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Bringing It To A Doyle

Tony Award-winning director John Doyle does double duty on the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Peter Grimes and the Broadway musical A Catered Affair. logo
John Doyle
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
John Doyle is a very busy fellow right now. On February 28, his production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes debuts at the Metropolitan Opera, marking his first job with the august institution. And he's about to go back into rehearsals for A Catered Affair -- the Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical he directed last fall at San Diego's Old Globe Theater -- which begins previews at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre on March 25, not to mention directing the Acting Company's April 7 benefit The Ladies Who Sing Sondheim, with such stars as Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone, at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theater. Nonetheless, the always affable Doyle -- who won the 2006 Tony Award for Sweeney Todd and helmed the 2007 Tony-winning revival of Company -- somehow found time to ring me up to talk about his career.

THEATERMANIA: This is your first time directing for the Metropolitan Opera. How is it different than directing for Broadway?
JOHN DOYLE: For one thing, the lead time is huge. You have to do the technical stuff the summer before the show. I thought that was a horrible idea, since I am so used to the process being organic, and while having to make those decisions before you rehearse was hard, it ends up being liberating. I found that a good set tells you what to do. Of course, working at the Met is on a scale like nothing I've ever done, and it was scary. But our designer, Scott Pask, has found a way to make the stage grow closer and smaller as the opera goes on. You can make beautiful images, but if they're too far upstage, you can't hear the singers.

TM: Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, suggested you do Peter Grimes. How familiar were you with the material?
JD: I had listened to it before, but never seen it -- which was also true of Sweeney Todd. I think it's a healthy situation, because you're not influenced by your predecessors. Plus, I live in a fishing village in England; so I have a familiarity with this type of community. And I've always been interested in the role of outsider. I know what it's like to be the kid left out at school. And my job as director is to be the person looking in. But what also attracted me to the piece is that Peter's moral dilemma is complicated; you can see his complexity with sympathy, even if you don't condone his hurting another person.

TM: Although you weren't involved in the casting process, Peter is being played by Anthony Dean Griffey, who starred in your production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the L.A. Opera. What has it been like working with him again?
JD: It's been great working with him again; he's a good guy. I'm enjoying all the singers. You come to a job like this more afraid than if you had cast them; and you know they expect a lot of you because you've won all these awards. My job is to get the singers to approach their roles as if they were actors.

TM: How else do you see your job as an "opera director?"
JD: Ultimately, my job is to make sure truth is being told on stage. I've often gone to the opera and felt like I didn't know who was talking to whom. I know there's some added clarity at the Met, because they have these supertitles on the backs of the seat, but in a way, I wish they wouldn't, or at least I don't want the audience to rely on them. Accessibility is important; but I don't want them to distance the audience from the action.

TM: Have you worked much on A Catered Affair since it closed at the Old Globe?
JD: Harvey and John and I have been working together on it when we can, especially on Harvey's character, the gay uncle Winston. It's not easy for a performer as well known as Harvey to be allowed to explore something, especially in the way he wants it to be. I think what happened is that his character is meant to be light relief, and because he's very good at it, people thought he was trying to be the funny man in the middle, which isn't true. Being an out gay man during the 1950s was not so acceptable, so the way to be accepted was to be a clown. Still, we're trying to "re-angle" the role so not to stand in Harvey's way or the show's way.

Tom Wopat and Faith Prince in A Catered Affair
TM: The buzz on Faith Prince's performance as Aggie is pretty amazing, isn't it?
JD: Faith is pretty special. Every actor has a time in their career to get the opportunity to show a range the audience doesn't expect, and this is it for her. Plus, her work is balanced by Tom Wopat, who's fantastic, and Leslie Kritzer, who has been waiting for her moment to shine in a full-bodied role.

TM: There was also a lot of talk from San Diego about two things. One, that no one plays instruments on stage, and two, your use of silences throughout the musical. Reactions?
JD: Yes, I am capable of getting people to act, speak, and sing without an instrument in their hands. I don't know if I'll even do instruments again. And I didn't realize silence was such an extraordinary thing; I think it's a more interesting reflection on society than on me that everyone thinks Faith is in a Beckett musical. She's playing a woman who feels her husband doesn't love her because he's a man who doesn't communicate in the way she wants. So they sit in silence because they're afraid to do otherwise. In the end, it's better to be known for something than nothing at all.

TM: You just directed your last show at the Watermill Theatre in England, Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along as a promise to your late friend, Jill Fraser, who ran the theater. Can you talk about that experience?
JD: I came out of it with more than I went in -- not in my bank account, but in my soul. I really enjoyed the opportunity to look at Frank, Charlie, and Mary -- and I am afraid I am an amalgam of them all. What appeals to me about Merrily is that it asks: "What happens to your life if you have a hit?" Of course, it changes your choices, and can change your life. Thank god, I was 55, not 25, when Sweeney happened, because I had been through everything else. Otherwise, I would have had no idea what not to do. As to any speculation about whether it will move to the West End, that question is so far down the list on what I care about. Commercial success is truly not why I did the show.

TM: Speaking of Sondheim, you're going to direct a new version of Bounce in the fall at the Public Theater. What can you tell me about that project?
JD: Stephen's still re-writing the score, he and John Weidman (the book writer) and I are planning to do a lot of work together. I feel so charged by what's being done and so excited about working down at the Public. I think it's a great place for the piece, because it will encourage people to take it seriously. I haven't even begun casting; frankly, I haven't got the head space to think about it right now.

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