"Good Thing Going": John Doyle Continues Stephen Sondheim Collaboration with Merrily We Roll Along

By Adam Hetrick
14 Mar 2012

Malcolm Gets in Merrily We Roll Along.
photo by Sandy Underwood

The recent City Center Encores! production of Merrily was well attended in New York. People are excited about getting another look at Merrily. Do you feel pressure, especially with your strong Sondheim track record?

JD: People asked me, "Do you think you've solved Merrily?" I don't know. I'm not the person that could ever answer that. I don't have such big problems with it. People say that the characters aren't all that likable in the beginning, I mean, a lot of people aren't very likable. I feel that we have a series of characters here right from the start that people really care about. What I can tell you is that this production of Merrily goes straight through without an intermission. For me, I like that for the piece. It is a series of years going back and I was thinking, "Why stop? Why suspend that, why not just keep the journey going?" So, it's an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission.

Merrily is truly a musical about music. What has moved me in your other actor-musician productions is that having actors also play instruments brings out subtext and new connections between characters that might not have been apparent before. What drew you to use this for Merrily?

JD: I'm kind of protective of it as a form because I was very much part of its development, no arrogance intended. I often read, "Oh, John Doyle, he's the person who does shows with actor-musicians." The reality is that I've done 20 of them out of a career of 250 shows, but it's better to be known for something than nothing at all, I suppose. [Laughs.] But it's very important to me, as the years have gone on in working with this style, that there must be a good reason for doing it. When I first did it in the U.K., it was, of course, financially driven. I was working in theatres that didn't have any resources. But now it's in situations where I can have more choices and I only really try to do it if there's a real point and there's something to say.

Now, if I look at Merrily as a play, it has key lines about music. Franklin Shepard has a line, "If I didn't have music, I would die." To me he is saying, "Music is everything." And, he is a songwriter, therefore a man who makes music, and his songwriting is being taken away from him by 15 minutes of fame and the lure of success and winning awards. I've tried to play with the tension of those issues and at the same time celebrate that the music is completely in the room.

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda starred in the City Center production
Photo by Joan Marcus

The physical playing space in your actor-musician productions has always been a kind of indicator of the mood of the show. Can you tell me about the set of Merrily?

JD: Scott Pask has done the set. The set is made up completely of music. There's no furniture; it's piles and piles of music manuscript. Actually, it's piles of the original score of Merrily We Roll Along, which Steve said I could graciously copy. The walls are also covered in music and the lights that hang above in globes are covered in music, so you know that you are in a world where music is the heartbeat of the piece, not just because it's a musical, but because it's about musical collaboration.

For the staging, the musicianship totally happens in the belly of the room. The central thing in the room is a grand piano, and music happens totally in the middle of the action, much more so than anything I've done before. I was nervous about that because when you place the instruments right in the heart of the story, you give yourself a number of challenges because somebody playing an instrument is such a beautiful thing to look at that it can upstage the central action if you're not careful.

The characters in Merrily have a decades-long journey. It's been cast with actors at various points along that age spectrum to varying success. Where did you start?

JD: I wanted people who would completely understand emotionally what it was to be 40, 30, 20 – people who had lived through those things emotionally. I didn't want to be the only person in the room saying, "Well, when you're 40 this is what it will feel like." [Laughs.] You have a situation where, I think this is the first time, where it's been played by three people who are at the older part of the way you can play the role. And that was an absolutely deliberate choice. I find that watching three people who are mature people playing 20-year-olds very touching, especially if they don't change costume all night. They can't – they're playing for each other all night.