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John Doyle: ‘I was 53 when I won the Tony, and I was like the new kid’

John Doyle John Doyle

There are quite a few British nominees for this year’s Tony Awards, being presented on June 12 at New York’s Beacon Theatre. The mostly likely winner among them is Cynthia Erivo, the RADA-trained star of The Color Purple, but she will be joined among the nominees by her director, John Doyle. Doyle was himself a winner the first time he was nominated in 2006 for his production of Sweeney Todd. Like The Color Purple, which originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, it had humble beginnings, starting out life at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre.

“It’s a tremendous thing to be recognised in your peer group,” Doyle admits. “But as Elaine Stritch said to me in a message on my answerphone the day after I won, ‘I’m thrilled for you – but now put it on your mantelpiece and forget it.’ But we’re not Hollywood, we’re something else. In Britain, we look at prizes in a different way, anyway. And for me the prize is getting the show on – the story is the prize, the audience is the prize, the rest is icing on the cake.”

People talk about me as reducing things and being minimalist, though I don’t use those words myself

Yet for Doyle, it marked the birth of an entire new career. “I was 53 when I won the Tony and I was like a newcomer, the new kid on the block – and that was very revitalising. I’d run four British regional theatres – at Worcester, Cheltenham, Liverpool and York – and my husband and I were starting to think about taking it more gently. But then Sweeney Todd happened. It was the autumn of my career, and in world terms, the most successful part, though I don’t necessarily quantify success in that way myself.”

Sweeney Todd, which also played in the West End at Trafalgar Studios and on a regional tour before going to Broadway, stripped the show right back to a minimalist approach, and also had the actors serving as their own musicians – for Broadway, Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett played a tuba. “It was as much a risk for Sondheim as it was for me, a total reinvention of how you do that piece. And I became the go-to guy for when you want to reinvent something.”

The next year he was nominated again, but didn’t win, for a production of another Sondheim musical, Company (though the production won best revival of a musical). The technique of using actor-musicians that he’d developed in UK regional theatres wasn’t just about reducing the cost base of putting them on. “It was more than that – it was about asking an audience to imagine things in a different way, using highly theatrical but very simple techniques.”

He has applied those techniques, in turn, to other shows without the actors serving as their own musicians. There was Sondheim’s Road Show (first at New York’s Public Theater, then at London’s Menier) and now The Color Purple. The latter happened after he did the former in Southwark. “I was doing Road Show at the Menier and on the opening night [Menier producer David] Babani said to me he had this project and would I be interested. When he said it was The Color Purple, I said, ‘Are you mad? I’m male, white and British and a bit old for this.'”

But once again he stripped it right back to its essence – he freed it of a sense of spectacle that the original 2006 Broadway production invested in and instead returned to the essence of the storytelling. “Alice Walker’s novel made me want to do it, and I hope that because our production is so different to the one that was done on Broadway the first time, that’s what has made it work. I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense to Gary Griffin [who directed the original] and is a fine director, but I know how how hard it is to do musicals on a big Broadway stage for the first time. It’s much easier to a show in revival, when you don’t have all those voices in the room saying ‘Do it this way, try it that way.'”

At the same time, he fretted that his approach might alienate potential audiences. “People talk about me as reducing things and being minimalist, though I don’t use those words myself. But I was concerned that my kind of arthouse approach to theatre might alienate the audience, or that my desire for authenticity and not caricature might seem like I’d ‘whitened’ up the piece in some way. Fortunately neither of those things materialised. And it’s been a lovely, humbling lesson – do what you do, and do it with as much integrity as you can possibly do, and audiences of all types will respond to the story if the truth is being told.”

If there’s any justice, the truth that will be told on Sunday will see The Color Purple anointed the musical revival of the year. But Doyle is already on to his next job: next month he takes over as artistic director of Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, where he has previously directed Sondheim’s Passion and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. Right now, his production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is playing there, too (until June 19). “It’s a smaller theatre than I’ve ever run before and I didn’t think I’d do it again, but I felt that I had a legacy I could pass on.”

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