Interview with The Color Purple director John Doyle
John Doyle won a Tony Award for his Broadway directorial debut in 2006 for Sweeney Todd. Ten years later, he now finds himself nominated again for his current Broadway revival of The Color Purple at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Other previous Broadway credits include his Tony-nominated work in Company, as well as A Catered Affair and last season's The Visit. He is also currently preparing for a new role as Artistic Director of off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company.
We caught up with John to discuss the musical's long journey from London's Menier Chocolate Factory, working with Cynthia Erivo and being a white man at the helm of this African-American classic...
Thomas Hayden Millward: Congratulations on pulling together such a fantastic revival of ‘The Color Purple,’ John. Did you see the original Broadway production?
John Doyle: Yes, I did.
THM: Can you then briefly run us through some of the creative decisions you made to create this more stripped-back version of the musical?
JD: It’s kind of a signature of my work that I always strip things back. I tend to look at material as if it’s never been done before and then I try and find a way of doing it that’s fresh and new and that comes from me, in a way. My tastes are very minimal really. I’m not very interested in lots of “flash.” I’m more interested in letting humanity tell the story. So, that’s what I do with everything. I think to myself: “What can I bring to this?” It might be some voice that’s not been heard from ‘The Color Purple’ before. Although I’m British, I actually went to University in this country – in Georgia – which is where the piece is set. I wanted to bring some of the authenticity of Georgia to the story.
THM: After the production’s birth off-West End at the Menier Chocolate Factory, was it always on the cards to bring it to Broadway?
JD: Like so many of these shows, a lot of things have to fall into place before those sorts of decisions are made. When David Babani [Artistic Director] asked me to do it at the Menier Chocolate Factory, I was very unsure about doing it for a number of reasons. I’m male, white, British and very middle-aged. I just wasn’t sure if I should be doing ‘The Color Purple.’ But then I looked at the material and thought hopefully I could do something with it. We obviously had to wait to find out if this would be successful and whether it would work in a smaller way because it was such a big production the first time around. Did it work in a more intimate way? Well, everybody decided it did. All the key players came to see it – that’s what usually happens – and then they raise the money. Usually for a Broadway show, to get a theatre you usually have to have a recognisable name. Well, we had Jennifer Hudson, who has just left us, but she was with us for the first six months. She was great, and that helped us. But I think our reviews really made an enormous difference. The community has really taken the revival to heart. There was a little bit of concern because the original production was not all that long ago. It was ten years ago, during my first season on Broadway. When I directed ‘Sweeney Todd’ here, ‘The Color Purple’ was running at the same time. So it was relatively recent, but everyone seems comfortable with that now, so all’s well.
THM: You mentioned being a white, middle-aged, British male. Was there any sense of reservation from the African-American community, when you first came here with it?
JD: I haven’t had that at all. I was very upfront with the ensemble. I said: “You’re going to have to help me out here sometimes.” I know what I’m looking for and I know the kind of authenticity I’m looking for. But we had to negotiate that together and we did very comfortably and very easily. Unless people are thinking it, I’ve had no sense of anybody looking at me as if I shouldn’t be doing this.
THM: And you’ve been so instrumental launching the career of another British star over here, in Cynthia Erivo. How has it been to work with her on both sides of the Atlantic now?
JD: Oh, she’s great! I met her first at an audition and then we’ve worked together on this piece twice. She brings a tremendous amount to it. It’s been an absolute joy and it’s so lovely to see her do so well out of it.
THM: And what’s next for you, John?
JD: Well, I’m currently doing ‘Peer Gynt’ at the moment down at the Classic Stage Company, where I’m going to be the new Artistic Director. There’s also various things in the Fall. There’s a new adaptation of ‘Dead Poets Society’ for the stage too, so I’m busy.
THM: Well, I wish you the best of luck with your Tony nomination for ‘The Color Purple,’ as well as your tenure off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company.
JD: Thank you so much. It was lovely to see you.