Thoroughly Modern Musical

A tale of an ambitious small-town girl in 1920s New York comes to Tucson

Choreographer Rob Ashford is on the line from London, where he's in rehearsals for a new production of Guys and Dolls.

"I'm just sitting here watching CNN," he says, remarkably cheerfully for someone who's just put in a long day of leading English hoofers through their gangster-dance paces.

It's not Ashford's first time working in the English theater capital. Last summer, he created the choreography for a British production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And before that, he came to London with Thoroughly Modern Millie, the hit musical that won six Tonys--including Best Musical--in New York in 2002.

A traveling production of Millie, a Jazz Age-style show complete with Ashford's Tony-winning choreography, hits Tucson Tuesday for a week-long run.

London, the New Yorker says, "is starting to feel like a second home. I know all the dancers now. It's a nice balance between London and New York. It puts things into perspective."

Nowadays, Ashford, age 45, is the go-to choreographer for big Broadway musicals, composing the dances for such shows as Connecticut Yankee, Time & Again and Pippin. His first movie project, the Kevin Spacey vehicle Beyond the Sea, about Bobby Darin, opened last winter. But Ashford was not always an ocean-hopping, celebrity-teaching choreographer.

Like Millie, the Thoroughly Modern character who's determined to make it big in 1920s New York, Ashford started life in a small town, Buckley, W.Va., to be precise. And he was halfway through college at Washington and Lee before he began to dance.

"I was planning on becoming a lawyer," he says, laughing. "But I started dancing at 19 or 20, and transferred to Point Park College in Pittsburgh, which has a good dance department."

Ashford may have started late, but he had quick success. After graduation, he went to New York, and soon was hired on to dance in a Broadway show starring Patti LuPone. Many more jobs followed.

"I was a dancer for 20 years," he says, "a gypsy," singing and dancing his way across Broadway and the country.

Toward the end of his dancing days, he made his first forays into choreography, assisting Kathleen Marshall on big shows like Kiss Me, Kate and Seussical. Thoroughly Modern Millie was actually his first work on his own. The producers and director took the unusual step of holding auditions for a choreographer.

"I put together a few pieces. The team watched the auditions, and I was lucky," Ashford says modestly.

Originally a 1967 film starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, Millie tells the tale of an ambitious small-town girl who decides to make Manhattan her own. Set in 1922, the story is a jazzy romp through the Jazz Age, with Millie turning flapper, bobbing her hair and shortening her skirts. The Broadway version, coming to town courtesy of Broadway in Tucson/A Nederlander Presentation, has a big cast of 30, with Laura Schutter starring as Millie, and musicians playing live. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinatz, also won a Tony.

The movie version, Ashford says, was "one of those wacky '60s musicals"; in one scene, Andrews and Moore tap-danced in an elevator. But the show is only loosely based on the film. Just two of the original movie songs survive in the Broadway version; the rest are brand-new.

"The main thing was we didn't want it to be a nostalgic view of the '20s," he says. "We wanted to instill it with the energy of today. New York was crazy in the '20s. It was not a quiet time. It was definitely the Roaring '20s."

Ashford researched the dances of the era, turning up not only the well-known Charleston and tango but also social dances with fanciful names, like the Grizzly Bear and the Itch.

"They were fun to play with. It is a period piece, so I wanted to give a sense of what dance was like at the time. There are enough steps to recognize it as the '20s. We riff on them and then we do a whole different take."

The Charleston is almost a cliché, he says, so in the big opening number, "We get it out of the way. It's not a classic Charleston. But the opening number sets the tone."

One big tap-dance scene takes place in an office, where Millie gets a job in the steno pool and sets her sights on the boss. The foot-tapping evokes the sounds of typing, and dancers sail across the stage in wheeled office chairs.

Millie may be a woman with a plan, but life takes its own turns, Ashford notes, and his dance steps--"off-balance and unpredictable"--reflect that uncertainty.

"It's a fun show, with lots of great music, dancing and clothes," Ashford says. "It really has a heart. If you key in to follow this girl's story, it's an emotional experience as well."

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