'Ten Cents a Dance': Tony winner serves old songs in fresh way

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WILLIAMSTOWN -- With his new show, "Ten Cents a Dance," director John Doyle is returning to a passion he’s known since he was a boy growing up in Scotland -- the songs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

"My dad loved their songs. He always played them. Every one is a sonnet," the Tony Award-winner said during a recent interview at ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, where "Ten Cents a Dance" has just begun a 21/2-week world premiere engagement at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage.

Rodgers and Hart’s 24-year collaboration yielded, among other musicals, "Babes in Arms," "Pal Joey," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court," "By Jupiter," "On Your Toes" and "The Boys From Syracuse."

For "Ten Cents a Dance," Doyle has gathered 40 Rodgers and Hart songs into a cycle that tells the story of a piano man named Johnny One-Note (played by Malcolm Gets), who is reflecting on his relationship with a chorus girl named Miss Jones, played by five women -- Donna McKechnie, Diana DiMarzio, Lauren Molina, Jane Pfitsch and Jessica Tayor Wright -- each representing Miss Jones at a different stage in her life.

"This is not a revue, nor is it a jukebox musical," Doyle said. "I want the songs to be an inner narrative Š about Š this man and this woman. The only thing we sense for sure is that this is a relationship that’s been broken."

Doyle first worked with this material 10 years ago when, as associate director of the Watermill, an intimate theater in England’s Berkshires, he was asked by the organizers of a Rodgers and Hart celebration in Cardiff, Wales to participate. The result, in terms of content if not form, was an early version of "Ten Cents a Dance." Doyle set it aside afterward, virtually forgot about it until he was approached by WTF’s new artistic director, Jenny Gersten, about working in the American Berkshires this summer.

Doyle mentioned the Rodgers and Hart material and, he says, she went for it.

"Most of the material you’ll see was chosen 10 years ago," Doyle said. "I’ve done some tweaking. It looks and sounds and feels entirely different from what we did then."

Doyle says he was a bit apprehensive.

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"I didn’t know Jenny’s audience here and I haven’t done this for a while," he said. "In fact, I definitely stopped doing this. I wanted the opportunity to show I could do other things."

"This" is a device Doyle rode to a Tony Award with his distinctive revival of "Sweeney Todd" and again in another Broadway Sondheim revival -- "Company": having the actors be their own musical accompanists.

The artistic conceit was born, Doyle admits, of economic necessity. Watermill Theatre, where his "Sweeney Todd" originated, simply hasn’t the resources to give big musicals big treatment so Doyle had to become inventive. At the same time, Doyle says, the device evokes a performance tradition that goes back to the Greeks and to Shakespeare.

Also, he says, "I was raised with music all around me. It was perfectly normal for someone to just pick up an instrument and play.

"I find it no more bizarre than to ask actors to tap dance. It’s just another storytelling device. We come to the theater to suspend disbelief," Doyle says. "to address how we storytell.

"These are actors first of all. It’s about how they inform their work, their characters.

"The key thing you need is Š a company of actors who can leave their egos outside the (rehearsal) room. It’s about the power of the ensemble."

From Williamstown "Ten Cents a Dance" goes to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where it is scheduled to begin performances on Sept. 9. After that Š?

"I think it deserves to be seen," Doyle said. "Where that is, how that is is no matter. It’s out of my hands."


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