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Choreographer Ashford takes working with stars in stride

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 6:31 p.m.
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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 15: Rob Ashford, winner of Best Revival for 'Anna Christie' poses in the press room during the 2012 Olivier Awards at The Royal Opera House on April 15, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 03: Executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan attend Dramatists Guild Fund's 50th Anniversary Gala Honoring John Kander at Mandarin Oriental Hotel on June 3, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images for Dramatists Guild)

Growing up in Beckley, W.Va., Rob Ashford used to watch the Oscars and dream about being part of it.

He didn't fantasize about being onstage accepting an award or presenting one. Nor did he imagine himself dancing in one of the big production numbers.

“My big dream would have been to be there in the audience,” he says.

Sitting in the audience and enjoying it is where he plans to be during Sunday's 85th Academy Awards show. By then, his work will be done. Since November, he has been creating choreography and musical staging for the show.

Ashford, a 1983 graduate of Point Park University's performing-arts program, is an awards-show veteran with experience as an artist and an awardee.

In 2009, he won an Emmy for a segment he staged for the 81st Academy Awards show. He received a 2010 Emmy as co-producer of the Kennedy Center Honors TV special.

He's also an eight-time Tony Award nominee for his choreography or direction, or both, on musicals that include recent revivals of “Evita,” “How to Succeed in Business” and “Promises, Promises,” and for his choreography for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which won him a 2002 Tony.

Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have a very clear vision of the environment they want to create for the show and its segments, Ashford says.

“My biggest challenge is to make sure everyone is shown off to their very best advantage but within the scheme of the evening,” he says.

That includes Oscar host Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the movie “Ted” and the Fox animated series “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show.” MacFarlane also does the voices for several “Family Guy” characters, including Peter, Brian and Stewie Griffin.

“Seth is amazing, hysterical, a hard worker and very sweet. My job is to present him as best I can and support his ideas and comedy and not get in the way of it,” Ashford says.

One of MacFarlane's lesser-known talents is singing, Ashford says.

“He's a great crooner, loves singing and has a great voice,” Ashford says. “Like with musicals, you want to support your leading man or leading lady. The tendency is to do too much support. You want to feature their great abilities. … Everything I do is to magnify what he is.”

But asked if we should expect to hear MacFarlane sing a song or interact with the audio-animatronic Ted or cartoon characters from “The Family Guy,” Ashford says the only way to find out is to tune in.

Everyone involved in the show — MacFarlane, Ashford, the show's writers and performers — is encouraged to contribute. So, it's often difficult to pinpoint credit for any idea, joke or dance move, Ashford says.

“It's very collaborative. The best idea wins,” Ashford says. “I love collaborating with great talents. … It's so gratifying.”

He's also excited about segments that will celebrate movie musicals of the past decade and pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films.

But, again, when it comes to exactly what to expect, Ashford says he's sworn to secrecy.

You can expect to see plenty of stars.

Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Shirley Bassey, Christopher Plummer and five cast members from “The Avengers” — Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo — among them.

From his experiences with past awards shows, Ashford has no qualms about working with them.

“I love working with actors (and) stars. They're not stars for no reason. As long as you can tell them what you are trying to achieve, they will almost always go with you,” he says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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