This interview appears in the recent edition of CSC’s CLASSIC Newsletter. Pick up a copy in our lobby or read online here.
In the US, we primarily know your work in musicals (Sweeney Todd, Company, Roadshow) and opera (Peter Grimes). But you’ve also worked extensively on straight plays, including Chekhov and Brecht. What attracts you to the different forms? Is there a common denominator?
JD: The bottom line is that I’m interested in storytelling. Period. And if the best way to tell a story is through the musical form, then that’s great. I have always been interested in how music affects storytelling. I’m Celtic, I come from the Highlands of Scotland. We love music; we make music together. So I’ve always seen music as a way of accessing the big idea. I was raised making repertory theatre regionally in the United Kingdom. We would do a number of plays and every season we would do a nice popular musical, and so I learned that way to do a cross-section of material.
You’ve become known as one of the premier interpreters of Sondheim’s work. What do you think accounts for the affinity between the two of you?
I am associated as an interpreter of his material because I was fortunate enough to do a piece in this city that attracted quite a lot of attention [Sweeney Todd], an iconic piece, and I did it in a very particular way. I didn’t know Mr. Sondheim at that point. But yes, I have gone on since then to do more than one of his shows. I’ve always been drawn to his material, simply as a human being. I first heard a cassette recording of Company the year after it came out and I thought “Oh my God, this man has written a musical about me.” Little did I know that all those years later I would be directing a pretty major Broadway revival of that show. So there’s been an enormous amount of fate involved. Obviously, I’ve gotten to know him in that time and of course that influences my understanding—up to a point—of the work, but it’s not the most important part of it. My job is to interpret and to see what I can see in the material, and what I see in all of his writing is a tremendous sense of humanity, mixed with irony and humor and tenderness and all of the things that make us human beings. So that’s why I’m interested in it.
Do you feel that you have to approach Sondheim’s work differently than other musical theatre works and if so, what do you think the correct ingredients are?
Well, I think it’s Barbara Cook who says Stephen Sondheim changed the face of musical theatre. And there has to be truth in that. I love the variety: the sadness of Follies or the joys of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Who ever thought anybody could write a musical like Pacific Overtures about a group of Japanese people in a particular time, or about the assassins of Presidents of the USA? Those don’t sound like subjects for musicals and that’s kind of thrilling that somebody doesn’t start by thinking, is this the subject for a musical? But he looks at the material and thinks, can this be musicalized? That’s a different thing. So you know, if I had to take some musicals to my desert island, I’m sure they would all be written by Stephen Sondheim.
What specifically attracts you to Passion?
Well, there’s a wonderful extraordinary human story in the middle of it. I’m attracted to exploring what is or is not beautiful, which in the world we live in today is a pretty relevant thing to be talking about, I think. What love is? What passion really is? I’m attracted to all of those things. And purely structurally, I think the weaving together in this piece—the weaving of James Lapine’s terrific book, of the spoken word and the sung word—is rather wonderful. As an artist, I’m most interested in what happens between the human beings. As a practitioner, I’m interested in what is the most sensitive way for me to tell that. Why is there no music under that text? Why does that idea take us back to music? That’s a wonderful fabric that attracts me. I feel that their material must not be in any way undervalued, their material belongs in the theatrical space.
How does Passion fit alongside Sondheim’s other work?
It’s not my job to define where it lies in the arc of who he is as an artist. Of course, I can hear certain echoes of things that I’ve heard in his other work—sound qualities in the soundscape. It has a strangeness that makes me think about Sweeney Todd. It has a uniqueness. I mean Sweeney is a much more overtly entertaining macabre nightmare. But there are elements in Sweeney of how the world perceives people, of the darkness of the soul, that maybe has some echo for me. I don’t think that’s overt, though.
What Stephen Sondheim piece are you most interested in directing next?
I’ve always had a notion that I would like to take the three Weidman/Sondheim pieces [Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Roadshow] and do the three of them all together with the same company. I’ve always had that notion, that seeing the box set of those three pieces in one day would be an amazing look at this country. So that intrigues me. But you know, I’ve not done Follies. That would be a beautiful thing to do one day. I’ve never done A Little Night Music. I almost feel I might have one of those inside me. It is like Shakespeare. You can do them any number of times and find something different every time.