Director John Doyle has been "instrumental" in re-imagining the work of Stephen Sondheim. Pardon the pun. The British director and choreographer has literally brought instruments onto the stage and turned his actors into "hyphenates" — actor-musicians who play and sing the score, and act the parts, of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (in London and now on Broadway) and Company (in a Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production that will come to Broadway in the fall).
The reviews for both productions have been glowing. Sweeney Todd is a strong contender for a Best Musical Revival Tony Award this season, and producers hungrily circled the Ohio Company. A Broadway move was announced before the sold-out run's final performance April 14.
Doyle's orchestrator and music supervisor for Company is Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the popular and respected New York City music director who was a favorite of composer Cy Coleman, and has worked with everyone from Michael John LaChiusa to budding theatrical songwriters.
Doyle recently reworked Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel as a lean, intimate, actor-musician show. It's currently playing London. Fans of that muscular score, detailing the relationship between film legends Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand are hoping it gives a new lease to that never-was hit. Doyle spoke to Playbill.com about his approach to Company.
Playbill.com: Company seems to invite the idea of your actor-musician concept more than Sweeney Todd because the show is already so theatrical and fragmented — it was one of the major concept musicals of its time. Was it easier to apply your idea to Company?
John Doyle: Yeah, I suppose conceptually it's a little easier. The great bonus you get with Company is that the actors are on stage all the time because they have to be. You get a very strong sense of "company." You get a strong sense of these people who are in Bobby's head or in his mind or in his presence. That was easier. And it's a book musical in the way Sweeney isn't — it has scenes to play as opposed to Sweeney, which is pretty nearly through-sung. And because you've got 14 characters that are so defined and no ensemble as such, it was kind of easier to put a musical voicing along with each character. "Easier" is a difficult word. Sweeney is such a complex piece of storytelling and it took a long time to evolve and find. This hasn't taken so long.
Playbill.com: The space Company operates in is "the mind," in a way, isn't it?
JD: Exactly right. It's got a kind of surreal quality to it anyway which this style of theatremaking certainly has got to have, because it's not naturalistic to walk around with a trumpet in your hand as you're pouring coffee, or whatever. We're trying to make sure it even looks like it's in Bobby's mind — it is a play about the mind, and about a man who finds it so difficult to commit or connect. Equally, it's a very funny script, you want it to be as accessible and as much fun as it can be as well.
Playbill.com: A birthday party is central to the script, but the gathering is really a frame or jumping off point to explore this community of married New Yorkers, and their single pal.
JD: These people give him a surprise birthday party which he doesn't attend. The whole evening is a reenacting of why he doesn't attend. The realization of his not wanting to go to the party makes him face where he is in his life. Because they're playing for each other all the time, they have to be there all the time. That makes for a kind of omnipresence that I think is good for the piece.
Playbill.com: Is it set in 2006?
JD: It is.
Playbill.com: What does the world look like?
JD: Everybody is dressed in kind of what I would call very sophisticated "New York black" — the cocktail party image. In a sense, it's so simply done and there's so little stuff on stage that it does give it a kind of timeless quality.
Playbill.com: A song called "Marry Me a Little" was cut from the original 1970 Broadway production. Is it in your production?
JD: It is. [We use] the most recent published version, which I think is an amalgam of the Roundabout and the Donmar Warehouse productions, which Mr. Sondheim and [librettist] Mr. [George] Furth worked on. Nothing is altered at all. In Sweeney there were a few trims and cuts and things, all of which were done with Mr. Sondheim's approval. This has none. [That dance known as "Tick Tock" was cut for the 1990s revivals and does not exist in the licensable version.] We do the piece as is. I didn't want the evening to be an evening that looked at the 1970s. I wanted it to be, as I did with Sweeney, a world where we look at ourselves. Where our humors and our joys and sadnesses are touched upon.
Playbill.com: My memory of even the revised script is that some language leftovers from the 1970s still exist…
JD: A little bit. I don't really think that's any different from speaking what you may perceive to be Victorian language but wearing a mini-skirt at the same time. Some of the phrases do belong to that time, but nowadays we use phrases that go back to the '60s to the '50s.
Playbill.com: Can you give some examples of the instrumental or musical voicing of characters in Company?
JD: You have the character of Amy — neurotic, very funny but wanting to be heard. She plays the trumpet and the French horn. The Larry character, Joanne's husband, he plays the clarinet. He has a lovely mellow, touching quality to the instrument he plays. We've got two or three people who play the piano. April plays the oboe, not an instrument you get a chance to use very often in this kind of work. But the pipe of that is rather nice for her. David, the kind of slightly quiet husband who wants freedom but finds that difficult to truly acknowledge, he plays the cello — so he's got a barrier between himself and the outside world. We've got the trombone in it, which Harry plays, which is rather fun — [Harry is] the karate-playing one.
Inevitably, a lot of these things develop in a rehearsal period. You see a visual language for the instruments. This piece allows you to use saxophones, which in something like Sweeney Todd, you don't get to use. There's a kind of sexiness in that. It does allow some of the raunchier instruments to come out. So you've got a nice mixture of sounds and a soundscape that is not the same as Sweeney Todd. You've got more people to play them, so you've got the potential for a bigger band. They've got to be portable instruments, that's always important otherwise you are stuck, you've just truly got an orchestra, sitting.
Playbill.com: In addition to working on instrument assignments and orchestrations, what else has music supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell brought to the table?
JD: She's amazing! She's done a wonderful job. What Mary-Mitchell has done, which I think is great, is she's held on to the quality of the sound of the songs, but taken some the 1970s rhythmic sort of feel out of it, so it makes it a little more lyrical at times, which I think is lovely.
Playbill.com: How many instruments are used, ultimately?
JD: Around 20 instruments — maybe 24, actually.
Playbill.com: In the original, Bobby was turning 30, and in the 1995 Broadway revival he was turning 40. Is he 40 in your version?
JD: No, he's turning 35. I spoke to Mr. Sondheim about it, and he said "it's kind of up to you," but on thinking about it "40" says something different than 35. If it's your 40th birthday you may feel even more duty bound to go to the surprise party than you would if you were 35 where you still have an option to change.
Playbill.com: There's something a little more wrong with a 40-year-old who can't commit.
JD: [Laughs.] Exactly. It arouses another set of questions, I think.
Playbill.com: As neurotic and searching — and to some extent unhappy — as the characters are, it's a play about hope, isn't it?
JD: Absolutely. I think that's one of the good, important things about having "Marry Me a Little" in it. If you really listen to "Marry Me a Little" the words are suggesting trying to do you best to make change, but not complete change. Whereas by the time you get to "Being Alive" those lyrics are about the need to make change and compromise in order to be able to relate. So the journey is huge. The gist of Company, I think, is to say to us all that we can be alive — you know, take a risk, in a sense. So I find it extremely hopeful and very funny.