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Thorougly Modern Rob Ashford Directs ‘Carousel’ at Houston Grand Opera

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By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Pamela Raith

Director Rob Ashford is certain he won’t feel like a cog in the machine that will make the horses go round and round in Carousel this month at Houston Grand Opera.

“I had a great time with HGO doing Carmen in 2014,” says the out winner of both Tony and Emmy honors. “That’s why I signed up for more. Some opera companies are stuffy; you feel like part of a machine, a cog in a wheel.”

From Houston, Ashford is off to London to co-direct Romeo and Juliet for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. It will feature out legend Derek Jacobi as Mercutio and, in another casting coup, Marisa Berenson (Cabaret, Barry Lyndon) as Lady Capulet. (In February, Ashford temporarily swore me to secrecy, so I’m glad that I can finally announce Berenson’s return to the stage. Not that I can’t take secrets to my grave!)

While William Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy, Ashford calls Carousel “a tragedy with hope.”

Carousel is my favorite show,” says Ashford. “It has a powerful story and the most beautiful score.” Rodgers wrote that it was his biggest accomplishment, and Time magazine called Carousel the 20th century’s “best musical.”

Among its songs that are now classics, my favorites are the ballads “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The latter I first recall hearing in 1986 when a drag queen dedicated the tune to people living with AIDS (PWAs); Houston costume designer Colleen Grady told me that when she worked on a production of Carousel, “Every night we would stop for the song ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ and I cried every single time.”

In Carousel, the 1945 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, a carnival barker, Billy Bigelow, attempts a robbery that goes awry. At the gates of Heaven, he gets an opportunity to make things right, gain redemption, and provide a better life for his daughter.

The show began as the 1909 Hungarian play Liliom, whose author, Ferenc Molnár, deflected offers from Kurt Weill and many other top artists to adapt the material. Molnár instead chose Rodgers and Hammerstein after seeing the duo’s breakthrough musical Oklahoma!, which revolutionized Broadway musical theater.

“I feel like Carousel was the first serious musical,” says Ashford. “Rodgers and Hammerstein were so brave and so forward.”

Like Carousel, Ashford believes that last year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, Fun Home, will help broaden the scope of musical theater with its depiction of a young lesbian growing up in a funeral home with a suicidal gay father. 

“I promise you that Fun Home has had an effect on what is being written,” he explains. “If not for the big, big influence of Carousel, we might not have Falsettos or Fun Home or any topic pertaining to the [LGBT] community.” (Falsettos is a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical from 1992 about a gay father who leaves his wife for a younger man. Fans are hoping it will be revived next year on the Great White Way.)

Carousel was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s second collaboration, prior to State Fair, the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific, The King and I, Cinderella, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music.

In December 2013, Ashford directed and choreographed The Sound Music Live! starring Carrie Underwood on NBC. The huge ratings winner brought back live TV musicals, a trend that continued this year with Grease Live! and The Passion on FOX.

“I’m used to making things live; that part was normal,” he says. “What made it difficult was doing it without the energy from an audience. You’re in a truck, looking at camera angles. Anything can happen, so it was nerve-wracking but exciting. I loved working with Carrie. My God, there was so much talent.

In 1985, Ashford played “Carnival Boy” in a Pittsburgh production of Carousel that also showcased his buddy, Kathleen Marshall, whom he would room with when they moved to New York City. Her brother is out director/choreographer Rob Marshall, who choreographed Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway and directed the Oscar-winning movie Chicago. The Marshalls teamed together on the 1995 Broadway production of Victor/Victoria; Ashford was the show’s dance captain.

He bowed on Broadway as a dancer in the 1987 Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes that starred diva Patti LuPone. He followed that success with work in The Most Happy Fella, Crazy for You, My Favorite Year, and Parade.

Ashford won a Tony on his first nomination, for choreographing Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002. “It’s nice to win a Tony,” he says. “It was the first Broadway show I choreographed, so for someone to take a chance on me when I had never proven anything, it was very exciting. I love that show.”

Ashford followed Millie with multiple Tony nominations for the musical Shrek, John Waters’ Cry Baby, Curtains, and The Wedding Singer, revivals of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Promises, Promises (starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth), and Evita (with Ricky Martin as Ché), and the Tennessee Williams classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that starred Scarlett Johannsen and (is he or isn’t he gay?) Benjamin Walker.

He’s also been part of the behind-the-scenes magic of several Academy Award ceremonies.

Ashford said he recently married landscape designer Kevin Ryan “after an 18-year courtship.”

What: Carousel
When: April 22–May 7
Where: Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue
Details: houstongrandopera.org

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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