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

By Adam Hetrick
14 Mar 2012

Raúl Esparza in the Doyle-directed Company.
photo by Paul Kolnik

The pairing of character and instrument always brings a new depth to the role in your production. What does your leading trio of Frank, Charley and Mary play?

JD: Malcolm Gets [Frank] is on piano. Daniel Jenkins [Charley] plays trumpet, and he also plays some of the stringed instruments. Becky Ann Baker [Mary] is basically the percussionist of the evening, and she also plays some double bass, which is rather divine. You could argue that Charley doesn't have to play because he's the person who writes the words. But when you start to do that to this work, it sticks out a mile somehow. It's always better in the end that everyone does something because it's kind of the nature of the beast, you know, that it's a group of players telling the story rather than, "My character isn't an instrumentalist." It doesn't really carry through.

Your collaborator Mary Mitchell Campbell has been along the journey with you since Sweeney Todd. How do you begin to map out the orchestral charts and the show itself?

JD: She and I will talk through each song and talk about the mood I want the song to have. Then I sort of give her an indication of who might be able to play for each song. Then, she'll come back to me with a sketch of the orchestration and I'll say, "Oh, that person could play," or "This is the person who really needs to be at the piano because the song could be more about them." She does a brilliant job. We go into the rehearsal with the orchestrations and then it is a logistical challenge to figure out: "OK, you're playing a flute line there and a flute is an instrument that you can put down, so I need you in this transition to play those six bars; put the flute down, move that piece of furniture, pick up the flute again and walk to that other place." It's a geographic challenge. I love that, of course. I happen to be working on the material of a man who loves puzzles, so it's a great puzzle in its own right and I guess the piece itself is such a puzzle in terms of its backwards journey. Actually, I think that way of working suits it rather well.

Your cast always makes it look effortless.

JD: What it does demand, that the actors love, I think, is a tremendous amount of repetition. You're asking the actors' mind and body to learn physical things, vocal things and often to be playing on an instrument a totally different line against what they're doing vocally. Somebody could be playing the violin and singing a vocal line at the same time and they're two totally different things – and they're walking.

When you look at a script, do certain characters strike you as being paired with a specific instrument or does the actor's preset skill determine that?

JD: First and foremost what's important to me is, "Can they act?" This is really something actors should do. This is not about taking jobs away from classical musicians. It's not about marginalizing in any way. It's simply its own form. I get slightly irritated when people call it a concept – it's the means to the end. I do think sometimes, "Wouldn't it be nice if this character played the cello, if they feel a mellow character, so they should play the violin or cello, maybe. Do you really want that young pretty girl blasting the trumpet?" And, maybe you do. But what I end up doing is asking who is the best person for the role. That way you get people who can make the instrument look like it belongs to the character.

As you mentioned before, people may tend to label you as that actor-musician director, but your work has clearly struck a creative nerve.

JD: Look, now Once is going to Broadway, and they play instruments. I'm thrilled about that. It's no longer that John Doyle thing. People are starting to realize that it's a language of its own; it's not just a cheap way of making musicals. It's just a different way of making musicals.