How Rob Ashford made a one-night-only gig in Tangier the hottest ticket in the theater world

Rob Ashford needed a break. In 2013, as the director prepared to stage both his first opera, The Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and a production of Macbeth in Manchester, starring Kenneth Branagh, he and his partner Kevin Ryan decided to vacation in Tangier, Morocco. While visiting Ashford, who won a Tony for choreography in 2002 Thoroughly modern Milliefirst heard from Joe McPhillips, the late principal of the American School of Tangiers, who directed and directed an unusual play at the high school for international students each year.

“He’s done some crazy productions,” says Ashford. “For example, Yves Saint Laurent designed the costumes and Paul Bowles composed the music for the Euripides play Hippolytus.” When McPhillips died in 2007, productions ceased. When Ashford, Ryan and their friend, garden designer Madison Cox, heard this, they asked themselves: what if we put on a show ourselves? They asked for favors and put on a single performance, with proceeds going to local charities.

In August 2015, Ashford, who spends about 12 weeks a year in Tangier, put on a reading Suddenly last summer with Ruth Wilson, and since then things have gotten more ambitious. He staged The Crucible with branagh, after the dance with Jessie Buckley and A Little Night Music with Tony Goldwyn. Designer Gene Meyer, milliner Stephen Jones and editor Hamish Bowles all contributed costumes; Marisa Berenson is often involved; Attendees included Lynn Wyatt, Calvin Klein, Colin Callender and Princess Uma of Morvi.

rob ashford pierre bergé marisa berenson tangers

Marisa Berenson, seen here Suddenly last summer in Tangier in front of an audience like Pierre Bergé.

Courtesy of Rob Ashford

This June, after a three-year hiatus, the Tangier plays return with Stephen Sondheim’s play follies. The cast will include Goldwyn and Berenson, and tickets, ranging from $250 to $2,000, have already sold out. Here, Ashford and a cast of his stars, friends and cohorts recall how a wild idea in a far-off land became the tentpole of the international creative set’s summer adventures and one of the most coveted invites of the year.

VEERE GRENNEYinterior architect: Tangier has always attracted theater people.

COX: Rob was fascinated that Tennessee Williams was inspired to write by a stay in Tangier Suddenly last summer.

ASHFORD: I asked Ruth Wilson to play the role of Liz Taylor and we played her on the terrace of the Villa Léon l’Africain where Pierre Bergé had lived with Saint Laurent. The actors rehearsed for a week, wearing their own clothes and carrying scripts with them.

SUMMER STREETactress: I frantically ran through the souk to get something resembling what a nurse would wear.

LINDA LAVIN: I had only seen Suddenly last summer the movie, but it made no sense. When Rob mentioned the cast, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. We had the damn best time. The whole week was like a Noël Coward play.

GRENNE: We thought it would be a one off event but the next year Rob came to visit my new house. He glanced into the drawing room and decided he wanted to direct Terence Rattigans after the dance exactly there.

Rob Ashford Tangier

Rob Ashfords Tangiers plays, including Suddenly last summer, The Crucible and A Little Night Musichas attracted beaming audiences including Lynn Wyatt, Calvin Klein, Colin Callender and Princess Uma of Morvi.

Courtesy of Rob Ashford

ASHFORD: I had just been working with Jessie Buckley so she came to play. She was dating James Norton so he agreed to be there too.

PHIL DUNSTERactor: I was just cast to produce Rob and Kenneth The Entertainer, and Rob signed up to play that piece in Tangier. I was nervous. At the time, I didn’t know where Tangier was.

ASHFORD: The audience was seated in ballroom chairs. Hamish Bowles did the costumes, but the airline lost two suitcases that didn’t arrive until the day of the performance. The next year we did The Crucible. You don’t want anything too dense. I asked Ken, who had visited us a few times, “Would you give us your John Proctor?” Derek Jacobi had just worked for us The winter fairy tale. Bertie Carvel and I had made it parade. We asked Veere if we could build a stage over his pool.

ANSU KABIAactor: My agent called to say, “Rob and Ken want you to be there The Crucible in Tangier.” I thought, “Why not?”

BERTIE CARVELactor: What is not to love The Crucible with Kenneth Branagh? Just don’t screw it up.

ASHFORD: I brought a lighting designer from London. During the big court scene, someone flipped a switch half a mile away and all the lights on the stage went out.

Rob Ashford Tangier

This summer’s production of follies will star Tony Goldwyn and Marisa Berenson, sold out in three days.

Courtesy of Rob Ashford

DARK: In a flash, Ken grabbed someone’s cell phone and used it as a flashlight. It added to the mystique.

BRANAGH: Suddenly, mastering the flashlight on my phone was an amusing short-term production lifeline. A combination of that and Derek Jacobi’s ability to play brilliantly by candlelight made for a great story about the ghost of Dunkirk!

ASHFORD: The year after that, we did it A Little Night Music. The first act was in daylight, the second in the dark, with 300 lighted paper lanterns. In between, the audience had a picnic overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.

GOLDWYN: It was theatrical camp fantasy, but with pros.

STALL: We had lunch between rehearsals and Christine Ebersole said she would call home to speak to her bird. They had a full blown conversation.

“When Rob mentioned the cast, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. We had the damn best time.”

GOLDWYN: For the performance we were all dressed in white and the audience had to be dressed in white. It was an artistic happening, like a real Midsummer Night’s Dream. I never thought we would make it.

STALL: I had to sing “The Miller’s Son” which is a tough song. I’ve been singing it in my sleep all week. I wish it had been recorded. I literally have no idea what happened.

ASHFORD: I promised the actors that we would never record a performance. You’ll learn it in a week! It’s not fair to them. we to have considered doing a second performance.

Ryan: I’m trying to accommodate as many people as possible, but we don’t have the space for more than 150. I could still sell 50 tickets, but we would have to destroy Veere’s garden.

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Rob Ashford with Kenneth Branagh in London, 2016.

David M BenettGetty Images

ASHFORD: We sold out this summer’s production follies in three days.

DARK: You get the thrill of opening night without the potentially brain-numbing drudgery of doing it for another six months.

ASHFORD: These are all professionals. They know what they’re getting themselves into. They always say, “Call me next time. I will gladly come again.”

BERENSON: I’m playing Solange follies. She sings “Ah, Paris”. It’s a difficult song to sing. I study it as we speak.

GOLDWYN: I have a few months to learn the music. I want to be better prepared this time. Sondheim is a tightrope act.

GRENNE: Is it difficult to do something like that in Tangier? Even in East Hampton, it’s a challenge. It’s like throwing a great party. You have a chance and you pray that everything will work out.

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