AT HOME IN TANGIER. Rob Ashford is an American stage director and choreographer. He is a Tony Award, Olivier Award, Emmy Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award winner.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Rob Ashford, today we are in Tangier, Morocco, but you were born in America? 

I was born in Orlando, Florida, in 1959. When I was one, my parents moved to Beckley, a small town in West Virginia and a coal mining centre of that Appalachian area. I grew up there, and my dad was an elementary school teacher and my mother worked for the government. To be financially okay in the future the plan was for me to be a lawyer, and I went to Washington and Lee university on a scholarship that I was very fortunate to get, thanks to my mother. One day a Senator from West Virginia, Robert C. Byrd, was visiting the mining academy where she worked and my mother boldly went up to him and said, “My son wants to be a lawyer. Where should he go to school?” Senator Byrd said, “Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, has a great law school, and they have one scholarship per year to a student from West Virginia.” Senator Byrd wrote a recommendation for me, so I did get that scholarship. When I arrived my advisor said that to be a good trial lawyer you need to major in English or theatre. I chose theatre – and I fell in love. As many people in this world will tell you, once that bug bites you, you’re done for!

Were your family disappointed?

I have a lovely supportive family, which is very helpful, but they were nervous at first. When I moved to New York trying to be a dancer on Broadway my dad would say things like, you would have had your practice for two years now, you would already be trying cases in court. But my two younger brothers thought it was thrilling and fun. My youngest brother, ten years younger than I am, is a tennis pro and a coach for star players traveling the world, so that’s not a normal job either.

“The actors come, and they all fall in love with Tangier, I promise you that.”

Rob Ashford

Rob Ashford: Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Tangier. This was our 4th Tangier play and our first musical. The stage was built over the pool in Veere Grenney’s garden on the Old Mountain overlooking the Straight of Gibraltar. The photo is of Tony Goldwyn as Frederick and Christine Ebersole as Desiree singing “Send In The Clowns”.

Rob Ashford, you went to New York and shared an apartment with Kathleen Marshall, the sister of the choreographer Rob Marshall who directed the film Chicago?

I danced in Broadway shows for 20 years. I was a gypsy, traveling from show to show. I was very lucky in my career. I started at Lincoln Center in Anything Goes starring Patti LuPone. It was a huge hit, all the stars came to see it, and we did the Tony Awards and all those wonderful things. Then I did another show at Lincoln Center: Victor Victoria with Julie Andrews. As a dancer, I got to work with Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli.

How was it to work with Liza Minnelli?

I loved working with her. The way Liza Minnelli learns the choreography is she sits in the front by the mirror and watches you do it. And you do it over and over and over and over. She doesn’t stand up and try it. Most people try to get it in their body and stand beside or behind you when you’re teaching. She sits at the mirror, and watches you do it over, over, over, over, over. And then she gets up – and she can do it!

Was it when Rob Marshall sent you to Buenos Aires for Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1999 that you became a choreographer?

That was the first time I was on the other side of the table, and the first time I understood the thrill of trying to communicate through dance and teach someone what each movement meant. A good choreographer teaches the actors and the dancers why they’re doing what they’re doing; and I thought it would be thrilling to do this and not be a performer.

You performed and were the assistant choreographer, swing, and dance captain in Parade at the Lincoln Center.

When Parade finished, I went to the director Harold Prince and said I’d like to be a choreographer, and he said, “Well, show me your voice, kid.” So, I got together a group of dancers that I knew, and we got in a space that someone loaned us, and I put together a dance and Hal came and saw it. From that moment on I felt that Hal had given me the blessing to be a choreographer.

And you also started working in London?

Broadway and London are a great combination, creatively and artistically. We did a production in London of the first Broadway show that I choreographed, Thoroughly Modern Millie. For four years I was an associate of Michael Grandage, who ran the Donmar Warehouse, and we did Parade at the Donmar and it went really well. Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry, the creators of it, came and rewrote things, and we figured out a different kind of version of the show. This is the version that just won the Tony on Broadway for Best Revival.

You began directing plays as well?

After Parade‘s success, Michael asked me to direct my first play, and we did Streetcar Named Desire. We were thinking, who’s going to play Blanche and I said it would be amazing to get someone like Rachel Weisz. Michael arranged it, so I got to do my first play with Rachel Weisz and Ruth Wilson; and it was Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar!

 

“There was blood and mud everywhere, and the audience just really loved it.”

Rob Ashford, do you find that the stars you work with have real passion for the job?  

There’s a reason that those stars are stars. They work so hard. They’re so dedicated. They’re so thrilled by it. On Broadway, I directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Scarlett Johansson, and she was amazing. She has the hugest movie career that anyone could have, but she wanted to do a play, and she wanted to do that play, and she dedicated herself to that for a great deal of time and lived it and was focused on it and was brilliant.

What about opera, which you have also directed?

The Barber of Seville (and Chicago) with the amazing Isabel Leonard, who was the star of it. I love opera. I love the combination of the acting, the music, the dance. The music rules everything. When I first moved to New York, after we closed Anything Goes I was in the corps de ballet at the Metropolitan Opera for a season, and I loved being in that world, in that building, on that stage with those amazing singers.

Is you working relationship with Kenneth Branagh very special?  

Our first thing together was Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival and it was a riveting production with the battles, and the whole stage was mud and rain, and he was an amazing Macbeth. We worked together hand-in-hand, and then we brought that production to the Park Avenue Armory in New York. We ran three or four weeks, a very short run. We had 1100 seats and you couldn’t get a ticket! There was blood and mud everywhere, and the audience just really loved it. We were worried at first because anyone who sat in the first five rows would definitely get blood or mud; and those are the expensive seats. But people called and said, “I’d like the bloody seats please.” Then Ken wanted to do a season of plays in London at the Garrick Theatre, and we started with Winter’s Tale with him and Judi Dench.

It seems you never worked with little actors?  

Why bother! Then we did Romeo and Juliet with Lily James, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, and with my good friend Marisa Berenson who came in and played Lady Capulet, Lily’s mother. It was fabulous, a beautiful production. And I directed Ken in The Entertainer, which was also a real thrill. He learned to tap dance for that and we did these wonderful vaudevillian routines he was so good at.

Do you have other projects with Ken Branagh?

I think we will always be creative together. When he directed the film of Cinderella for Disney he asked me to create the ball, which was so fun.

Have you also worked in television?

I did the Kennedy Center Honors, where every year five artists are honored for their contributions and then live tributes are created for each one of them. Hundreds of stars come and perform for free to salute the honorees. I got to do tributes for Andrew Lloyd Webber, Shirley MacLaine, Tom Hanks, Barbara Cook, Jerry Herman and Meryl Streep.

You have been awarded a Tony, an Emmy and an Olivier. Which was for what?  

The Tony was for choreography in Thoroughly Modern Millie, my first show, which is very helpful in a career. The Emmy was for the Oscars, when I worked with Baz Luhrmann on a big production number for Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé called The Musical Is Back. The Olivier was for Anna Christie with Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

Rob Ashford

Rob Ashford: Bizet’s Carmen, Houston Grand Opera, Houston. Ana Maria Martinez as Carmen. The production was designed by David Rockwell and was a Co-production with Chicago Lyric Opera.

Rob Ashford

Rob Ashford: Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, Tangier. This was our first Tangier play performed in the garden of Pierre Berge’s home Villa Leon l’Africain. The garden was designed by Madison Cox and inspired by Williams’ description of Sebastian’s garden in the play. Ruth Wilson as Catherine Holly and Tom Bateman as Dr Cukrowicz.

Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway 2002. Sutton Foster making her Broadway debut with the ensemble in the title song. This was my Broadway debut as a choreographer. The show won 6 Tony Awards including one for me, and Sutton Foster. It also won Best New Musical.

Rob Ashford

Rob Ashford: Eugene O’ Neill’s Anna Christie, Donmar Warehouse, London. Jude Law as Mat Burke and Ruth Wilson as Anna Christie. Both Ruth and the production won Olivier Awards.

Rob Ashford

Rob Ashford: Tennessee William’s Suddenly Last Summer, Tangier. Linda Lavin as Violet Venable, Summer Strallen as the Nurse. The terrace of Pierre Berge’s home, Villa Leon l’ Africain, Tangier. The cast also included Marisa Berenson as Mrs. Holly.

Rob Ashford

Rob Ashford: Macbeth in performance at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

“I was very lucky in my career. I am so happy. I could not be happier.”

Rob Ashford, when did you first come to Tangier?

Around 2012. The garden designer Madison Cox had asked me to come and do the commencement speech at the American School of Marrakesh, and Kevin and I rented a house in Tangier for a holiday before that. We brought friends from Madrid, New York, London, and all came together and spent a couple of weeks here. I was hooked from that moment on, and then the next year I was doing my first opera and my first Shakespeare and I wanted a place to come and study.

What is special about Tangier?

Everything. It’s where Tangier sits in the world: Africa and Europe, and the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, all meeting in this one point where we’re sitting right now.

A former headmaster at the American School of Tangier once a year used to put on a one-night-only performance. How come you decided to give that new life?

When I first came to Tangier I heard the legend of Joe McPhilips and what he did with very bold plays at the American School. All that ended when he passed, but Madison Cox and I thought it a shame for that tradition and lovely cultural moment for Tangier not to continue. I thought let’s not do it with students, let’s do it with proper actors. I’ll call in favors from friends of mine, and let’s see if we can revisit that idea of doing a special play for Tangier.

Always for just one night?  

One performance. Now we’ve done it six years and we still do the one night only, and we raise money for local charities that we’re very happy to support. We bring the actors here for a week. They stay in our house and we rehearse the play and do it on the Saturday, and then it’s finished. We don’t record it. We don’t do anything like that. The actors carry scripts just to take the pressure off of also learning all the lines. They do it for free. They come, and they all fall in love with Tangier, I promise you that. Our first play was Suddenly Last Summer with Ruth Wilson, Marisa Berenson, Tom Bateman and Linda Lavin, which we did in the garden at Villa Léon L’Africain.

What else did you do?  

We did After the Dance by Terence Rattigan in Veere Grenney’s living room, two weeks after he moved into his house, so he was very kind to let us bring actors and an audience. That had Natalie Dormer, Jessie Buckley, Phil Dunster, Greta Scacchi and James Norton; a wonderful cast. The next year we did Crucible, and we built a stage over Veere’s swimming pool because we needed more seats. We did The Crucible at the pool with Ken Branagh. Derek Jacobi, Alex Kingston. Marisa Berenson, and Bertie Carvel. That was such an exciting performance. It’s a pleasure to bring people to Tangier and introduce them to a place that I’ve fallen in love with.

What are your new projects?

The next thing I’m doing on stage is a new musical based on the John Berendt book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was a bestseller for many years in America. Clint Eastwood made it into a film with Kevin Spacey and Jude Law, and now we’re making it into a musical for the stage. I’m directing that, and we’re doing our out-of-town tryout in Chicago in June. Another thing coming up is a new play that is the origin story of the Sherlock Holmes character. I’m working on that with the amazing choreographer Akram Khan, because it’s going to have music and dance.

Anything else?

There are a couple of plays for New York, and a couple of plays for London. There’s a revival of a big musical on Broadway that I’m not allowed to say what it is yet. I’m working on a limited series for television based on the John Lahr book, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. This is all about the creation of Streetcar, the writing of it, the inspiration of it, all the way through to the original opening night at the Barrymore Theatre in New York.

What are you dream projects?

I would like to create theatre, dance or opera in places all over the world. Doing these plays in Tangier has opened that up to me. I want to go do a musical in an amphitheater in Greece. It’s about taking it to the world. I just want to keep doing what I do. Maybe that’s my dream: keep doing it. I still love watching big epics like Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, and a dream of mine would be to make a big epic like Lawrence of Arabia or a musical version of something like that.

Who are your legends?

I saw Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland dance together at the Met, and I was absolutely enthralled beyond belief. I never saw Nureyev dance, but I wish I would have. I had again my lucky streak when I was in Anything Goes on Broadway and had my first holiday in Italy. Chita Rivera had recommended going to Positano, and I met Zeffirelli, but I noticed from my little pensione they were building a stage on the beach and I wondered what was performing. I spoke no Italian but tried to communicate with the woman who ran the pensione, and she said “Saturday night. Saturday night.” Later she came up to me and she said, “For you!” A ticket for the Saturday night, for whatever was going to be on the beach. It was Carla Fracci – who was amazing. She did an Isadora Duncan piece on the beach. Her hair was blowing in the wind, white dress, barefoot, a red scarf, the waves lapping. I’ll never forget it.

Who are your legends in cinema direction?

So many. I am a huge Terrence Malick fan. Huge. I love his attention to detail. I love Baz Luhrmann’s theatricality, the way he uses music. His Romeo and Juliet was so beautiful. I love Ken’s work in the cinema. Belfast was amazing; this small black and white film about his childhood that he made during Covid. He did a spectacular job.

Which are your favorite musical films?  

Sound of Music. West Side Story because of the dancing. An American in Paris. Singing in the Rain. I love the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics of the musical theatre. Carousel is one of my favorite shows and I got to do that in the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2015. I love Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret.

You have the air of a happy man. Can we say you made the right choice in not becoming a lawyer? 

I am so happy. I could not be happier. I just want to keep doing it, but also keep growing in it. It’s not about reinventing myself again. It’s the same thoughts and talents, but to keep trying to be better and not repeating myself. I am getting clearer as a storyteller and as a collaborator, and especially working on new material. When you’re working with the writers to create, it’s a real challenge. It’s one thing for Shakespeare to hand you Winter’s Tale, but I love collaborating with the good theatre writers – and there’s not a lot of them – to help create the new musicals that may one day be classics as well.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

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