Few people have worked with as many celebrities as Rob Ashford, and even fewer have gotten A-listers to shake what their mamas gave him as often as he has. The dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-theater director — who has Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, doing jazz hands in Broadway’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, opening March 27 — has taught the toughest of dance moves (tango, anyone?) to everyone from musical theater vets like Hugh Jackman to reluctant hoofers like Ewan McGregor. He helped Anne Hathaway shimmy through a Lancôme commercial (“she’s quite a dancer,” he says), and gave Kevin Spacey midnight strutting lessons (“we ended up pushing him to his limits”) for his Bobby Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea.
Now a 20-plus year Broadway veteran and Tony winner, Ashford is also an associate director at London’s Donmar Warehouse, where he staged Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire and will direct Jude Law in Anna Christie this summer. He’s a talented, busy guy, but he took some time off while prepping How to Succeed to chat with EW about a few of the gifted stars in his orbit — past and future.
Moulin Rouge’s McGregor had done musicals before, but nothing quite so dance-heavy, or live, as the 2005 London production of Guys and Dolls. He also didn’t consider himself much of a mover, remembers Ashford. “We had this huge, huge tango in the Havana number that he had to learn and at first he was like “Oh, my God. Are you serious? You want me to do all of that?” But he was brilliant — he could handle all of it.”
David Hyde Pierce
“David wanted to dance so badly,” Ashford says of the Fraiser alum, who played a detective in Broadway’s backstage murder mystery Curtains in 2007. “I think that he thought a big production number centered about him would be out. So we made a really special comedy dance for him. But you know what? To do good comedy dancing, you have to dance well. And, of course, he was brilliant. Actors are all humble in that way — a lot of people think dance is for the extraordinary, that it’s not for the normal.”
Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé Knowles
Ashford scored an Emmy for choreographing the pair’s song-and-dance dedication to musicals from the 2009 Oscars. “They’re both so talented, and they’re such hard workers,” he says. “It was such a treat. Are you kidding? To get to choreograph for Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé — that was probably one of my biggest pinch me moments, I have to say.”
Critics were doubtful when Weisz signed on as Blanche DuBois in London’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 2009, claiming she was too inexperienced a stage actress and too young to take on a role that had tripped up Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, and Natasha Richardson before her (and that basically belonged to Vivien Leigh). But they wrote their reviews with their tails between their legs. “So many people who saw the play commented that they felt like they’ve never seen it before,” says Ashford. “And that’s a lot due to her portrayal. She actually got all those other women out of your mind. She’s such a fine actress and a great collaborator. I learned so much from her.”
Ashford knew when he read Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie that he wanted Jude Law be his star when he stages at the Donmar in June. “He was so great in Hamlet that I saw it three times. I’ve always appreciated O’Neill. Then I was reading the play and I thought, ‘Jude will be amazing in this.”
The Grammy-winning pop star will take on the roll of Che for the Ashford-choreographed Broadway revival of Evita on tap for 2012. “I can’t wait. That’s going to be be heaven. I have some thoughts already. We did the show already in London, but there were moments that I wished there was more of an opportunity [for dance] and he’s the guy who’s going to provide it. There’s no question.”
For tidbits on Ashford’s latest disciple Daniel Radcliffe and his dance moves in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly.