The Charleston met The Nutcracker in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and the man behind the movement in the 2002 Tony Award winning musical was 42-year-old Rob Ashford. If the public at large had never heard of him, that's because Millie was his Broadway debut as a choreographer, and no one was more stunned than Ashford himself that he beat out Susan Stroman for the Best Choreography Tony this spring. It wasn't that long ago that he had been dancing Stroman's steps as a gypsy in Crazy for You. Ashford is now choreographing Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of The Boys From Syracuse, dawning at the American Airlines Theatre. He told Playbill On-Line he likes using different styles — different "muscles" — for different shows. There is no tap in Syracuse, he suggests, in part, because there was a major tap number in Millie. Why repeat so soon? Ashford talked to PBOL's Kenneth Jones about West Virginia roots, starting late as a dancer and having a prime death scene in the regional outdoor musical drama, Hatfields and McCoys.
Playbill On-Line: Are you still high from the Tony Award win?
Rob Ashford: You know what? I have to say, honestly, I am. It's still such an unbelievable thing to me. I am still floating from it.
PBOL: It's your first Broadway choreography credit. I remember seeing you on TV that night, and you looked so — shocked.
RA: Of course! Competing against Susan Stroman and Oklahoma! — the combination of those two. The dance drives that show so much and it's so well done. I loved it — I loooved Susan's choreography in the show. I was actually fine with that, with her winning; it felt to be the appropriate and inevitable thing. So, it was a really nice surprise to get that acknowledgement from those folks.
PBOL: Do you still have friends and family in West Virginia?
RA: I do. I have a lot of cousins and aunts and uncles..and friends from high school. My parents moved to Florida when I went away to college.
RA: I don't know if they were actually watching. I've gotten a lot of letters and notes and e-mails from people in Beckley, but it's not a theatre town — Beckley, West Virginia. It's in southern West Virginia, almost on the border of Virginia. It's a little coal-mining town. One of my dancers in Millie, her boyfriend is in West Virginia this summer working at an outdoor musical drama, Hatfields and McCoys, in Beckley.
PBOL: You said Beckley wasn't a theatre town! There's a big outdoor regional drama called Hatfields and McCoys?
RA: Two shows run in rep: One is Hatfields and McCoys — it's a musical retelling of the family feud. The other is Honey in the Rock. That is basically a Civil War drama that talks about the birth of West Virginia during the Civil War. It's in a big state park called Grandview State Park, and it's been a staple there for years, and I grew up on it. It's hugely popular. Seeing that show is what inspired me, really, to love theatre and want to be in theatre. It's non-Equity. I think we had two Equity guest artists a year to play the two leads in the show. The rest were local people from Beckley, also a lot of dancers from North Carolina School of the Arts. My senior year in high school, I wanted to be in those outdoor dramas, so I called the guy who ran them and said, "I wanna be in the shows." I wasn't a dancer then, and I wasn't really an actor. I was just someone from the high school who was in the plays. He hired me as an extra. I got paid $35 a week. I was one of the McCoy boys, and I had a nice death scene. I had one line in Honey in the Rock.
PBOL: How did you come to be a dancer?
RA: It's very odd. I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to be a lawyer. That was my plan. I was in their pre-law program. My advisor said, to be a trial lawyer you should either major in English or major in theatre. I said, "Theatre, definitely — not English." As I got involved in the theatre department, the theatre bug bit pretty hard. I went back to Hatfields and McCoys the following summer after my first year at school. This dance captain taught a movement class for actors — a basic ballet and movement class. I took it, and I really enjoyed it, and had some natural talent toward it. I went back to W&L for my second year and got even more involved in the theatre and went back to Hatfields and McCoys for my third season. That summer, one of the dancers canceled at the last minute and they came to me and said, "Do you wanna try this and see how you do?" I said, "Absolutely, I'll give it a go." It went pretty well, and I seemed to have the natural ability for it. The dance captain said, "You could be a dancer if you wanted to be." I was 20 at the time. I said, "I want to." She made a call to Point Park College in Pittsburgh, which has rally good dance department, which is where she graduated from.
PBOL: Age 20 is late for dancer, isn't it?
RA: It is. It's not impossible, though, especially for men. I was so determined to make it succeed that when I went there I concentrated solely on the dancing. The academics were all easy. The teachers were good, and they had a company associated with the school and they always needed men for Nutcracker, so they pushed, pushed, pushed me. I did classical, jazz, modern, tap. My background, I'm strongest in classical — in ballet and jazz. That's where my concentration was. I performed with a local ballet company after I graduated from Point Park for a year before I moved to New York.
PBOL: You previously told me A Chorus Line was one of the first musicals you saw, professionally.
RA: Yes. In Florida, a bus and truck tour came through and I was home for Christmas visiting my family. The very first musical I saw was a tour of Oklahoma! that came through Pittsburgh when I was there studying in my first year. I went to see it at the Stanley Theatre — it's now the Benedum. Seeing that show on such a large scale really, really made me think, "I love the way dance fits into a musical." Then, that Christmas, I saw A Chorus Line in Florida. I really thought I would be in a ballet company, and then I did summer stock in Pittsburgh, at CLO. And you do six musicals in one summer and you get to explore all of those different shows and music and dancing and periods. I was hooked!
PBOL: Pittsburgh is Rob and Kathleen Marshall's stomping ground.
RA: It is! Kathleen and I performed together. We actually moved to New York together. We were gypsies together in CLO.
PBOL: She trusted you and you would later be her assistant on shows for Encores! and Broadway work.
RA: I assisted her on Kiss Me, Kate [on Broadway] and Babes in Arms at Encores! and Seussical and Ring 'Round the Moon, for Lincoln Center. I assisted Kathleen for about a year and a half. I learned so much from her. I tell you, that was great, great learning experience.
PBOL: What are some of your favorite shows?
RA: I did Chorus Line. I love that show because of the story of the gypsies. I was Paul, Kathleen was Val, Lenora Nemetz was Cassie. That was at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. I also did the show in Lake Tahoe; Kathleen played Val again. One of my first shows when I came to New York was a tour of Pippin directed by Ben Vereen and starring Ben Vereen. And Kathryn Doby re-set the original Fosse choreography. We did this in summer stock then went into a fall tour.We wore the original costumes. It was just unbelievable, for that to be my first job.We'd done that show at CLO, and also at Washington and Lee — that was the one musical they did. I was in that. I also choreographed it at Paper Mill. It was one of my first choreography jobs. Pippin's always had a special place.
PBOL: One day you'll choreograph and direct it.
RA: Yeah, I would like to.
PBOL: What I always loved about the score to The Boys From Syracuse is that it's so anachronistic: It's not trying to be ancient Rome, whatever that may have sounded like.
RA: Totally. That's part of the joy, when you try to figure out what to do with the show. It's late '30s- '40s kind of music, and you want to have a modern energy to it, with a little ancient Rome thrown in.
PBOL: What are the dance flavors in it?
RA: The great thing about working with such an established score is that it takes a little bit of the onus off of me and my dance arranger, David Krane, trying to figure out what to do. In this score, you know what the big numbers are — so you don't have to worry about reinventing this great score. It's about trying to have a little fun with what's there on the page.
PBOL: So, "Falling in Love With Love" is not going to be a tap dance...
RA: "Falling in Love With Love" is not going to be a tap dance. [Laughs.] You can quote me on that. Actually, there's no tapping at all in Boys From Syracuse.
PBOL: I would guess you would want to play with all kinds of styles in your career — varying your work from project to project, I mean. I'm thinking ahead to something intimate like the new musical, Marty, which you'll do this fall at Huntington Theatre Company. It must be nice to go from '30s jazz to that...
RA: It's a joy to exercise all the muscles. I love Millie and all the work we did on that; I love the tap dancing secretaries! I'm glad there's no tap in Boys From Syracuse. The same with Marty. Talk about the storytelling muscles, the simplicity muscles: Taking what movement you have and giving it a stamp and making it pivotal to the story. In all my meetings so far with [director] Mark Brokaw, he's a genius at knowing when and how that fits in. I'm looking forward to that collaboration. These are three very different shows in a row.
PBOL: In terms of you being a director in the future, do you feel like you're still paying your dues and learning things?
RA: Absolutely! I'm learning so much and I hope that someday I will be good enough at the choreography and full enough in that, so I feel I can open myself up to yet that other responsibility — of the overall picture. I aspire to that, and know that some day I will venture down that road. Right now, I'm satisfied, completely, choreographing.