|John Doyle with his WOS Award for Sweeney Todd|
20 Questions WithÖ John Doyle
Date: 18 September 2006
Tony Award-winning director John Doyle, whose production of Amadeus opens at Wiltonís Music Hall this week, talks about actor-musicians, Elaine Stritchís advice about awards & why rivalry between composers makes good drama.
Director and designer John Doyle is perhaps best known now for his multi award-winning 25th anniversary revival of Stephen Sondheimís Sweeney Todd, performed by a multi-tasking cast of just nine in his trademark actor-musician style. After originating at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, it toured the UK, transferred for an extended West End season at first Trafalgar Studios and then the New Ambassadors Theatre, and is now playing on Broadway.
In the UK, the production won the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoersí Choice Awards for Best Musical Revival and Best Ensemble Performance and was nominated for the Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production and for the Evening Standard Best Musical Award; in the US this year, it has won Criticsí Circle and Drama Desk Awards and, last but not least, two Tony Awards Ė Best Orchestrations and, for Doyle himself, Best Direction of a Musical.
Doyle followed Sweeney Todd with Mack and Mabel, another actor/musician production that started at the Watermill and, following a regional tour, moved into the West Endís Criterion Theatre with David Soul and Janie Dee earlier this year. The 1974 Broadway musicalís composer, Jerry Herman, declared Doyleís production to be one of the best heíd ever seen.
Doyle has been artistic director of four theatres: the Swan in Worcester, the Everyman in Cheltenham, the Everyman in Liverpool, and the Theatre Royal, York.
As well as his numerous accolades for Sweeney Todd, Doyleís other awards in musical theatre include: the British Theatre Award for Best Production of a Musical for The Gondoliers (Watermill and West End) in 2001, Fiddler on the Roof (Watermill) in 2002 and Moll Flanders (York) in 2005. His productions of Cabaret (Watermill 1999), Irma La Douce( Watermill, 1998) and Into the Woods (York, 1997), were nominated for the same award.
His other stage credits include Sondheimís Company, which is transferring from Cincinnati to Broadway later this year, Peter Pan at the Oxford Playhouse, The Taylorís Daughter and The Elixir of Love for Welsh National Opera, Fast Forward Figaro for the Buxton Festival, Gypsy in Dublin, Ice, a new opera for City of London Sinfonia, Anyone Can Whistle, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The King and I in Cheltenham, Candide in Liverpool, Bells Are Ringing in Greenwich, and Sweet Charity and Annie in Worcester.
At the Watermill, where heís an associate director, his productions include Pinafore Swing, A Star Danced (which he also wrote), The Last Days of the Empire, Ten Cents a Dance (also at the Cardiff International Festival of Music), Only a Matter of Time, Carmen (also at Covent Garden Festival), Piaf, Cinderella and the Enchanted Slipper and Beauty and the Beast.
Doyleís Shakespeare productions include A Midsummer Nightís Dream at Regentís Park, and he also co-wrote Shakespeare for Dummies as part of the highly successful ...For Dummies series of books.
Doyle is now applying his actor-musician approach to a play, Peter Shafferís 1979 modern classic, Amadeus, which stars Matthew Kelly as Mozartís nemesis Salieri for a limited season at east Londonís historic Wiltonís Music Hall.
Date & place of birth
Iím 53, and I was born in Inverness.
Lives now in
Hastings, on the south coast.
Training? What made you want to become a director?
I trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD). I donít know really, to be frank, what made me want to direct. I went to drama school when I was so young and didnít even really know what directing was - I thought it was something to do with traffic! I thought I would be a drama teacher as that was something my parents had told me I was allowed to do because at least Iíd have a teaching diploma. Then I went to America and decided I was most interested in the theatre that wasnít about performing. Directing gives you a little bit more say over what you choose to do. I felt my skill was as a person who would lead the storytelling, rather than being one of the storytellers on stage.
First big break
I think the first big break is always your first job, which was working in a Perthshire theatre acting as the assistant stage manager. I brushed the floor and understudied all the menís parts in the season and learned an enormous amount. I think that if you get started at all, if anyone wants to employ you, that is in itself a break.
Career highlights to date
I am proud of the fact Iíve always kept working and kept going, and that Iíve been part of developing a particular style of theatre and have been pretty instrumental in moving that forward and making it something a little unique with the work Iíve done with actor/musicians.
What do awards mean to you? (Both Whatsonstage.com Awards and Tonys!)
Itís very nice to get a prize. I didnít get any at school and have made up for it in the rest of my life. Itís lovely but itís very dangerous to become seduced by it all. You have to just get on with the next job - I truly believe youíre only as good as what youíre doing today and you canít go into something thinking ďoh, I can get another prize out of thatĒ. Of course, winning is a nice experience and itís amazing to hear your name read out and go up there and collect your award. But my friend Elaine Stritch said, ďIím pleased that you won the Tony but now find a shelf and put it on itĒ. Thatís the best advice. Otherwise, you start believing things people say, and if you believe the good, then you have to believe the bad.
One of my favourites has been Company, the musical I did earlier this year in Cincinnati; we start rehearsing for Broadway in two weeks. Itís my favourite because itís very simple, clear and precise. It is pure and very accessible, with lots of great songs. In terms of looking back on things Iíve actually got through to seeing on stage, thatís been one of the best.
Peter Brook and Trevor Nunn. Their productions are always full of inspiration and clarity and theyíre consummate storytellers. A directorís job is to tell a story, not to put stuff on there that doesnít help the telling of it. Youíve got to not stand in the way.
Favourite playwrights or opera/musical writers
Mozart, which is fortuitous considering Iím working on Amadeus. Stephen Sondheim for musicals. And my favourite playwright would probably be Ibsen.
What shows would you like to direct that you havenít yet? Are there any youíd like to direct again?
I have no idea, I can never know the answer to that. I suppose Iíd like to do more Shakespeare, and Chekhov, and all Sondheimís material because Iíve done quite a few and I love his work. Itís always nice when people come and surprise you and ask you to do a job. You can never direct Shakespeare enough times, so I look back and think ďoh another Much Ado might be niceĒ because you see Shakespeare differently and see the world differently as you get older Ė otherwise, thereís no point getting any older. But I generally prefer to tell new stories.
If you hadnít become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I think I probably would have gone into the Church. Religion is very important to me.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
I think the most recent thing was Brian Frielís play Faith Healer on Broadway; itís a wonderful example of great storytelling. I think the first production I saw was a farce at the Whitehall many years ago. My granny took me and I donít remember anything about it except seeing the curtain going up and having the experience of sitting in a theatre and enjoying a story and the fantasy of the play.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Put more money into it. Weíve been very fortunate in this country because we have something Americans donít with subsidies. Itís as important to put money into the arts as education and health. The projection of peopleís voices should be subsidised by the government because otherwise the stories told would only be stories told by people who have the money to do it themselves and it would become completely subjective as opposed to objective. The government should also give money to new voices who havenít had a chance to shine. Otherwise, how do we find new artists?
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I really think I would like to have been one of the men on that spaceship when man first landed on the moon. That would have been an amazing out-of-body experience.
I like a lot of the writings of Peter Brook about theatre, and all of Charles Dickensí work.
Favourite holiday destinations
Italy. I have a home there and thatís where we always are, I wouldnít go anywhere else now. I spend a lot of my time travelling for work. My idea of a holiday is to be at home in a foreign country.
Favourite after-show haunts
Any bar near the theatre!
What is it about Amadeus that made you want to direct it?
Itís a marvellous story about a man called Salieri who saw himself as being the destroyer of Amadeus and wanted to create his own infamy by destroying Mozart because he couldnít match his talent. It makes him angry and drives him on. Itís a marvellous example of what fame can do to people and the search for fame and how many people maybe shouldnít have that. Itís a story about what makes human beings tick. Itís a beautiful play. And I get to hear Mozart all day.
What do you like most about this production?
The story is very clear. The actors physically play the music themselves, which is lovely. And I think Matthew Kelly is wonderful as Salieri. Also, I love Wiltonís Music Hall. Itís terrific. I urge people to come and see it.
You are well known for your successful actor-musician productions of musicals. Has it been difficult applying the format to a play?
Itís not been particularly different applying those techniques to a play and using the same skills with a text as opposed to a musical. Iíve really enjoyed it.
Do you feel people have come to expect all your productions to feature actor/musicians?
Possibly. But I donít mind about that. I think itís better to be known for something than for nothing at all.
What are your future plans?
Iím taking Company to Broadway, and then Iíll be working on The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for Los Angeles Opera, and Lucia di Lammermoor for Scottish Opera.
- John Doyle was speaking to Caroline Ansdell