that was Fosse's concept [not Schwartz's]. And when you remove that and you add the new dance arrangements, it opens a lot of doors to change. That was a great help in trying to reinvent the dances in the show."

Ashford knew that comparisons between his dances and Fosse's trademark choreography were inevitable. But rather than trying to adapt Fosse's moves, he tried to make put his own signature to it.

"In '72 when Fosse did the show, a lot of it was so… specifically his style. I don't feel it was rooted in the period. He didn't try to take you through his dances to medieval France. It was a contemporary dance piece," Ashford said. "Likewise, I'm trying to give images that people understand today, with images out of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. What I'm trying to do with the actual movement, the steps, is to let the audience key into something they're already seeing, to see that they too could go on this Everyman journey just like Pippin."

Indeed, while some the sexy undulations first presented by Fosse linger on, the stylized presentation of its creator are in the past. This new contemporary take is undeniably Y2K. There is less unison dancing and more chaos. Even the pastoral "sex" ballet [as the script calls it] has been updated to suggest Pippin experiments not only with multiple female partners (as in the original) but also with illicit drug use and male lovers -- no doubt, a shock to Pippin purists and to the Paper Mill Playhouse's more conservative subscription base.

Derided by some critics as "crude," "lewd" or "tacky," Ashford's choreography is undeniably in-your-face sexual. During the first couple nights of previews, Ashford said, Paper Mill Executive Producer Angelo Del Rossi called him into his office to discuss audience reaction.

"We had a lot of people concerned with the sex dance in particular. [Del Rossi] said there were a lot of uncomfortable people [in the audience]. How to deal with that was a challenge. Was [the ballet] too much? Was it not?"

Ultimately Ashford decided that he had to "disregard" this particular audience reaction.

"Neither one of us would want to see it if I choreographed it for their audience… Instead, I decided I had to be true to my own imagination," Ashford said. "But I streamlined the number and made it shorter, to make audiences less upset. But I didn't make it different. I didn't soften it.

"The idea was not to shock. The idea was to show in this section Pippin's journey. I thought it was an important section, but I could not to give it too much weight. It was only one part of Pippin's story, but it usually raises more eyebrows."

He also concedes that the dancers themselves are raising more than a few eyebrows (and dropping jaws, too).

"I think we have a great cast and some wonderful dancers," he says, adding that they could sell sex without making his moves. "That's how compelling these people are, and that's what we wanted. You look at a Calvin Klein ad or a Gucci ad and you are drawn to them. And that was the idea about their mystique. Pippin chooses to go with this group because they couldn't look cooler or hipper and that's what we try to show."

But with Pippin now halfway through its run (it closes July 23), Ashford is now returning to his collaborative work with Kathleen Marshall on the highly-anticipated musical Seussical, by the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime). Ashford and Marshall had worked on an earlier workshop of the show and will team up again when rehearsals resume July 10.

Although he admits that he would like to have an opportunity to go back over some of his Pippin choreography, it's unlikely he'll have the time. When Seussical is ready to open in Boston in August, Ashford is slated to begin work in La Jolla as choreographer on the stage version of the cult-film musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. With a new score by Jeanine Tessori and under the direction of Michael Mayer (You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Side Man), Millie is slated to open this fall on the west coast before coming to Broadway in 2001.

"We're just starting pre-production for Millie now. Peter Howard is doing the dance arrangements, and he's a legend in this business, so I'm thrilled to be working with him. And I'm really looking forward to working on the show in La Jolla, because when you're out of town you don't have as many distractions. You can really concentrate just on the show and devote your full attention to it."

Ashford concedes that shows don't often come around more different than Pippin and Thoroughly Modern Millie -- "but actually that's good. Before I did Pippin I did Tenderloin at Encores! and it's nice to have that variety. [Interestingly, both Tenderloin and Millie were originally choreographed by the legendary Joe Layton.]

With Millie, he says, "the music is very different, very period, very '20s." Although the show received its first reading last year, this will mark Ashford's first involvement with the show.

"The score is close to finished, but they're very willing to change it and work on anything that's going to affect the dance. We're trying to get a fuller dance take on the music," he says.

And unlike the film, in which musical numbers often seem inserted for no reason other than to have a musical number, Ashford says that in the new stage version all the dances grow organically from the characters and plot.

Although he doesn't have a particular preference for contemporary or period dance, Ashford says "it should be deeply rooted in the story; that helps me much more. I try to come from a dramatic standpoint of pushing the story along. Dance for dance sake is not my forte. I think that's much more of a challenge to use the dance in the actual storytelling of the show."

And as for Millie's plot -- a comic take on the white slave trade -- Ashford says the new book by Dick Scanlon "is a loose adaptation" of the campy, politically incorrect original.

"It's not horribly politically incorrect and it's not at all exact in any means, which is good. There are moments in the film that are quite fun, but others don't work. Dick Scanlon has done a brilliant job taking the original piece and expounding on it."

Between Pippin, Seussical and Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ashford had to think twice before he could answer what kind of show would be a dream project for him.

"I guess to create a new project with authors and a director from the very beginning. The idea of being in a room with a great director and a couple great authors and saying, 'What about a musical version of …[whatever]? How could we make that? Starting from the inception of a musical, that would be a joy."