The Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” nominated for four Tony Awards and probably on its way to winning at least one of them, is an impressive achievement by any measure. But it’s particularly impressive for theatergoers who saw the musical in its original production a decade ago. The revival feels like an entirely different show.
Which is funny, because it’s really not. “It’s five or ten words different from what it was the first time,” said Marsha Norman (” ‘Night, Mother”), the show’s book writer. “The top two pages of the second act.”
So how to explain how different the production feels? Credit John Doyle, the Scottish director who’s become the go-to guy for stripping away preconceived notions about a show to get to its beating heart. In a few recent projects, he’s done that with the participation of a musical’s original writers, helping creators resolve any unfinished business and emerging with what can often feel like a whole new experience.
In the case of “Color Purple,” the differences stem from the director’s relentless focus on the main thrust of the piece — the character arc of the protagonist Celie, and her longing to see her sister Nettie — and his strict avoidance of any onstage technology that might slow down storytelling.
“Here’s the important thing that I think John is doing in the American theater: It’s getting rid of musical transitions,” Norman says. “John is literally wiping them off the map. I’m finishing a show right now” — a revisit of 1991 musical “The Secret Garden — “and I’m taking out every single one we have all put in.”
Overall, the book and music of “Color Purple” had little more done to it than some trims here and here. But for other shows on which Doyle has worked, like the 2008 Off Broadway production “Road Show” and the 2015 Broadway staging of “The Visit,” the director helped guide some significant retooling, made by creative teams looking to further refine a project they felt they hadn’t quite gotten right.
“There is a little part of show doctor that lies inside me,” Doyle said. “More than a little bit, if I’m honest. So I’m a person that people go to if it’s a show that maybe didn’t quite work the first time.”
Doyle had already worked with Stephen Sondheim, and won a 2006 Tony Award for his revival of “Sweeney Todd,” when Sondheim and book writer John Weidman decided to approach Doyle to direct a brewing revival of “Road Show.” That musical, about the adventures of two brothers in early 20th century America, had had a long, rocky development path that began with a 1999 workshop at New York Theater Workshop (with Sam Mendes directing and Nathan Lane starring), and then a 2003 production directed by Harold Prince that played Chicago and D.C. under the title “Bounce.”
After seeing Doyle’s productions of “Sweeney” and of Sondheim’s “Company,” Weidman thought Doyle would make a good partner for “Road Show.” “What I saw in both ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Company’ was an emphasis on clarity, and an identification of exactly what the piece was meant to deliver,” Weidman recalled. “There was this feeling that everything that happened onstage needed to be necessary and sufficient, and if it didn’t meet that criteria, it would move into the wings. Given where we were with the material, that seemed like it would be particularly useful.”
As both Weidman and Doyle remember it, early conversations about the piece pinpointed the central ideas of the musical, while Doyle did an edit of the script getting rid of everything that seemed to obscure those ideas. Whereas Prince came up with an elaborate production to emphasize the show’s recurring theme of travel, the set design (also by Doyle) for the new production was an artfully arranged pile of suitcases.
“Landing on that idea of the set was identifying exactly what the show was about and putting that onstage,” said Weidman. “The luggage made a statement about the writing.” (The production played the Public Theater in 2008, and moved to the Menier Chocolate Factory in London for a 2011 run.)
Doyle went through a similar process with “The Visit,” the musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally. Like “Road Show,” that project had also had a bumpy ride over the years of its existence — including the death of Ebb. Doyle started his work on the show with a private workshop at Pace University that ended in a “physicalized reading” that “cleared debris,” according to Doyle.
“I can’t really, truly do what I do until I’ve got actors in the room,” Doyle said. “I can talk about it, but I’m not very good at intellectualizing it. When I say, ‘Well, I’m going to do it with very little’ — really, what does that mean? Very little can be enormous, but what I mean is about physical structure. It’s easier to understand what I do when I have the actor there to show you.”
Both Weidman and Norman said that the director’s focus on actors and on a simple, spare production design allows for a gratifying sense of freedom, not only to speed up the storytelling but also to allow writers to make changes in the material without necessitating major technical reshuffles. Both of them also cite the director’s mild temperament. “The temperament creates a conversation, not a mandate,” Norman said.
“I was absolutely taught the director’s job is to serve the writer,” Doyle noted. “It’s not your story.”
Which means that sometimes he pushes for trims that writers won’t allow. Take the song “Any Little Thing,” performed by Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe in the second act of “Color Purple.” To hear Doyle and Norman talk, it sounds like Doyle wanted the seductive tune cut completely. It wasn’t.
“And there’s a still a scene in ‘The Color Purple’ that I don’t think is necessary,” Doyle also admitted. “But Marsha likes it.”