Changing The World
Doyle discusses his actor/musician staging of Merrily in Cincinnati
News & Notes
Two takes on Merrily We Roll Along
Review: Encores! Merrily was more than a concert
Review: Cincinnati production of Merrily used musical cues
John Doyle used actor/musicians to stage Merrily at the Cincinnati Playhouse
James Lapine directed Merrily for Encores!
Merrily’s score was re-orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick for Encores!
Encores! Merrily gets its own cast recording
Following Sondheim: Sondheim has influenced opera and musical theatre composer Ricky Ian Gordon since high school
Interview: Victoria Clark takes on Follies’ Sally … again
Interview: Into the Woods’ original Little Red Riding Hood, Danielle Ferland, has grown up
Professor Cornel West conversed with Sondheim on public radio
Meryle Secrest talks about being Sondheim’s biographer
SHINSAI benefit featured new lyrics for songs from Pacific Overtures
Composers have reinvented songs by Sondheim
Phyllis McGinley’s poem, “Love Note to a Playwright”
Productions and Reviews
Baltimore and Connecticut theatres co-produced Into the Woods
Three California colleges stage Sweeney Todd in one weekend
London’s 2ndCP delivers a heartfelt Assassins
Two revivals in the U.K.: Sweeney Todd (London) and Merrily We Roll Along (Wales)
Critical responses to Sweeney Todd’s London revival
Follies finds its way to Madrid
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Changing the world
Doyle discusses his actor/musician staging of Merrily in Cincinnati
INTERVIEW BY RICK PENDER
In February 2012, director John Doyle sat down for a conversation with The Sondheim Review about his most recent Sondheim production, a staging of Merrily We Roll Along for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (March 3-31, 2012). He began with an observation that he’s known the show for a long time: “I think the first production I saw was at the Guildhall [School of Music and Drama in London], but that was the ‘Hills of Tomorrow’ version.” It was 1983, he says, “and a lot of kids who are now West End stars were in it.”
He admits that he’s typically attracted to Stephen Sondheim’s most complicated and challenging shows: He’s taken on Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures, and he is set to direct Passion, a show he calls Sondheim’s “most operatic work,” in February 2013 for Classic Stage Company in New York City. He won’t use the actor/musician concept there, he says. “I don’t think it would suit that space. It’s a place used to classical texts, which I think will be good.” The company’s theatre seats 199.
There’s more room at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s Robert S. Marx Theatre, with a capacity of 626. Doyle knows and likes the space. He began his Tony Award-winning revival of Company there in 2006, and he was back in 2010 to stage Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In 2012, he returned to wrestle with Merrily, another of those “complicated and challenging” Sondheim shows.
The Sondheim Review: Why are you staging Merrily We Roll Along in Cincinnati?
John Doyle: [Cincinnati Playhouse Producing Artistic Director] Ed Stern asked me to come here when nobody knew who the hell I was. That was very flattering and meant a lot. When Sweeney Todd went to Broadway [in 2005], people wondered why I’d come to Cincinnati when I just had a show on Broadway. I hugely enjoyed being here [in 2006] with Company, not just because it was a success, but also because I felt supported. This way of working, of “Doyle-izing” a musical where the actors make the music, it’s not new or anything. But I’ve been updating it. Whether I was going to continue with it after Sweeney was a question for me. Should I be known for one thing? I’m only going to do this kind of work if (a) it suits the piece and (b) if it’s a place where the work is protected and understood. Doing Company in Cincinnati was a very happy experience. It was early on in my relationship with Steve [Sondheim], and he was supportive of the idea, and it worked. Then Ed asked me to stage Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which was somewhat controversial in terms of the production. Whenever anybody books me I always say, “It’s not going to be straight down the line. That’s not how my mind, my imagination works.” Ed was so supportive of that. And when I was doing that production, Ed asked if I’d do a work in his final season. I said, “I’ve got a feeling you’d like to see a musical.” He said he would, probably done the “Doyle-Sondheim” way. That sounded like a good bookend: Company is a George Furth-Sondheim show, and Merrily is a George Furth-Sondheim show. That seemed like a good “cycle” of work.
TSR: How has that worked out?
Doyle: By now I’ve built up a reputation, so people want to come here and work with me. We’ve got great, classic performers in this production. It’s really lovely, and this is almost the first time that I’m able to work with people who have worked with me before doing this kind of work. Many of them were in Company or were understudies for Company, one of them was an understudy on Sweeney Todd, some worked with me in Williamstown [Mass.], the only other place in America where I’ve done an actor/musician musical [a Rodgers and Hart compilation, Ten Cents a Dance]. Merrily is actually only the third musical of this kind that I’ve created here [in the U.S.].
TSR: Has this been another good experience?
Doyle: It’s lovely to have people around me who know what I do. With this kind of work it’s more complicated. It challenges a lot of rules. Some people find that hard to deal with; some people go with it. But it’s a challenge to many people. There are the preconceptions of those who work on the costumes or on what the environment should be, because this way of working is not naturalistic. It’s not natural to have a trumpet in your hand as you’re talking. The whole environment in which that happens has to be a non-naturalistic environment. For me, the shape of Cincinnati’s stage [a three-quarter thrust] helps that. There’s not a proscenium; it’s not remote. You are in the cockpit with the performers, and that helps.
TSR: It’s interesting that you chose to present Merrily in this way, because it strikes me as a more realistic piece than Company.
Doyle: Well, I don’t know that that’s really true. Before [I did] Company, everybody said, “Oh, Company is a problem show.” Why is that? Well, it’s very hard to care about the central character. He’s only a cipher. I don’t think anybody could possibly not have cared when Raúl Esparza sat down at that piano and began playing “Being Alive.” In Company you have a lot of people who don’t do an awful lot. They come on and act their scene, and then they’re not seen again until we have those “company” numbers. Company has a challenging device within it: It’s a series of one-act plays. Now there are other kinds of challenges — like Merrily with its backward chronology. But it is a story about a man who says, “If I didn’t have music, I would die. To me, music is everything.” In this production, he is surrounded by music and people from his life who are making this music. That’s just as poetic as Bobby going to the piano. If anything, potentially more so. In this production, all these performers are much more in the picture than they were in Company. In Company they sat behind, they looked down into the piece and they played for the piece. In Merrily, they’re all in the piece, all the time. Frank also says that writing music is not about words but rather about sounds and feelings. I want those people around him to be about the sounds and the feelings. It’s not just to think or to feel, but to respond poetically. The way I stage a show like this, the audience has to suspend its disbelief from the get-go: We don’t see people in real life walking around and playing [musical instruments]. We have to imagine something, because this is not reality. So for this production, I’m hoping that could be helpful in taking the backward journey in an environment where, to be frank, the audience is not going to be helped by people changing costumes. There isn’t any of that. These are 12 people in Frank Shepard’s psyche.
TSR: We were in Bobby’s head in your staging of Company. Are we in Frank’s head in your production of Merrily?
Doyle: At least 50 percent of the time, you will be taking the journey with him. There are more central characters in Merrily than in Company, which is the story of one man. There’s Charley, complex, wise-cracking Charley. And there’s Mary, the glue in their relationship. That glue is no longer useful, it doesn’t work anymore and that’s tragic. So I don’t want it to be about Frank to the point that Charley and Mary become less interesting. It’s about the three of them, about the price of success that potentially destroys friendship. In Greek terms, it’s when things go out of balance. We need all three of them.
TSR: Sondheim feels that Merrily has been fixed. Are you trying to do any repair work?
Doyle: No, it works totally. I’m not putting “The Hills of Tomorrow” back into it. I am following completely the version that James Lapine worked on with Steve and George [Furth]. However, we have only 13 people in the cast, and that means I can’t have quite the number of people that the script calls for. I didn’t want to have people playing two roles, because that would really confuse the audience. I have had to make choices; a few things get edited away in the text. My natural tendency is to be minimalist. But any director would do some trimming in rehearsals. Structurally, all of that stuff is still there.
TSR: So what’s different about your production?
Doyle: The principal difference is that the three central performers are older than the characters they are playing at the beginning of the show. I don’t know if that’s been done before. The original production used a very young company. The norm today is [to cast] performers in their late 20s or early 30s who can play both ways. I wanted to see if I could do it with people nearer to my own age, people who had experienced life. When Steve asked me who I was casting, and I said Becky Ann Baker. He said, “Oh, she’s great … but she did it 20 years ago.” I mentioned Malcolm Gets, who’s done the show before, too. Steve went, “Hmm, that’s kind of different.” He didn’t say much more. He knows who I am and what I do . There are some things about the production that will surprise him. I think he might be a little disappointed if I didn’t do that. When Mary sings at the beginning of the show, “Charley, … make it like it was, … we were nicer then,” she’s singing about “I don’t like who I am now.” To watch a woman old enough to think that, to sing that, is very poignant. One of the challenges of Merrily is that at the beginning of this story the people are not very likable. They’re complicated, angry, broken, disappointed. But a lot of grown-ups have all that stuff inside. That’s why I love the piece, because I’m perfectly comfortable with the dark places. If you get that played genuinely by people who really are that age, it brings sadness or poignancy that may alleviate some of the brittleness that happens when somebody younger is playing older. These people will not make any effort to look younger as the show goes on, but they will act younger. Because the actors are people who have been younger, they know what that is. They can fill that acting with an enormous amount of feeling, and be young again with great joy … and a great sadness.
TSR: It must be very challenging to select performers with these criteria as well as musical ability.
Doyle: Yes, it’s a very complicated balance. When you’re starting, you have to figure out what you’re trying to say. I knew that I wanted the heartbeat of this show to be done by an older company; I wanted to explore what I felt about age and what I felt about the people in the piece. Then what do we need musically? It’s very helpful if Franklin Shepard plays the piano — because he’s a composer. Dramaturgically, I didn’t need Mary or Charley to play anything. But if you can find people who can play, it makes them more generous. You always need a double-bass player because you have to have that in the root of the orchestra. It’s better not to have a percussion section, which means that what you hear in the score is different, because it was written with a percussion section. You have a little bit of rhythm when you need it, provided by people who are not the musicians. For Merrily’s score you need certain sounds. Not necessarily the sounds people are used to hearing on the cast recording, but you do need trumpets and a brass sound, and you need a clarinet sound. It’s very valuable if you have violin players because those are useful for walking around and playing. So you go through the process of thinking, “What would somebody play if he was the agent?” You might look for a violin player who’s sexy or whatever. But that’s not really your priority. It makes me laugh when people write their university theses about these productions: “This person plays this because … ” Well, no, not really. He played that because there was nobody else to play it! It’s very pragmatic, and it’s about what’s available.
TSR: Mary-Mitchell Campbell needs a full “palette” of players to re-orchestrate one of your productions. Do you confer with her about characteristics you are seeking?
Doyle: I talk with her about what I want each one to feel like. We have to abandon the cast recording and make this only about the “voice” of the violin. Maybe we’ll say, “Can we focus on a relationship musically at this point?” It’s all about being spare. She’s so careful about this. This is her third piece doing this; she obviously understands me. It’s the same process I go through with the costume designs and everything else. It’s all about collaboration. She will listen and say, “Oh, let’s take that out; it’s getting in the way of the words. Let’s not stand in the way of those lyrics. Let’s make sure they are communicated and clear and valued.” When you physically get around to doing it, well, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game. You have to have people who cease to worry about making an exit here or playing the violin there. “Leaving” might mean turning your back. For many actors, that has very little to do with what we perceive as natural. It’s natural for a child to do that, so what we do is put them back in touch with primal storytelling.
TSR: Does Merrily appeal to you because it’s a show about show business?
Doyle: I’ve lived my life in the business of show. But I never went into it because it was show business. I went into it to make theatre. I went into it because I had the absolute belief that it could change the world. That makes me like Charley and Mary and Frank, I guess. I still believe that. But it gets harder to change the world as you get older, because the world gets harder. Of course Merrily takes its theme from show business. Do we write, do we collaborate or do we make money? What does applause do for you? Applause can equal success, and success can equal a lot of things. And it’s about young people who are starting up and becoming successes in different ways. I know what those temptations are; I’ve had some experience with it myself. But I don’t really think that’s what this piece is about.
TSR: So what is it about?
Doyle: It’s about friendship and about artists, and about the belief that you can change the world. The people in this story don’t quite hold onto all that. The themes are really psychologically complex. As time goes on and as these pieces of theatre mature, it’s like wine: It gets better! You become more familiar with it. “Not a day goes by” [he makes “air quotes”] that I listen to these songs and hear something that I didn’t hear before! |TSR|
RICK PENDER, TSR’s managing editor since 2004, covers theatre in Cincinnati for CityBeat, an alternative newsweekly.