They speak a language of their own. You could call it Arendelle-ish, except that they were using it long before they started working on Frozen. So maybe the dialect filling a Times Square rehearsal hall last month should be dubbed Robsarahcharlie-ish, after choreographer and Tony winner Rob Ashford and his associate choreographers, Sarah O'Gleby and Charlie Williams. Based on Disney's smash animated film about the royal sisters of magical Arendelle, the musical is heading into rehearsals before previews on February 22 and a March 22 opening night at the St. James Theatre. But for now, it's in pre-production, and Ashford, O'Gleby and Williams are deep into their private shorthand, both verbal and physical, as they dissect a step.
They're revisiting "Fixer Upper," a number that Ashford says "never was what we wanted it to be" when the show tried out in Denver last year. "We felt we needed to move the storytelling along." It's in Act Two, after Anna has hired Kristoff, a commoner, to help her find her sister Elsa, who's hiding in the mountains with a secret. They stop to visit his family, who sense what Anna and Kristoff don't yet know—that they could be a pair even if they're not perfectly matched, that "everyone's a bit of a fixer-upper, that's what it's all about."
The dance, Ashford says, is about "learning how to work together as a couple." But the choreographer and his two associates are demonstrating how to work together as a trio, looking and sounding like a unit—sometimes a body with three heads, sometimes a head with three bodies. They hone each detail of the step until it sends the right message about the evolving relationship between Anna and Kristoff, and until the mechanics look smooth.
O'Gleby is pushing for Anna to be less dependent on Kristoff as he turns her; Williams points out that he's supposed to be guiding her. They settle on a crossed-wrist hold "that feels more equal" to her. Another move is rejected when Williams notes that "it's gonna look like a dance." Their work is regularly punctuated by bursts of laughter at jokes that a visitor in the room can only guess at. After years of working together, they've forged a bond that's personal as well as professional. "Rob creates such a warm environment," Williams says. "We kind of laugh our way through the entire day."
Sharing the jokes and closely following along as the choreography develops are swings Ashley Elizabeth Hale and Jeff Pew, who are also dance captain and assistant dance captain, respectively. They're on hand because Michael Grandage, the director, had dropped in earlier to check things out, and two extra bodies make it easier to suggest a full number. Later, Ashford explains further: "It's helpful for them to understand where the moves come from—what we're trying to tell with each moment. Because once the show opens, we're not there eight times a week. They are, so they can help remind everybody what the intention behind this move or this lift is."
After about an hour fiddling, Ashford is satisfied: "It's much better—better storytelling, better musicality," he tells them. I ask how much stage time has been filled; "Eight 8s," he replies. But he's not fretting. This time between Frozen's Denver run and its still-incomplete Broadway incarnation is "a very exciting place to be," he says. "You don't have all of it ahead of you; you're not thinking, 'Oh my god. it could be anything.' You've narrowed it down, but there's still enough room inside of it to be creative, to let your mind go, 'Wait a minute—what if...?' "
Building the Team
O'Gleby and Williams have performed Ashford's choreography on the West End and on Broadway, but their dance chops aren't the reason they're his associates for Frozen. "They're there to help create it," he says. "An assistant performs the steps for you. With associates, it's not about steps—Charlie and Sarah are true creative partners. They're in it with the storytelling, with how it fits in the whole show…And they work really well together. It's great to have a guy and a gal who can figure out all of the mechanics, everything, before you teach the rest of the company. It just comes second nature to them."
Learning on the Job
Ashford recalls that being Kathleen Marshall's associate earlier in his career taught him "how to be in the room with writers, creators, directors, actors, a dance arranger, an orchestrator—you can't learn that unless you witness it firsthand, but without the responsibility to make the decisions." Marshall, he says "was a great teacher, and she learned from her brother Rob [Marshall], and he learned from Graciela Daniele, and she learned from Fosse. It's something that is passed down." And he's passing it on to his own associates, who have choreographic aspirations of their own. "Every time I'm in the studio with Rob Ashford," Williams says, "I am learning something—I am always taking notes. Being a choreographer isn't just about making up cool dance moves. There's a whole other side—the business side of the business. Being an associate, you get a whole bunch of hands-on experience without a whole lot of the risk."
But being an associate does have its downside, he says. "We are the only people in the theater who aren't covered by a union. So here we are, creating a show—but we don't get health care, we don't get a 401(k), we don't get access, like the actors do, to a percentage of this show." That's been a double dilemma for O'Gleby, whose husband, Christopher Bailey, is on the same career track—since they moved here from England, he's been Ashford's associate on three other Broadway shows. "Years ago," she says, "people used assistant choreographer or associate choreographer as a stepping-stone—they didn't live there for very long. But now there are shows that have full-time associates traveling the world to put on Les Mis or whatever, having a gorgeous career." But it's a career without guarantees.