Point Park alum thriving on the Great White Way

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Tony-winning director/choreographer Rob Ashford's big week included the opening of "Promises, Promises" on Broadway and giving the commencement speech at his alma mater, Point Park University, on Saturday.

All that, and he managed to dodge a couple of bomb threats, too.

He was in Pittsburgh when a bomb was found just a few blocks from where "Promises, Promises" was playing at the Broadway Theatre at 53rd Street. And he was headed back to New York when there was a bomb threat during the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Talking by phone Monday, he said he hadn't heard about the Pittsburgh threat, but Broadway was still buzzing about the bomb found in Times Square.

He was having dinner here Saturday with family and friends including Beverly Edwards, the company manager for "A Behanding in Spokane," now on Broadway with Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.

Ms. Edwards got a call about the Times Square bomb, and the dinner companions began calling and texting everyone they knew in New York to make sure all was well.

Authorities had blocked off an area including "Behanding's" Schoenfeld Theatre on W. 45th Street. "What they allowed them to do was keep the people who were already in the theater or on the street, so they did their show for like, 300-350 people," Mr. Ashford said, "and they had to keep them afterward until the police said it was OK to go. And they ended up taking the whole audience and the cast through the Broadhurst Theatre -- there's a secret door there -- all the way through to 44th Street to get out."

'Perfect timing'

Mr. Ashford was relieved that his excitement this weekend was all about Pittsburgh and Point Park.

The Florida native, 52, is a Class of '83 graduate who won a Tony for his choreography of "Thoroughly Modern Millie." He can bring out the stars, too, and recently directed Rachel Weisz in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at London's Donmar Warehouse, where he has been named associate director.

This past week, his revival of "Promises, Promises" opened on Broadway with a cast including Emmy- and Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth, who has been making a splash as a "Glee" guest star," and Sean Hayes, best know as Jack on TV's "Will & Grace."

All that, and he had a commencement address to deliver.

"There were moments I thought, 'Oh my God, this is bad timing.' You know what? It was perfect timing, because I'm sitting here writing a speech, saying it's not always about the end result, it's about the journey. And that was kind of the thrust of the speech, and you're sitting there, in the middle of your journey, and you realize, 'Wow, it's true.' "

Years ago, when he was leaving Soldiers & Sailors for his own graduation, an agent from New York gave him her business card.

"You're someone to keep an eye on," she said. "So, give me a call when you get to New York."

He never did, because his New York journey came with a boost from Pittsburgher and Broadway director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, but he kept the card.

"It was somehow a little bridge between my student life at Point Park and my professional life, this little piece of paper. ... I said I guess my momentum was showing when I walked out of the place, and I encouraged [the graduates] all to do the same."

Mr. Ashford hadn't been back to Pittsburgh or the school in a few years, and said he was "amazed" at the growth of Point Park University and its vision for "a genuine Downtown campus. I'm so excited about it. I said 'Sign me up for anything I can do to help.' "

He reconnected with friends from his college days, a surprise reunion arranged by Point Park's Joe McGoldrick.

"I was so impressed with the vitality of the city," he said. "I was staying at the Renaissance and we went for drinks at the Fairmont Saturday after dinner, and it was amazing the people that were in there and the energy and the sophistication of it, and the kind of relaxed atmosphere as well. It was so was exciting for all of us."

Creating excitement on Broadway and London stages is what keeps Mr. Ashford busy these days. In "Promises, Promises," he cast Ms. Chenoweth as Fran, a role that requires the perky blonde to be down and out over her affair with a married man; and Mr. Hayes and Tony Goldwyn, who have one New York musical between them -- Mr. Hayes in a 2008 revival of "Damn Yankees."

"There are primary things you want in each part," Mr. Ashford explained. "For example, [the boss and Fran's lover], Sheldrake, Tony Goldwyn's part, I thought if this guy is an out-and-out villain, then our leading lady is going to seem nuts and we can't get behind her. So I said if we can cast a guy who wants to approach him as a man with problems and is complex and really committed to whoever he's with at that moment and really believing it's the right thing, and just adding those shades of gray, how much that would increase the value of Fran, and therefore the play itself, increase the stakes. ... But that is in every case.

"Fran does spend a great deal of the show in quite a state of drama. I thought, wouldn't it be nice to have someone who has a kind of bubbliness and lightness about them in general, and certainly in our attitude toward her, to play Fran, so that we get that in spades up front."

The show adds the Burt Bacharach tune "I Say a Little Prayer" early on, "to give her a moment where she is like that, and then send her on her journey."

'Comfortable in his boots'

Mr. Hayes has the biggest journey as Chuck "C.C." Baxter, the ambitious office worker who has to navigate dancers who whirl and jump and kick around him in daring choreography that could cause bodily harm if not timed right. Mr. Ashford had no qualms about Mr. Hayes ability to carry a Broadway show, and stay safe doing it.

"One, he's completely game. That's the good news. Two, he is a concert pianist, he is an excellent musician. Those dance moves are all musical, and because he's so comfortable in his boots about the music, he was ... fine with it."

The Bacharach score, the story line and staging, with its "Mad Men"-era costumes and office relationships, appealed to Mr. Ashford as a way to explore a time of innocence that was about to explode.

"It's interesting to go back to the time when there were few consequences. At the time of 'Promises, Promises,' there were no consequences to our earth, to our health from smoking cigarettes, to sex with 20 people, whatever. It was before the Kennedy assassination, before Vietnam, before we realized the American dream was maybe not all it was cracked up to be. It's always interesting to see people at the end of something, before something huge happens. It was the same with ['Thoroughly Modern] Millie, because Millie was set in the late '20s before the crash."

He described the characters as dancing as fast as they can, toward a big event that they can't see coming. Mr. Ashford is likewise zipping along these days, only he has a clear view of what's on the horizon.

He'll direct the new musical "Leap of Faith," based on the Steve Martin film with music by Alan Menken and likely starring Raul Esparza, and another musical revival, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," starring Daniel Radcliffe.

And as if that's not enough, there's a TV gig ...

"I'm working on this new HBO series that John Logan has written called 'The Miraculous Year,' which is actually set inside the world of Broadway. And I've been hired as a creative consultant. ...

"There's a ton going on," he said, "but it's all such good stuff and such thrilling stuff, it doesn't feel heavy on me."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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