Tony Nominee Doyle Says Ideas — Not Necessarily Instruments — Are Key to His Actor-Musician Shows

News   Tony Nominee Doyle Says Ideas — Not Necessarily Instruments — Are Key to His Actor-Musician Shows Company director John Doyle was in Edinburgh, Scotland, doing some sightseeing when his agent called May 15 to tell him he'd been nominated for a 2007 Tony Award in the category of Best Direction of a Musical.
John Doyle
John Doyle Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"To be nominated two years in a row, it's more of an honor than a thrill, to be honest with you," Doyle, a 2006 Best Direction Tony winner for Sweeney Todd, told Playbill.com by phone from his homeland. "On that level, you feel kind of accepted in the community, and that's a very important thing to me because I so enjoy working in New York. It's a great feeling."

Doyle isn't the type to rest on laurels. He just keeps on working: On May 16, performances for his production of Lucia de Lammermoor begin at Scottish Opera in Glasgow. In the coming weeks, casting begins for his Broadway-aimed San Diego staging of Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino's new musical A Catered Affair.

Doyle freely moves between opera and musical theatre — and, no, not every production features his knack for putting instruments in the hands of the actors, as is the case in Company at the Barrymore, and Sweeney Todd last season and on tour this coming season.

"Lucia sure as hell doesn't play the cadenzas on the flute," he said of the dawning production of the famed Donizetti opera.

The new 2006-07 revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company is Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Raul Esparza) and Best Direction of a Musical. What is Doyle most proud of when it comes to the production?

"The thing I'm most proud of is its simplicity," Doyle said of his spare staging, performed on a mostly blank black set (by designer David Gallo), dreamily orchestrated with sometimes minimalist strokes by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. "We don't use much 'stuff' — it's a simple and, hopefully, clear production that asks the audience to engage, and that I'm proud of. The company of Company are a great group of people, and I so enjoyed them. I'm thrilled for them that the show's been nominated in the Drama Desks and the Tonys."

Does Doyle worry that some people pigeonhole him as that director whose casts double as the orchestras? After all, in this business, you're only as good as your last show.

"That very style has made me known, so I can't moan about it too much," Doyle said. "You don't get to be 54, working your whole life in the theatre, and not do lots of different work. I feel a little aggrieved occasionally that [some say] 'the technique is the concept.' It just isn't. The concept is the message behind how you want to tell your story, it's not the technique or trick that you use to get it. The dancing in West Side Story isn't the concept, is it? But it's a show that lives through dance. It's a style that I've been a big part of developing and that I want to continue to develop. However, I am also making [employment] choices deliberately that expose the fact that I can do other things."

The actor-musician technique is something Doyle has been doing more than 15 years in the United Kingdom, and he admits that others did it before him — and others did it during his career. Look at the famous Sam Mendes-directed Cabaret, for example, a hit in London and on Broadway (co-directed in New York by Rob Marshall).

"It's nothing new," Doyle said. "I'm proud of the fact that I hope it proves this isn't just a trick."

And Doyle said he's also thrilled to remind people what a classic 1970's Company is. "I hope I've proved Company is not, in any sense, a dated show," he said. "To me, it's a show that belongs to our time — maybe more than it did when it was written: In terms of the 'stuckness' of the human being. We have all this communication [technology] and yet we find it difficult to communicate."

Come January 2008, after A Catered Affair is on its feet at the Old Globe in California, he'll stage Sondheim and Furth's Merrily We Roll Along (with actors playing their own instruments) for The Watermill in Newbury, England (where his Sweeney Todd began), and then will direct Peter Grimes for The Metropolitan Opera.

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