Rob Ashford divides his time between Broadway and London, with Tony and Olivier nods in abundance for his flourishing trans-Atlantic career, and a 2002 Tony for Thoroughly Modern Millie, the musical that first brought him to the West End. These days, the affable southerner can be found ensconced in the Midlands city of Leicester, an hour north of London, as director and choreographer of Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 film. Featuring a score by the Grey Gardens team of Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, the new musical begins performances on September 22 starring Julian Ovenden as Peter Pan creator JM Barrie, the role filled on screen by Johnny Depp. Broadway.com caught up with Ashford, 52, on his way to Heathrow Airport to talk about his theatrical juggling act as well as a dazzling resume of colleagues that includes Kristin Chenoweth, Daniel Radcliffe and Patti LuPone.
For some years you have worked regularly in the U.K. as well as the U.S. Do you ever worry about having divided loyalties?
[Laughs] The way it actually feels is that the world somehow just gets smaller and smaller. All my close London friends seem to be working in America and, of course, I have my American associates with me in London. I feel lucky to be a part of that; it’s something I think should happen even more. There is so much to be learned from both places and both approaches that I just wish it was possible for everyone to go back and forth, actors and dancers included. I like what Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes were doing with their Bridge Project [an Anglo-American touring troupe]. We need bridges between the two cultures and more movement of that sort.
And yet I bet you didn’t think you’d be working in an English regional theater, the Curve, on a show [Finding Neverland] that was supposed to try out in La Jolla, California.
You’re absolutely right. But we’ve always wanted to be truthful to this story, and we found when we were doing readings in New York that the occasional Brit would come by and tell us, for instance, it’s the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, not the Drury Lane. Things like that. It became apparent to me that we were doing an American take on the story of J.M. Barrie and the inspiration behind him writing Peter Pan, but it wasn’t truthful, and I guess I thought, why not go to the source? Let’s have a cast who know the time and the place and the period and all that.
So here you are, preparing to open in Leicester, presumably en route to somewhere else.
Doing a new show out of town is invaluable before you get to the bright lights and harsh eyes of New York and London. Of course we have bigger dreams for the piece: It’s too good a play to let it die here. But at the same time, we’re waiting to see what people say—waiting to see what we say—before we go the next step. It’s important that we get the piece up on its feet and see where we are, and that we make it not something shoddy or cheap but a show that’s first-class and first-rate for Leicester and, we hope, beyond.
Why did you think that Finding Neverland could sing on stage?
Well, there’s partly the aspect of imagination and inspiration, which allows for great use of music. And just in terms of the material, it’s easier in a musical for a pirate galleon to suddenly appear in the middle of Mayfair. There’s something, too, about musicalizing flights of the imagination so that you conjure these various worlds while making room for the intimate, as well. The guys [Scott Frankel and Michael Korie] have written a new song, “In the Blink of an Eye,” that J.M. Barrie and Sylvia Lewelyn Davies [the young widow whom Barrie befriends] sing to each other before they go to Neverland. I don’t know that this show could have had that three years ago when we started. Suddenly a song is born that is so inevitable and at the right time and place in the creation of the musical.
It’s interesting how ubiquitous Barrie and Peter Pan remain in the culture, from the original 1904 play to the 1954 musical to Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway now.
I actually saw the play here in London several summers ago in the park [Kensington Gardens]. The summer before I moved to New York in 1987, I was in the musical with Cathy Rigby at the Pittsburgh CLO. But I think our story is different yet again; each of these has a separate tale to tell.
You mention moving to New York, where you quickly got work in the chorus of Anything Goes, starring Patti LuPone. Does Patti remember you from back then?
She absolutely does; she mentioned me in her book! She talked about what an unprofessional lot were in the chorus on that show, and she’s not wrong, but she also said that there was this handful of true professionals that she had the pleasure of working with, and I was one of them! That was my first Broadway show. I had never been a swing before, and Patti always went out of her way to compliment me on a job well done in front of other company members. And when she has seen Millie, or anything else, she’s always sent me a note; she’s lovely.
Talk of Patti brings us to Evita, which you choreographed for the current Broadway revival. Were you surprised at the harshness of some of the New York reviews, given the raves in London?
There are so many sides to this question. Listen, Patti is and was phenomenal, and maybe that event is hard for people to get over. The original production was brilliant—just revolutionary—but what we did was different: a more authentic production and something that tried to speak to Eva the woman as well as Eva the diva. It’s interesting to me that in London, it didn’t take anything away from Elaine Paige that Elena [Roger] did a very moving portrayal. But somehow, in New York, it was as if there wasn’t a lot of flexibility in people’s minds about the possibility of reinvention in any way. So, yes, it did surprise me. By way of comparison, I thought Derek Jacobi was the most brilliant Lear, but when I see the play again, I don’t want to see someone else playing it like Derek Jacobi!
Have you been in touch with Kristin Chenoweth since her accident?
Yes, she’s fine. That was quite a scary thing, but she’s good. There, too, I think it’s hard sometimes in New York to escape being pigeonholed. Kristin often plays the sidekick goofy girl, so when we did Promises, Promises, I thought, “Why can’t you do a broken woman?” And she was amazing.
Any chance of bringing Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed to his home city, London?
Well, he has done [the show], you know? Listen, we would love it if that were to happen, but he’s a busy young man, and he’s at the beginning of an extraordinary career. So I guess I feel, from his point of view, why not keep going forward? How to Succeed was fun because we had three guys from such totally different points of view: Darren [Criss] came along with a completely different take and was terrific, and Nick Jonas the same.
Once Finding Neverland is up, you dash back to New York to make your American non-musical directing debut on Broadway with Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Yes, we preview at the end of the year and open in January, and we’ll be announcing the rest of the cast very soon. I saw Scarlett in A View From the Bridge and thought she did a superb job. What was impressive to me was the economy of her performance. She was so thrillingly simple and powerful in the part. I’m thrilled that Stuart Thompson, who is producing the show, believes in me and has seen the work and believes I can do this. I am so excited, I really am!