EXCLUSIVE: Everywhere you look today, some “disruptive” creative type is rolling out his or her “passion project,” and far be it from Broadway to elude the trend. Give a pass to Scottish director John Doyle, however. He’s been bringing Broadway passion projects marked by a distinctly disruptive artistic impulse throughout the decade since he first unleashed Stephen Sondheim’s epic masterpiece Sweeney Todd in an intimate theater with little scenery and actors tromping around the stage blowing their own horns and plucking their own strings (who can forget Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, tooting her tuba?). Doyle won the Tony for that and came back the following season with a similar smackdown of Sondheim’s Company, garnering a second Tony nomination for his direction.Now we’re heading into the final stretch of shows opening in time for Tony Awards eligibility, and another season that has been superbly disrupted by John Doyle. His revival of The Color Purple, his fifth Broadway show, accomplished a number of unexpected things, notably recasting a successful but underrated musical as an artistic and popular hit, and making a star of Cynthia Erivo, an actress previously unknonwn to American audiences.
So even before any Tony nominations are announced, we’re launching our Tony Awards watch with Doyle on the very day The Color Purple is back in the news, with the announcement that beginning May 10, Heather Headley — Tony winner in 2000 for the title role in Elton John’s Aida — will replace Jennifer Hudson as the sultry singer Shug Avery.
I spoke with Doyle Thursday morning as he was about to begin rehearsals for Peer Gynt. Peer Gynt? you may reasonably ask. That sprawling, untamable — some would say unstageable — modern masterwork by Henrik Ibsen that has five acts and about 7,643 characters, give or take. Yes, that Peer Gynt — only Doyle’s doing it with a company of seven on an East Village stage the size of a large postage stamp.
A few months ago, Doyle was named artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, where he already had staged a luminous production of Sondheim’s Passion and an ambitious one (that’s kind) of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. Peer Gynt, which opens next month, is the last CSC production under artistic director Brian Kulick; Doyle takes over the reins in July. CSC, a non-pofit company, has 2,200 subscribers and an annual budget of $3.5 million, which is about the price tag for one Broadway show not accompanied by music.
DEADLINE: You wouldn’t be the obvious choice to direct The Color Purple.
JOHN DOYLE: When it was first suggested to me, I said, “The Color Purple? You’re out of your mind. I’m a white, middle-aged British man, and those are four things against me doing The Color Purple and they are all equally wrong. Also I’d seen the original and I thought, Me? I’m the guy who does Sondheim.”
DEADLINE: And yet here we are.
DOYLE: I decided to go back to the source material, the Alice Walker novel, and I thought This is beautiful. If I could get close to the spirit of Alice Walker — I went to school in Athens, Georgia and I remember what it felt like to be not that far from segregation.
DEADLINE: The playwright Marsha Norman wrote the book for the musical. I imagine she felt strongly that she’d gotten close to that spirit — she’s Southern as well. What were your conversations with her like?
DOYLE: We had lovely conversations. I said that, to be pragmatic, I can’t spend 20 minutes doing dance in Africa [as was done in the original production), we don’lt have the money for it, can’t afford the costumes. And I said I think the piece is about 30 to 40 minutes too long. She was incredibly gracious and said “Do what you need to do, and if there’s something I want you to put back in, I’ll call you.” She never did call.
DEADLINE: You have this extraordinary group of actors, led by Cynthia Erivo, who first performed it for you in the production at London’s Menier Chocolate Fasctory, and Jennifer Hudson, who became a star with the film version of Dreamgirls. The director Hal Prince says that 90 percent of directing is casting. Do you think that’s true?
DOYLE: I think I don’t agree, actually. Obviously casting is important. But what’s most important to me is trying to explore what can only be done in the theater. I’m not interested in making films on stage. Technology in the theater doesn’t really do it for me. The audience’s presence and imagination is crucial to the way I tell a story. There is something ritualistic about the theater. You can call it Brechtian. People say things about me that I wouldn’t say about myself. Calling me a minimalist is better than being identified as the man who asked actors to carry their instruments. That was a means to an end, not a gimmick.
DEADLINE: The end being, connecting to the audience?
DOYLE: The Color Purple sings directly to the audience, as if everyone is in the same church at the same time. With every show, you start out thinking it’s going be different but they end up being about the stories inside yourself. The Color Purple and The Visit [the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Terrence McNally musical Doyle staged on Broadway last year] are entirely different stories but there’s something in both about life, about resurrection, about how we find love and how we break each other.
GERARD: You’re at the peak of your directing career. Why would you want to take on the pressure of running a non-profit company?
DOYLE: Years ago, Steve Sondheim said “Let’s go out, I’ll take you to the Classic Stage Company to see Three Sisters.” And we got there and I thought, Oh God this is where my heart lies. The Chocolate Factory is not dissimilar. I asked my agent to reach out to see if I could meet them, and I really liked Brian Kulick. New York only thinks I do musicals. We went round, and three shows later, I’m now doing Peer Gynt. Seven actors, two hours, no intermission, so I guess you could say it’s a “take” on Peer Gynt.
DEADLINE: But then they asked you to take over the ship.
DOYLE: I was honored, but I gave it real thought. I’d done the job four times before in Great Britain.Yet I missed the family and making theater in one venue.
DEADLINE: You’re not worried about the demands of constant fundraising? In Great Britain you had the advantage of public subsidy that’s a distant memory here.
DOYLE: We have a really nice board. They know I’m the artistic director. I’m hear to lead the art of CSC. My job is in the rehearsal room.