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West Virginia native wins Tony Award with first show

By Neale R. Clark

Rob Ashford didn’t have much voice left Monday morning, June 3, having spent much of Sunday night into the wee hours talking to people.

The 2002 Tony Award-winning choreographer for Thoroughly Modern Millie said he was in a “total state of shock” when his name was announced during the televised awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

“It is truly a state of shock, that’s the only way to describe it,” said the man who started his career as Rob Davis, a 1978 Woodrow Wilson High School graduate. “I was overjoyed and overwhelmed, and a part of you kicks in that wants to be a good student and keep the one-minute time restriction (for acceptance speeches) and not have the music play over top of what you say. Those are the things running through your mind, and you look out at 6,000 people and it’s an unbelievable feeling.” Ashford said the award is particularly meaningful because it is not a popularity contest, rather an accolade from peers on Broadway. “The voters are quite a varied group, from the people who write the shows, the producers, directors, actors, choreographers’ union, all these groups that come together to make this decision. So it really does mean a lot.”

Ashford said one reason he was so stunned was that he had no expectation of winning at all, figuring that five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman would win for her choreography on the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma.

“She’s a brilliant choreographer and director,” he said. “She directed and choreographed The Producers last year, which was the big hit of the century.” Ashford said he has worked for Stroman twice and regards her as Broadway royalty.

Thoroughly Modern Millie was drawn from the 1967 movie of the same name, which Ashford said was “not a successful film, but it had moments in it that everyone remembered…. We had to deal with that — how are we going to treat the film, were we going to try to take a lot from it or try to recreate it on our own?”

For example, a memorable scene from the movie — about a 1920s girl who goes to New York City pursuing a dream — features Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore tap dancing in an elevator, something made dazzling with a movie camera, but totally different on stage.

The Tony Award-winning choreographer is clear about his roots.

“Without the outlet of Hatfields and Honey and Toneta [Akers-Toler], there’s no way I would be sitting in that seat nominated for a Tony Award,” said Ashford, who began his trek to the Great White Way as Rob Davis on the Theatre West Virginia stage as one of the McCoy sons in the outdoor drama Hatfields and McCoys.

In high school he was vice-president of the Thespian Club, and after graduation he wrote a letter to John Benjamin, then head of Theatre West Virginia, asking to be in the outdoor dramas.

Benjamin didn’t know what to do with the young man, but Ashford said he’d be an extra. Benjamin paid him $35 a week for speaking one line in each performance.

Ashford initially wanted to be a trial lawyer. When he was a student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, his advisor suggested that he major in either English or theater, since both are useful to lawyers. Ashford chose theater, and participated in a number of productions in Washington and Lee’s theater department.

Coming back for another summer of outdoor dramas, Ashford took advantage of a ballet class for actors that Akers-Toler was conducting for Theatre West Virginia.

“She used to take the actors — not the dancers, who were very good and very advanced — and she’d get the actors in touch with their bodies.”

He learned basic dance movements and found what he terms “body awareness.”

“I loved the idea of it, I loved the way it felt, the way you can physically express something without language,” he said.

Ultimately, he told Akers-Toler he thought he wanted to be a dancer, so she called Point Park College in Pittsburgh, where she had learned dance, and got the head of the dance department to come to Beckley and watch Ashford.

Notions of being a trial lawyer behind him, Ashford went to Pittsburgh to learn his art, then to Broadway, where he danced for 15 years in a host of shows, including the revival of Anything Goes with Patti Lupone; Crazy for You, a 1992 Tony winner; Kiss of the Spider Woman with Chita Rivera; Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews; My Favorite Year, Most Happy Fella and more.

About two years ago, Ashford shucked his dancing shoes and became a choreographer, staying too busy to perform. Then he signed on as choreographer for a new project, Thoroughly Modern Millie, which led the Tony line-up with 11 nominations.

It’s his first Broadway show, and already he’s in demand. He starts rehearsals June 11 for his next show, a revival of The Boys from Syracuse.

As for the name change? There already was a Robert Davis in Actors Equity, and the union doesn’t allow duplicate names — it messes up the paperwork.

While Robert Ashford is at home on Broadway, the former Rob Davis often thinks of West Virginia. “I wish I could get back there more. I love it and I miss it. I still have a lot of family there,” he said.

This article was compiled from two that originally appeared in the Fayette Register-Herald. Contact author Neale Clark by e-mail at: