Rob Ashford: ‘I never thought I could direct until Michael Grandage gave me the chance’
It was in London that Rob Ashford, a Broadway dancer turned choreographer, first got the opportunity to direct when Michael Grandage invited him to stage the British premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007. Ashford had been choreographer for Grandage’s Donmar co-produced revival of Guys and Dolls, staged direct into the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre in 2005, and subsequently Evita at the Adelphi Theatre the following year as well.
“I have to tell you that I never considered I could be anything more than a choreographer on my best day. But it was Michael who gave me my first chance at directing a musical and then my first chance at plays [A Streetcar Named Desire starring Rachel Weisz and then Anna Christie with Jude Law], all under Michael’s watch and by his hand. Thank God for Mr Grandage. I’m so thankful for my time working with him at the Donmar.”
It certainly propelled Ashford’s career in a different direction, and a rapidly ascendant one. Now he’s one of Broadway’s pre-eminent director/choreographers, joining other big names who have embraced both disciplines including Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, and latterly Casey Nicholaw and Jerry Mitchell. In the years since those early Donmar opportunities, Ashford has returned to Broadway, doing double directing and choreographic duties on star revivals of the classic musicals Promises, Promises (in 2010, with Kristin Chenoweth) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (in 2011 with Daniel Radcliffe), as well as directing Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (in 2012/13).
But he has been equally busy and prolific here in the UK, where he co-directed the London transfer of Broadway’s Shrek to Drury Lane in 2011. He also directed and choreographed the original production of Finding Neverland at Leicester Curve in 2012, before it was completely overhauled and he was replaced, along with the writers, for its current Broadway stand.
In 2013, he co-directed Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival with its star Kenneth Branagh, before taking it to New York’s Park Avenue Armory last year. He has already been announced to be teaming up with Branagh again to direct him in John Osborne’s The Entertainer as part of a season by Branagh’s own company at the Garrick, where he will also co-direct The Winter’s Tale and Rattigan’s Harlequinade, both with Branagh (who also stars in each).
But first, he’s in Chichester to direct and choreograph A Damsel in Distress, another in the catalogue of rewrites around the Gershwin back catalogue. How did he come to be involved?
“About three years ago, Jonathan Church sent me the script, and asked if it was something that might interest me. I get a few scripts for new musicals across my desk, but this one stood above the rest. It has such joy in it, and reminded me of two of my favourite shows I’ve ever been in as a performer – Crazy for You and Me and My Girl. I loved doing those shows, for their right combination of joy and fun along with their cleverness. So I suggested we did a reading, to see what it feels and sounds like, and met Jeremy Sams [who co-adapted it with Robert Hudson from PG Wodehouse’s novel and a play by Wodehouse and Ian Hay] and I could see a lot of potential in it.”
He duly signed up. The show is based on a 1937 film that starred Fred Astaire, but has never been adapted for the stage successfully before.
“There was an attempt at some point to put it on stage, but nothing that had any legs. So this feels like a brand new musical, and it has the effort and energy and excitement of a new musical as well. We have some of the songs the Gershwins wrote for the film, but we’re also using others from the expansive Gershwin catalogue: half of the songs are ones that everyone knows and loves, but half are ones that no one has ever heard of, like The Jolly Tar and the Milkmaid, so I hope there’ll be the fun of discovery as well.”
He adds: “I’ve done musicals like The Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby as choreographer, but as far as one that’s gotten on stage and come to fruition, this is the first where I’ve come in from the beginning, rather than halfway through as I did with Shrek.”
He joined the latter only after its original Broadway production had happened and he came on-board for a US tour and its subsequent West End premiere.
Ashford has been intimately involved in A Damsel in Distress’ development – “It has had a couple of readings in London, and we’ve worked in between each of them too” – and its current and crucial reshaping during rehearsal. “No matter what it’s like on the page, you put it on the stage and it’s different. Sometimes we need to say less and sometimes more. We’ve cut quite a bit, which is only good in the long run.”
The show resonates for him on a personal level. “This show is about a couple of Americans among a bunch of Brits. The two worlds coming together is fun – and that’s what’s been happening to me over the last few years that I’ve loved so much. It has a special place because that reflects my own life.”
He points out that musicals, although cut from the same cloth, are cut slightly differently over here: “I just find such joy in the way that both view the idea of a musical. Truth and energy are maybe more suited to Broadway, whereas here there’s a cleverness and literary type of writing that’s different. This is musical comedy or a play with music, and we don’t just have 10 sentences to get us to the next song, which some new musicals can be guilty of, especially when they have great songs as we do.”
He applauds co-writer Sams as “a theatrical chemist”, and says: “He and Robbie [Hudson, his writing partner] have taken the initial idea by these two amazingly brilliant men, Gershwin and Wodehouse, and have opened it up and completed it by giving it a modern energy underneath.”
The show is set, he tells me, in a “big English country house that they’re being forced to have tourists come and traipse through to keep it afloat because of a lack of funding”. That makes it sound a little like a cross between Me and My Girl and Alan Bennett’s recent play People, and Ashford notes of the comparison to the former: “That was part of the appeal, but it’s a little different.”
So how is working down in Chichester as opposed to the West End or Broadway? “It’s lovely down here, and it has a really nice creative energy. The cast are bringing their bikes instead of fighting on the tube to get to rehearsals, and they’re really present in the room now, which is the perfect time when everything is really coming together and we’re trying to tie up loose ends and understand the tempo and the pacing of it. So it’s nice to be away from the energy and distractions of the big city.”
This is the start, too, of an extended period in the UK for Ashford, as he goes direct from this to working again with Branagh, after their Manchester and New York success with Macbeth. Discussions are being held at the moment about making a film of it next, which Ashford will be part of it that happens. “We’d love for it to have another life of some kind,” he says. “In both places, we felt we just got started. The church in Manchester and the Armory in New York were quite different, and this take on the play and the cast were both sturdy enough to try it another way. So it would be thrilling to try it again.”
It was while they were in Manchester two summers ago that the seeds were first planted for the Branagh West End initiative. “I asked him when we were there if he’d ever thought of doing Osborne’s The Entertainer. It’s a play I loved and thought I understood, and I thought Ken would be perfect in it.”
Subsequent to Macbeth, Branagh asked Ashford to join him to choreograph the ball in the film version he was making of Cinderella. “I had an amazing time working on it and was very proud of it and so happy for its success, and I was pleased that Ken trusted me to create something more than a bit of atmosphere. And when the idea of this season was being developed, he asked me to come on-board as artistic associate to help plan the whole thing and be around as part of it.”
He provides more than another set of eyes to Branagh’s own performances. “Believe me, he’s not the guy who just does his own thing and wants me to tell him if he’s out of his light. That’s not who he is. He wants to work, to be great and to make it great. What a joy it is that I get to work with and help create a performance with such a fine actor.”
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