(March 2, 2007)

Dancing Up a Musical

This is the fifth installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Broadway choreographer Rob Ashford knows that collaboration takes many forms. There's the give-and-take of the rehearsal hall, where he has worked alongside some names you'd know.

There are production meetings, where a show first takes shape.

And there are moments like the one he recalled during a rehearsal break at "Curtains" - the musical comedy that started previews on Tuesday at the Al Hirshfeld Theatre. That collaborative moment started with a wish.

"The number we were just rehearsing - the end of Act I, the 'That-A-Way' saloon number - never existed," says Ashford. "I said 'I wish we had a big saloon-girl-cowboy number. I've always wanted to do one.' "

That's all composer John Kander needed to hear. Before long, he showed up with just such a song.

"He wrote a great, great number, a great tune," Ashford says. "It's been the easiest number to stage and get up and get inspired by and the first number that came together in every way because it was so perfect."

The kicker is that "That-A-Way" isn't just there to look pretty. It's a key point in the show - where one character steps up and makes everyone take notice.

What does it feel like to have John Kander - who wrote the music for "Cabaret" and "Chicago" - write a song you suggested?

"Pretty cool," says Ashford. "Like pinching-yourself kind of cool."

Ashford was associate choreographer to Kathleen Marshall on "Kiss Me, Kate," teaching Brian Stokes Mitchell to move across the stage.

"That's not hard. He's great," Ashford says.

He choreographed for Sutton Foster in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

"That's really, really not hard."

In "Curtains," his star is David Hyde Pierce.

"That's not hard, either," he says. "He's got the chops. I think everyone's going to be surprised, because David's dancing in the show is for real. It's not a parody. It's not a takeoff, not a wink-wink as-if-I-were-dancing-this. It's genuine and he genuinely delivers."

The dancing chops of Hyde Pierce - one of the stars of TV's "Frasier" and of Broadway's "Spamalot" - led Ashford to change one number in the backstage-murder-mystery.

The choreographer had plotted a fantasy-dance number, what he calls "the Fred and Ginger number," but realized he'd have to restage it to put the star's talents to better use.

"We just reinvented the whole thing because he's up to it," Ashford says. "He came in as a mover, now he's a dancer - and loves it and works so hard. I've never known anyone, I have to say, who you can describe something to ... with words and he can process it and then do it physically.

"Most people don't do that. Most people have to do it over and over, physically. He just stands, you explain - if you say the right things - and then, boom, he can do it. His brain is so geared toward the brain of a dancer that it makes it so easy to create for him."

Hyde Pierce plays Lt. Frank Cioffi, a Boston detective called in to investigate a murder at the out-of-town tryout of the Broadway-bound musical "Robbin' Hood." Cioffi, a theater buff, is determined to solve the crime and fix the show.

Ashford, who won the Tony for best choreography for "Millie" and who was nominated for "The Wedding Singer," has been involved in "Curtains" from the script's second reading. There's a reason for that.

"I want the dancing to feel organic to the story," he says. "I don't want to be the last person involved. When I'm called in last, I'm just stuck."

"Curtains" is set in Boston in 1959, the same year, it happens, that Rob Ashford was created. Having no personal recollection of the period, the choreographer did a little digging.

"When you think of the big musicals of the time, you think of the films - the 'Carousel's and the 'Oklahoma!'s. We are a Western so that's a great source to go back to and they feel of a time. Somehow, a Western musical feels of a time."

Ashford says he was careful not to watch too many Western musicals to inspire him, fearing that he'd "find myself opening a door to a room that I can't get out of."

The Fred-and-Ginger number in the second act was inspired by the original article, but still Ashford didn't let those great old movies dictate steps to him.

"That room is all right, because it's one number in one room," he says.

Ashford says he created some decidedly '50s moments.

"In the second act, we do a number called 'Kansasland,' which is a tip of the hat to Agnes DeMille and even in the opening number, they spell out Kansas - K-A-N-S-A-S -and we actually make our bodies form the letters. That's something we would never do now. That feels naïve and of a time. It feels like a good 1959 idea."

Still, Ashford is clear that he's taken "Curtains" beyond a period piece.

"You have to instill it with the energy of today," he says. "No one really wants to see a period piece. If I only did the steps they were using in 1959, it would be boring."

"We're trying to make it bawdier and sexier - flirty saloon girls and naughty cowboys - you want it to be sexy. But sexy in 1959 and sexy now are two different things. We're going for sexy now."

When he's creating dances, Ashford will look everywhere for ideas.

"I watch dance, period. Things I like. I see many more shows, I go to the ballet. I go to see many more things when I'm in the creative process than I would normally, because everything stirs your head without dictating to you."

The real inspiration, he says, is the script and the words, and photographs and books from the time.

Collaborating with costume-designer William Ivey Long also sparked Ashford's creativity.

"He puts together these big storyboards where he starts showing us some ideas of what it looked like then," Ashford says. "Those storyboards were more inspiration for me than anything, because you see it and you see a certain time and you're reminded of a time.

"I don't want to see the moves," Ashford says. "I don't want to be influenced in that way. But I like looking at William's pictures where you see a dance number in progress, but it doesn't dictate a step."

Other 1950s factors are posture and proximity. Actors in that age stood straighter and didn't stand as close together.

Ashford says he reminds his dancers abound "posture and relationships to each other in the backstage scenes, where actors and actresses might have too much physical contact, a contemporary physical contact as opposed to physical contact in the 1950s. We're all much more huggy kissy all over each other now. And it was very different then."

Long comes to the rescue, again. His period costumes - corsets and all - change the way an actress carries herself, Ashford says, and force them into a proper posture.

Another wish granted.