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An Open Letter to John Doyle by Matthew Murray

  • Mr. Doyle:

    New York audiences recognize your work from the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, the 2006 revival of Company, and the 2008 production of the new musical A Catered Affair, all on Broadway; and from the 2008 production of the new musical Road Show and this year's Encores! production of Where's Charley?. Sweeney Todd and Company were performed with the actors playing musical instruments, a technique you utilized frequently at the 216-seat Watermill Theatre in England.

    You are also having your performers play instruments in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of the Rodgers and Hart revue, Ten Cents a Dance. Speaking about this to Christopher Wallenberg in a story published today in the Boston Globe, you said:

    "I think you can take them to an imaginative place that they've not been to, perhaps in quite a long time. I saw Broadway audiences at Sweeney Todd leaning forward to the story. And normally they're sitting back from the noise."

    I have a few questions about this.

    (1) I have seen, at this point, nearly 10 productions of Sweeney Todd, with fervent theatregoers and newcomers alike. At none of the ones that utilized a full orchestra did I overhear anyone complain that listening to a separate orchestra was interfering with their enjoyment of the show. Did this happen to you frequently in Britain? Or at productions in the United States? Cite them please. Or, if you are referring to scientific studies of audience behavior at musicals with scores by Stephen Sondheim (or any other composer who has written shows for separate orchestras), please refer me to the scholarly journal, website, or other publication where these may be read and investigated.

    (2) If, as you state, full, separate orchestras have the capacity to prevent people from becoming involved in the stories of musicals, why is it that all of the most popular and/or well-regarded musicals in theatre history (including, but not limited to, Oklahoma!, Carousel, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Company, and Sweeney Todd) were written for large, separate orchestras, and have not generated significant numbers of complaints (at least in the United States) over the decades since their writing that they were difficult to follow for this reason?

    (3) Related to the previous question: If you believe that full, separate orchestras have the capacity to prevent people from becoming involved in musicals' stories, why did you decide to employ them in both A Catered Affair and Road Show, and why did you agree to direct Where's Charley?, which used the expansive original orchestration for more than 20 musicians? Were you not concerned that audiences at these shows would also fail to "lean forward to the story"? If your concerns are related to the size of the orchestra, could you please state the exact number of instruments above which it becomes difficult for audiences to follow the story, and precisely how this number was determined? (Again, citing specific scientific studies would be helpful regarding this issue.)

    Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to your responses to these questions. Please feel free to e-mail them to me; I will happily publish your responses to these questions that, I assure you, musical theatre lovers on these shores have been asking for as long as you've been giving interviews about your directing style.

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