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Interview: 10 Questions for Rob Ashford | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: 10 Questions for Rob Ashford

Interview: 10 Questions for Rob Ashford

The American director-choreographer on moving between New York, London and - to stage Finding Neverland - Leicester

Rob Ashford has found a singular directing perch both sides of the pond Portraits by Pamela Raith

Rob Ashford occupies a unique perch in the Anglo-American theatre. Florida-born, raised in West Virginia and a product of Broadway, where he began as a dancer in shows including Parade, Victor/Victoria and the celebrated Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes, he some while back crossed to the other side of the footlights to build a career as a director/choreographer that has spanned the Atlantic.

It was Ashford who put Daniel Radcliffe through his fledgling musical theatre paces two seasons ago in the Broadway revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and he is currently represented in New York as the choreographer of Evita, directed by his friend and colleague Michael Grandage, and in London as co-director of Shrek the Musical, which continues until February at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

In recent years, Ashford has broadened his reach to take on board plays as well as musicals, and not exactly easy pickings either. He made his non-musical directing debut with the 2009 Donmar production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which earned Olivier Awards for both Rachel Weisz and Ruth Wilson, and returned to the Covent Garden playhouse in August, 2011, to revive O’Neill’s Anna Christie, starring Jude Law as the barrel-chested Irish stoker, Mat, (pictured below), which went on to win Olivier Awards for best revival and for Wilson’s starring performance in the title role. “She does say I’m her lucky charm,” says her proud director, who turns 53 in November. 

He can currently be found whizzing back and forth from London to Leicester to oversee the world premiere at the Curve Theatre of Finding Neverland, the debut musical theatre producing venture from the film impresario Harvey Weinstein, based on his 2004 Miramax film about JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Julian Ovenden takes the part for which Johnny Depp was nominated for an Oscar; fresh from appearing in Ragtime in Regent’s Park, Rosalie Craig inherits Kate Winslet’s screen role as the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, mother of the boys who were to prove so crucial an inspiration to Barrie’s literary career.

But while he juggles a newborn musical – always a demanding proposition – Ashford is preparing to have his keen non-musical eye tested for the first time in New York. Previews start at the end of the year for his Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Scarlett Johansson as Tennessee Williams’s eponymous “cat”. So it was no surprise to find Ashford one recent Friday afternoon en route to Heathrow for 48 hours of meetings and catch-ups in New York prior to returning to England, and Leicester, for technical rehearsals on Finding Neverland: “I have to go back and spin all my other plates,” he says, with reference to a flying visit that might give less frequent travellers pause. As for Johansson essaying a Williams mainstay some two years after the film star won a Tony for her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge? “I think she’s going to be spectacular and surprising,” Ashford says, and he remains hopeful that Law and Wilson can revisit their Anna Christie double-act for a New York audience, as well. Those ventures, Finding Neverland included, form part of an ever-evolving career now firmly rooted on both sides of the Atlantic, to cite just one of the topics on which the ever-amiable talent was happy to elaborate in conversation with theartsdesk.

As time’s gone on, I have found that I love both London and New York; they balance each other out

MATT WOLF: I can’t think of another American theatre director who has established such a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. Was that always your intention?


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ROB ASHFORD: It’s all a surprise and I can honestly say that it was never part of any master plan along the lines of, “Ah, then this will lead to that.” Of course as an American working in the theatre, London is always a dream and you think, “Well, maybe someday this show will go to London,” and I remember when I worked on Kiss of the Spider Woman, some of them saying, “We did it in London,” and people’s eyes would widen, like, “Wow, you got to work in London; that’s so cool!” So of course the dream when you do a Broadway show like Thoroughly Modern Millie and it wins a Tony is to think, “Maybe we’ll do it in London,” and that’s what happened. I came over and worked here and fell in love with the city and the people and the way people worked, and that was one thing. But we had already made Millie, so to speak, so to then get to work on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum [directed by Edward Hall in 2004], which was created by and for the National Theatre, was a different thing in that we were actually making the piece here: it was a different animal and I really enjoyed the challenge. As time’s gone on, I have found that I love both [the London and New York theatre worlds] and I feel so blessed; they balance each other out.

It’s often said, perhaps crudely, that London theatre focuses on art whereas the New York theatre is all about commerce. What are your thoughts on that?

I do think there is some truth to that, and there is certainly more pressure at home financially. But we’re also talking about a show in New York costing twice as much, or more, to put on than it does in London, so you have to factor that in, as well, and consider what it costs to take a chance in that environment; you can’t not consider that aspect. You can understand why an American producer would be more concerned about the bottom line when the costs are that much greater.

And here you are collaborating with a film mogul, Harvey Weinstein, on his company’s first venture as lead producer.

Yes and that’s been interesting and of course you wonder what that’s going to be; you can’t help but wonder. But you know what [Weinstein] really is? He’s not a film or theatre man; he’s a story man – a man who knows how to tell stories – and God knows we need those in both mediums. That’s why this has been a great collaboration for me because he understands story. The Harvey note is never “I don’t like that dance step” or “I don’t like those dresses”; it’s all about the story, always, and for me it’s invaluable and rare to have a producer of a new musical who can speak to that in a detailed way the way that Harvey can. He’s very respectful of me and my knowledge of how to put on a show and he wants me to do my thing. He’s around a lot, which I’m really thrilled about, and he knows how to listen; he doesn’t question.

Still, it may be surprising to musical theatre devotees to find this show taking shape in the English regions as opposed to any of the half-dozen or so American cities where musicals often try out.

I know, and there was talk of doing this first in La Jolla [California]. But it was my idea to do it at a regional theatre in England for the basic reason that this is a British story and I thought, let’s go to the source; let’s have a cast around who understand and know the time and place and period and all that. At first we didn’t know where that theatre would be. I asked Grandage and some of the folks I know in London, and we drew up a handful of places and looked at them all. There was unanimous agreement about Leicester not least because [the Curve] is a state-of-the-art amazing theatre but also because it’s an hour from London on the train, which was important. Harvey is a busy man with a lot of irons in the fire and we wanted him with us as much as possible, which we could do because the theatre is very, very close to London. But the main thing is that it’s a great place to put on a new musical – or a musical period. 

Here in London, everyone is open-minded and there are fewer categories. Look at the Olivier Awards

There was talk of Gwyneth Paltrow playing the female lead, which I suppose was inevitable given her close association with Harvey Weinstein, not least on Shakespeare in Love.

I imagine that’s why her name hit the press. But I can tell you that we never talked with her or explored that option; I admire Gwyneth and think she’s talented but for her sake I don’t want anyone to think that we ever met with her for this show or sent anything to her. As you know, when you start shows, you have all these lists that are required reading - the movie star list, the theatre star list, the American theatre star list – so there are always named bandied about. 

It’s interesting that your next project after this is your non-musical directing debut on Broadway. Is that something you feel you owe to having been given the chance to direct plays in London?

Absolutely; I think I owe all of [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] to London and my work at the Donmar and to being given the chance to gain in confidence and practice and to be guided by someone like Michael [Grandage] in a place that feels a bit protected and has only 250 seats. I know that you’re still exposed at the Donmar and of course everyone comes to see their work, but there’s something about starting there and having that kind of guidance and support that was instrumental to the confidence to keep at it and to keep pushing and to keep challenging yourself.

Not to mention the fact that London could perhaps be said to pigeonhole directors less strongly. People like Trevor Nunn, Sam Mendes, and, indeed, Grandage move all the time between musicals and plays.

I don’t think that diversity of work is impenetrable in New York but it may just be that people in London appreciate your ability to do something and they want to offer you that possibility all the time. Here in London, everyone is open-minded and there are fewer categories. Look at the Olivier Awards which offer an award for direction that puts musicals and plays together: it’s the Olivier for direction, not for director of a play or of a musical, and that’s the mentality. At home, we tend to be more specialised in a way that I don’t feel we need to be, and I think that’s too bad. It’s great to be able to give people opportunity, and I’m so thankful that London thinks the way it does. (Pictured below: Ashford flanked by his two Finding Neverland leads, Julian Ovenden and Rosalie Craig.)

Rob Ashford flanked by his two starsYou also seem to have a gift for casting actors outside their perceived comfort zone – Daniel Radcliffe and Bertie Carvel in their first musicals, or Jude Law giving the performance of his career in Anna Christie

For me it’s about the essence of the character, not the stereotype of the actor. I knew Jude could give that performance and that he wanted to and was willing to: it’s all about getting to the core – the heart - and working from there, as opposed to putting these plays, and characters, on pedestals; I’m a big fan of taking theatre off the plinth. You mention Bertie in Parade [the 2007 Donmar musical that marked Ashford’s directing debut], and, you know, I don’t think he thought of himself as a singer or not. What he was in that room was [the character of] Leo Frank, and that’s what counts. Bertie sings well - better than well – and with confidence, he got better and better, but it’s the character that we’re looking for, always.

You thought originally about being a lawyer but gave that up to study dance. Did you advance sufficiently far down the legal path that you now have no trouble reading contracts?

Sadly not, and I sometimes find with the contracts and the legalese that they’ll call me and I’m like, “Oh my God, what does all this mean?” [Laughs] Unfortunately, I didn’t get far enough, though my two years of pre-law were helpful when it comes to researching skills, and I am so thankful for that. But I left [Virginia-based university] Washington and Lee after two years to go to Point Park in Pittsburgh as a dance major because there was no dance in the town or college where I had been before.

What was your parents’ reaction?

They said, “Whatever will make you happy”. I know they had worries but they supported me literally and figuratively through all that time. My father was a school teacher and principal and what I learned from him was the greatest gift of all which is patience. I’m the oldest of three brothers, and my father had such patience with the schoolchildren all day long and with us at home. That’s a great gift for a parent or for anyone to have, and I like to think that it has served me well to this day.

Watch the trailer for the 2004 film Finding Neverland

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