Featured Player: John Doyle
LONDON The fact the current revival of “Sweeney Todd” recouped in 19 weeks, faster than any other Broadway production of a Sondheim show, is the responsibility of one man: director John Doyle. Like many a Brit on Broadway, Doyle has had the temerity to square up to an American classic and reinvent it in startling fashion.
Better yet, lightning has just struck twice.
Sondheim was so happy with “Sweeney” that when Doyle approached him about reviving another show from his back catalog, this time for production in Cincinnati, he suggested “Company.” “It’s a wonderful production,” Sondheim tells Variety, “one which increases the ‘seriousness’ — not solemnity — factor of the show without losing the flexibility and swiftness. And it points up the sharp and occasional surreal brilliance of George Furth’s dialogue.”
The result? More producers than you can shake a baton at are circling the production. Sondheim says no deal has been done, but he’s confident the show will come to Broadway next season.
Doyle will try for a single-season hat trick when his staging of Jerry Herman’s silent-film era musical, “Mack and Mabel,” opens April 10 in the West End, with a cast led by David Soul and Janie Dee.
The original motivation behind Doyle’s mini-musicals revolution was to cut production costs by having the actors double as musicians. In Hal Prince’s 1979 premiere, “Sweeney Todd” ran with a cast of 27 and a band of 29. With no loss of power, passion or artistic integrity, Doyle’s company numbers just 10 performers who act, sing and play the lot. Small wonder that aficionados who christened a previous scaled-down revival “Teeny Todd” have dubbed Doyle’s show “Teeny Tiny Todd.”
Musing in a Miami hotel room upon the sudden rocketing of his U.S. career, 53-year-old, Scottish-born Doyle is refreshingly down to earth. “I’m not going to pretend to you that what’s happening isn’t exciting, but I was completely happy with where my career was going. I’ve been running regional theaters, mounting productions, doing what I do. And, really, when you’re in the rehearsal room, it doesn’t matter where the work is.”
He’s also anxious to point out he wasn’t the first person to use actor-musicians. He cites Bob Carlton, who teamed a group of hyphenates with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” added cult sci-fi and created “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” which famously beat “Miss Saigon” for best musical at the 1990 Olivier Awards. “But that was rock ‘n’ roll,” says Doyle. “I think I was the first to use the approach to investigate classic musicals.”
As artistic director of Liverpool’s Everyman Theater from 1990-94, he was stymied by grant cuts to regional theaters under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government but still nursed a desire to stage Bernstein’s gargantuan “Candide.” He reconceived it for 12 actor-musicians (“Frankly, back then I was lucky to get them”) and the show’s success led him to finesse his approach with other greats, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers.”
Those last three plus “Sweeney” were all developed at another regional house, the tiny Watermill Theater hidden in leafy Berkshire countryside astride, yes, a watermill. Currently under threat due to the recent death of its owner and indefatigable artistic director Jill Fraser, that venue also served as midwife to Doyle’s next show, “Mack and Mabel,” which has completed a successful U.K. tour and is now previewing at London’s 600-seat Criterion Theater.
Where “Company” was spryly reorchestrated by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, “Mack and Mabel” reunites Doyle with orchestrator-arranger Sarah Travis, a veteran of several of his stagings, including “Sweeney.” Her dramatic ear is acute enough to be seriously versatile when casting. For “Sweeney” in London, naive Tobias was a flautist; in New York, he’s a violinist: different orchestral ingredients but the same flavor.
Unlike that show, an acknowledged masterpiece, “Mack and Mabel” is a leading contender in the great-score-shame-about-the-show stakes. Has Doyle solved the notorious book problems?
“This way of working is anarchic enough to help the imperfect book, because it’s very visual. It opens some doors. It allows the score to have a physical life. Watching and listening to actor-musicians, you understand more about why people make that music and sing those songs.”
Eager to prove he’s no one-trick pony, Doyle is reverting to a traditional, grander-scale approach with his next assignments: the Brecht/Weill opera “Mahagonny” at L.A. Opera, with Audra McDonald and Patti Lupone; and Donizetti’s full-blooded soprano-shocker “Lucia di Lammermoor” for Scottish Opera. Oh, and Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” at the historic Wilton’s Music Hall near the Tower of London.
“It’ll be great to do a play again,” he sighs, happily.
He remains a shade equivocal about the praise being heaped upon him. “Will the honeymoon end? Probably. That this is being seen as so unusual is rather a sad indictment of our theatergoing. All I’ve done is look at these works differently to make people listen and have to use their imaginations … but that’s my job, isn’t it?”