Interview with Allegro Director John Doyle

Scott Ebersold: What attracted you to choosing ALLEGRO as the next installment of CSC’s Musical Theatre Initiative?

John Doyle: I wanted to find something that could follow the production of Passion, that had some link with that. The link was that Steven Sondheim, who wrote Passion, was the intern when Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote this show and I love what he learned about musical theatre by doing this show.

Also, I felt that there was something in the arc of the story that was quite classic, like an everyman story where you’re following the journey of one person. The musical, of course, has a Greek chorus style in it, so I thought that there was something about how you take a more modern version of that classical idea and put it into a musical.

So, those were all the threads. And I was interested in the themes. I think that’s a fair thing – if you’re going to direct something, you’ve got to have something to say with whatever it is.


Scott: And what would you say the theme is?

John Doyle: I think the theme is: how do you follow your dream without becoming converted or twisted by commercial things; how does your ambition stay intact – not that you shouldn’t be ambitious, but how do you ensure that you’re making the best of your talents. I think that Hammerstein – who was probably more of a driving force behind the piece than Rodgers – what he was writing about was that here he was being a successful composer-writer and suddenly everybody wanted him to do stuff, like sit on boards and go to cocktail parties and help them to raise money. That stopped him from having time to write, to be the artist that he was. I think it’s that element that I’m really interested in: how do you, in today’s world, marry the need to raise money for the art that you want to make, but at the same time not allow that to topple over the actual art itself.


S: ALLEGRO’s initial run was somewhat problematic –why do you think that was?

JD: It was considered a flop really. I wish we had flops like that nowadays. I think it was problematic because people must have had an expectation of what those writers were going to do. They both had extensive careers – Hammerstein with Rodgers later on, but also with other people, with Jerome Kern – Showboat was years before. I think of Showboat as being the first great, classic American musical. It changed the form. Rodgers, who had worked with Lawrence Hart – there was a darker side to that. It’s basically fun – Boys from Syracuse, Babes in Arms – there are lots of tunes you can hum. That’s not to belittle it, but that’s what had been used – the vaudevillian, the inheritance of the vaudevillian form in music. Then they wrote Oklahoma!, which broke lots of rules –like it didn’t start with a big onstage chorus…there were lots of things it did. It has at its heart some great anthems, one of which, “we know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand,” became the oldest American anthem in its own right. Then Carousel, again dealing with some interesting themes of death and so on, but it has “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, these wonderful, wonderful songs. Then they did the movie of State Fair, but that’s also quite light of tone.

Here they were trying something different. The first few songs of the piece are fragments really, that eventually lead to one song. It’s not got the usual musical theatre structure. It’s trying to experiment. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first experimental musical. I suppose, as with any success, if an audience comes along, what they expect of people who are successful is that they repeat their own success. Here, we have two guys who had been hugely successful doing a particular kind of thing, and they used artistry, they said, we’re going to try something else here, we’re going to break the form, and the audience wasn’t prepared to go with it.


S: You’ve been given the freedom by the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate to rework the book – what has that entailed?

JD: It’s something that I sort of do in the rehearsal room, really. What I did beforehand was I trimmed down the book a bit, not very much. I took one or two sections out that I thought, “We’re never going to be able to do that bit on the stage where we’re playing, with the methodology we’re using of storytelling”. I didn’t get rid of anything that I felt was going to stop the story from moving forward. The piece was first directed by a remarkably famous choreographer, Agnes de Mille. Inevitably, what she did was use the language that she knew as a storytelling device. Well, I am not Agnes de Mille, and the platform at CSC wouldn’t allow for that – it would be ridiculous. So I thought, we’ll basically not do the great big dance numbers. There’s lots of movement in the piece without that, the way it’s meant to be staged. Then, in the rehearsal room, I try to trim little sections to make sure that the storytelling is clear and a little condensed in size.

I so wanted it to not have an intermission. I’m kind of fond of that anyway. You could argue that it’s a trend, but it is the way things are going. Maybe it’s why the classic movie was 96 minutes, traditionally that’s about all that we can take. Without an intermission, it would feel more like a Greek dram, that’s what the Greeks did, long, one-act plays with no intermissions. I wanted to use the Greek form to shape the evening. By the nature of that, it means that some things work, some things don’t stay. Also, I did it with twelve people and they’re also the orchestra, so that sets…challenges as to what you keep or don’t keep.

But, it’s very nice to have the permission. Would I have gotten the same permission if it had been Carousel? Probably not. This is a piece that we’re still trying to figure out how to make it work, figure out what it is. I think that’s what’s very nice about the rehearsal at the moment, is that we’re still grappling with what it is and trying to find a way of doing that in a theatrical form in 2014.


S: You are doing this project with actors also functioning as musicians, how do you decide which musicals lend themselves to this approach and which do not?

JD: I’ve been doing these for twenty-something years now. The first one I did here, Sweeney Todd on Broadway, people would say, “This is the first of these that you’ve done. That’s impossible”. This is something that you learn to do, it’s built as a language, and it’s still developing as a language. I used to do them with actor-musician because I couldn’t afford to do it any other way. For example, the last musical I did at CSC, the first musical that CSC did, Passion, the conversation came up of doing actor-musician and I said absolutely not. That piece felt wrong. I can’t really articulate to you why, but it felt like it would have been an imposition.

Here, you’ve already got a group of people who are driving the story forward – they say lines chorally, together, about the leading boy, the man whose story it is. It felt natural to me that they could also be like troubadours, a group of players who are playing the show as well as speaking the show. I also think it helps to break the preconceptions of what you think that Rodgers and Hammerstein is. You think of Rodgers and Hammerstein as a big, lush orchestra, big sound. Actually, this is a really small story and it’s not even got a big plot – it’s just an idea. The actor-musician thing seemed to help that.

I don’t do it as often as I used to. It’s strange – every time I do one I think, why don’t I do this more often? I absolutely love it. I love the puzzle because as a director, it exercises a part of my mind that no other form of theatre does. You’re constantly solving problems or creating tasks as you go through, as well as being onto what the story is.


S: What was it about ALLEGRO that made you decide that it could be done in your signature actor-musician style?

JD: I think it was the having a Greek chorus of storytellers who simply needed it as a story. I mean, on the page that seems to be the case, they’re telling him what to do, so they’re facilitating this story. I just thought that would work really well in terms of there would be less self-consciousness about having the instruments. So that was the starting point, however, I think this is bigger than that because when you add the actor-musicianship element it gives it some emotional depths that you could explore visually as well as from the Greek chorus point of view. I also knew that I wasn’t deeply interested in it being a dance piece; I knew it would need some other element, other than just regular storytelling in order to elevate it into a theatrical experience.


S: Can you talk a little bit about the enduring nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work – what it is that makes us want to return again and again to many of these musicals?

JD: It’s interesting that we have really come back to them. I think there was quite a long time where they belonged to community theatre, you know, and now we’ve come back. I think the actual stories are so human, even if they are unusual – the story of King and I is unusual. They’re specific as well, often about two people coming together who appear to be inappropriate; this is Anna and the King of Siam, or the girl and the two children in South Pacific, or the young nun and the father of many children in the Sound of Music. Underneath all that and inside all that is a wonderful humanity. In the Sound of Music, a song like “Somewhere in my Youthful Childhood I Must Have Done Something Good” – I mean, that’s a beautiful idea. This show has songs that are really beautiful ideas. There’s a song that a character called Beulah sings – I can’t think of the lyrics at this time, but really lovely themes that most people can relate to. I think that’s really why. “We’ve nothing left to remember” – what a lovely idea that we’re so young that we have nothing memorable but to remember.

Then, of course, Richard Rodgers wrote very beautiful tunes. They stay, they stick in the head, they have a universality. My favorite song from any musical ever is “If I Loved You” from Carousel. The tune is so extraordinary and incredibly simple. I think the music bonds people together, the music makes us the same in the same way that the stories touch on our humanity. I think they will last now forever. Will Rodgers and Hart last forever? Some of their songs may, but their shows are a different thing, they’re not as creative in stature as these shows.

“Come Home” in this show is another one of those American anthems. You take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, football clubs all over the world sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, people have it sung at a funeral, or wherever. It’s so anthemic. Of course, with Oklahoma!, all coming up to the Second World War, or during the end of it, how extraordinary that must have been, that “the land we belong to is grand”. It’s a hymn to America. Most of their shows have got one of those anthems in them. Sometimes it’s sung by a woman, very occasionally by a man, not so many, and often by the whole company.

They also had that remarkable ability to put a whole one act into one song or one duet, which Sondheim was influenced by. You take the soliloquy from Carousel – that’s a man’s whole story, his discovery of being a parent, in one song. It’s sung verse-chorus-verse-chorus, but people don’t consider the possibility that it could be like Shakespeare; it could have the same stature, even if it’s popular. Shakespeare was popular. I’m sure the anthems are the things that will last the longest.


S: What’s next?

JD: Directly next for me, after this I do a workshop of a new musical, and then I’m doing a piece of work at Princeton, where I teach. I’m going to develop, I hope, a new adaptation of Peer Gynt. I’ve also just been asked to do a new adaptation of an old musical, that I might do.

I like doing stuff that isn’t just about directing a show. I like doing stuff that I can tussle with and figure out. Fundamentally, I see my job as having to take pieces of work and make them for the audience of today, even if they’re old. That doesn’t always mean modernizing it or making it in modern dress, but I’m interested in projects that stretch my head and stretch the form, stretch how you do it. I think that as artists you have to do that. Our legacy is to leave this art having reformed it.