Considering that Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford began dancing at 20, making a leap shouldn’t be too tough. But the leap he’s currently undertaking is different. After multiple Broadway and London stints as either dancer or choreographer, he’s moving into the land of the hyphenate: Ashford’s now a director-choreographer.
In rehearsals for his Donmar Warehouse production of the Jason Robert Brown/Hal Prince tuner “Parade,” Ashford is surprisingly sanguine.
“I never anticipated or wanted it, but having it unfold in the way it did means it hasn’t been as scary as I thought.”
This specific offer to direct came via collaborations with Donmar a.d. Michael Grandage, whose productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “Evita” Ashford choreographed, scooping Olivier nominations for both.
“When you get to work with great directors like Michael Grandage and Mark Brokaw, then you get to see how all the elements of a piece can work together as one,” Ashford says. “Michael told me, ‘You direct in dance: You direct them as actors through dance. But there’s no reason you have to have music playing.’ ”
Spurred on by such encouragement, he chose his debut project carefully.
He points out the old adage that writers should write what they know. Not only does he know its American South location — he’s from West Virginia — he is more than conversant with the material.
Ashford appeared in Prince’s Toronto world preem and at Lincoln Center, and he was the assistant choreographer and dance captain. If that suggests someone playing it safe and replicating a staging, think again.
London and New York’s venues couldn’t be more different. At Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, the show seated 1,080 people; the thrust-stage Donmar seats just 250. That reduced scale has wrought major changes.
The company of 35 actors and 21 musicians is now 15 actors and nine musicians.
“Before it felt like an epic musical. I think it plays better on a more intimate scale,” argues Ashford, pointing to greater clarity in the storytelling, about a man wrongfully convicted of a young girl’s murder.
“We have to make sure British audiences understand, for example, what Dixie is. We all have information to bring to that. Here that’s not so.”
Part of his delight in re-imagining the material stems from his fellow creatives’ flexibility.
“This piece works, for want of a better term, in a very cinematic way — scenes overlap. At the Donmar, it’s a unit set with no major changes so the flow is crucial, which comes down to Christopher Oram’s design, Neil Austin’s lighting and myself. Jason Robert Brown has been great about new scoring and transitions that suit us.”
The one thing he’s certain he’s not doing is developing a particular style. “I just try to serve characters in dramatic situations, asking actors to present movement it would be feasible for their character to make.”
He adds, “Good choreography is not self-serving. It’s about moving the play along and creating appropriate moves.”
As soon as “Parade” opens Sept. 24, directing goes on hold. He’s off to the La Jolla Playhouse to choreograph Brokaw’s production “Cry-Baby.” The tuner adaptation of the 1990 John Waters pic is skedded for Broadway in next spring, followed by tuners “Ever After,” helmed by Doug Hughes, and “Leap of Faith,” helmed by Taylor Hackford.
But directing is still on the agenda, which includes a reconception of “Brigadoon.”The first workshop won’t happen until January, but he already has a vision: No more ballerinas in kilts and ribbons.
“It’s going to be something stronger, more Celtic. The workshop is really about discovering the movement, the sound and the storytelling possibilities, right through to the chorus work.”
Yes, he’s definitely a director.