Actor/singer Matt Doyle in the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Company
Not only has his performance been widely hailed, but Matt Doyle is in a unique position as an out gay actor playing a role that was originally written for a female performer, with results that are at first hilarious before becoming inescapably — even heartbreakingly — poignant. Better still, word on the street is he is a shoo-in to win the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
This accomplishment has required more than a little patience, too — Doyle had to wait over a year and a half to return to the role after COVID forced Broadway to shut down just as the production was in the midst of previews in March of 2020.
In this gender-swapped revival from director Marianne Elliot, the protagonist Bobby (originated by Dean Jones before interpretations in recent years by the likes of Raul Esparza and Neil Patrick Harris) is now Bobbie, played by Tony Award winner Katrina Lenk. Naturally, that necessitated a shift in gender for other key characters in the cast, all under the highly discerning eye of the great Stephen Sondheim.
It’s almost a cliché that a cosmopolitan young woman in the big city will at the very least have one gay bestie. Thus, Amy is now Jamie, and the audiences are delighted.
A Broadway veteran at the top of his game, Doyle is recognizable to many for his role as Jonathan, boyfriend of Eric van der Woodsen, on TV’s Gossip Girl. As a singer, he has several recordings to his credit, including a solo album, Uncontrolled. However, theater clearly remains his first love.
Doyle, who resides in Jersey City with his boyfriend, fellow Broadway performer Max Clayton, took the time to chat with me about the significance of his role, the impact of the year and a half wait for the cast to get back on the boards, and the profound effect of Sondheim’s passing on everyone working on Company.
You began previews in March 2020 and had to wait over a year and a half to return to the show. Did it affect the work, or was it like you picked right up where you left off?
Matt Doyle: Oh, it absolutely had an effect. I think that as traumatic as that time was, it was so beneficial to the work you see on that stage now because we became a family during that time. We were just getting close during those first previews, and then the whole world was pulled out from underneath us. Would theater ever come back? We grieved and tried to find joy together and had ridiculous Zoom parties from Patti [LuPone]’s basement, where we got our own private show. [Chuckles] We opened up to one another, and that brought us so much closer as we witnessed each other’s darkest and most vulnerable sides, so by the time we came back, I think a lot of the relationships on that stage now — these marriages, these relationships that you’re supposed to believe as very deep and very close — are so real. It feels like a repertory company in that way, like we’ve all been working together for years.
The chemistry is special — especially with me and Katrina. She doesn’t leave the stage, so I barely got to see her outside of the rehearsal process, yet we’re supposed to be best friends on stage, so it was nice to develop our relationship beyond the rehearsal room. All that time gave us that opportunity to learn each other’s quirks and vulnerabilities, and that affects the work for the better.
You’ve garnered such acclaim for this role. How does it feel?
MD: It’s so overwhelming. The pressure I put on myself, not just to fill in for Jonathan Bailey, who played this role in [Elliot’s 2018 UK revival] but the countless women before who did Amy very proud — I had that pressure to live up to that, as well as the theater community wanting to see this role from the perspective of a gay male. Returning to the show, I was just so grateful to have a job and be on stage again, that this opportunity had not escaped me, that a lot of [the initial] pressure had been relieved. Everything I’ve ever worked toward has gone into my work on this role, so it is beyond words to see the reception at this point, to know that people enjoy the work because I’ve never cared so much about something in my life. I’m floored by the response.
We lost Stephen Sondheim, the Shakespeare of our time, right before you opened. The grief felt by those of us who revere his contribution to the culture is profound. I can’t even imagine how you all felt the night he passed. What was it like having to grieve but still go on?
MD: Talk about always striving for perfection — especially when Sondheim’s in the room — and that’s how it felt. You never want to screw up the genius in front of the genius, you know?
We had done our matinee, and The New York Times was holding off on reporting it out of respect to our cast and the [Classic Stage Company] cast of Assassins until we were offstage. He had just been at our first preview and was in great spirits, and he’d spent so much time with us [during 2020 rehearsals] when he was healthier before COVID made that impossible. If you ad-libbed “okay,” it had to be approved by him. He was so hands-on in this process.
It’s never a good thing when the producers call an emergency meeting after a matinee. When they told us he had passed that morning, I and several of the cast members just fell to our knees. I think the grief was so intense because we had been through so much just to get to that point, with so many obstacles and missed opportunities — we were originally supposed to open on his 90th birthday with him there with us celebrating.
Of course, we remembered we had an audience out there grieving just as we were. It was a cathartic, emotional, and overwhelming performance that night.
Trust me; I recognize what a profound and unbelievable gift it was to have had the opportunity to perform this material the night we lost him. I know that I’ll look back years from now and still not be able to fully comprehend the immensity of it.
The first time I was convinced he was mortal was the day he died.
MD: I’m still not convinced! He’s going to live on, that’s for sure.
Your solo [“Getting Married Today”] is infamous for how tongue-twistingly difficult it is to perform. No one has more of a right to both exalt and rue Sondheim as one tasked with this song, yet you perform it eight times a week without missing a beat.
MD: It feels more like a sporting event than any other performance I’ve done. It’s about perfection and making sure I hit every single beat, not just musically but also emotionally. There are so many hurdles I have to navigate as I’m skiing down that hill. Every night before the curtain goes up, I think, “Okay, let’s try to have a perfect run.” I think the thrill [of the challenge] is what has kept me on my toes. I’m a perfectionist. I think, “oh, maybe that would be better there,” or “maybe that emotional turn there could be sharper.” I find such a thrill in it every night because it’s never boring — how could it possibly be with that song?
You’ve arrived at the point that you’re a Broadway veteran. That said, do you still pinch yourself when you look across the stage and realize you’re harmonizing with the legendary Patti LuPone?
MD: Absolutely! Are you kidding me? She knows how much I love her. I tell her all the time what a ridiculous fan I am. She’s been so good to me and has been so insanely supportive since day one of this process. I pinch myself every single day. She says “Knock ’em, dead, kid” to me every day before [my solo], and I tell her I love her, and then she’s back there doing the backup vocals. She is the biggest ensemble player I’ve ever met, and that’s something that I never, ever would have dreamt of. She is all about the work, all about the cast, and is so good to all of us. This is a family that supports one another, and Patti is really someone to look up to in terms of her work ethic and her attitude at work.
Sondheim was infamously obstinate about making changes to his work unless he was convinced they could be grounded in truth, and that extended to proposed productions of Company over the years. What do you think made the difference this time?
MD: The difference was Marianne Elliot. Sondheim was very open to new ideas, but he had to trust the artists he was working with. He loved his collaborators so deeply and profoundly. He would talk about [Company librettist] George Furth in front of us and tear up, which was beautiful. Same thing with [original Company director] Hal Prince. I was in awe of that love he had for them and for his openness to new ideas if, as you say, they were based in truth and logic. He loved Marianne and her work so much and gave her permission to work on any of his material and develop it. When he was first presented the idea, he wanted a workshop — sort of a proof of concept — and as soon as she did that and presented it to him, he said, “Absolutely. Let’s do this.”
Even the change of Amy to Jamie was one of the last changes before the London production. Marianne was not convinced of it, but when [producer] Chris Harper presented the idea of why it was so important to have a gay male in that role, especially now dealing with all the pressures of gay marriage and what it means to be in a marriage as a gay man, she was [convinced] and sent Sondheim an e-mail saying “I hope you’re sitting down, but what do you think of this idea?” He wrote back, “I love it!” which is great.
It’s moving and meaningful that marriage between a gay couple is held up to the light with all its complexity — side by side with straight couples. It works as an antidote to the simplistic celebrations of equality and progress that we’ve been subjected to, which is pure Sondheim — to find the dark yolk.
I love the way you just worded that. That’s exactly right — the idea that it’s all so simple, and it’s not! We’re as complex as we’ve ever been as a culture, and just because we’ve been given this right doesn’t necessarily mean that it fits into our world in the heteronormative ways. And what is absolutely beyond shocking to me is how many younger audience members think that the role has always been a gay man because how could a role written 50 years be a gay man talking about marriage? [But] what a beautiful representation of the progress we already have within our culture, especially in New York theater, that someone in their teens could come to the show and think it was always written that way.
MD: Yes. It’s that normal to them now that they would believe this is how it’s always been. That’s been a beautiful lesson for me. I want the moment to be recognized. I want people to feel how thrilling it for a gay man to be in this role, and I do hear from older audience members who cannot believe how represented they are now. It’s so thrilling to recognize how far we’ve come, so much so that some don’t even see it as progress — they just see it as normal.
[I’ve also heard from some] on the more conservative side of the gay world who don’t like the line “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should” because that’s, I suppose, too complex for them, and they want things to be simpler.
Is that line from the original book?
MD: That is the only fully-added line into the show! It was approved by Sondheim.
So there have been a lot of different perspectives. I appreciate them, though I don’t always agree with them. I appreciate everyone’s passion within our community to do things right, and I think that that’s where we get tripped up a lot and then pass judgment on to each other as a result. But there is — always, within the gay community — such a striving to do it right so that people respect us and treat us with respect. There’s always a concern about representing homosexuality correctly, and that’s what I’ve recognized with any gay role I’ve played — the pressure to be as inclusive as possible of everyone in our community.
You’ve achieved success as an out gay actor. It wasn’t that long ago that this was unthinkable, and for some, it still is. Many gay actors stay in the closet even now because agents and managers tell them they should. Where do you think we’re headed in this regard? Do you think we still have a long way to go, or has the tide really changed?
MD: We’ve always got more room to grow, that’s for sure. It’s a difficult thing to navigate, especially if you see yourself as a certain brand or a certain [kind of] actor when you’re young, and you’re afraid it’s going to pigeonhole you by living your truth publicly. I think there’s a lot to be done to continue to make sure everyone feels safe [in that regard].
When I first moved to the city in 2006, there were many actors who are heroes and icons of mine who are out and proud now but were not then. It was fascinating for me to watch that, even within the Broadway community. I mean, musical theater — it’s the gayest industry possible!
I remember my agent at the time saying, “If you come out, just don’t be a poster child for gay people. I don’t want to see you on the cover of Out magazine.” That was something that was said to me in 2006 like it was a negative thing, and I was a kid, and it had power and weight. Ultimately, I certainly did not go that route, and in a couple of years, I was in Out magazine. [Laughs.] But what an awful, awful way to kind of step off into the world. I’m so glad that I did come forward, but did it maybe affect certainly things for me early on? Yeah, absolutely. I’ll never forget directly losing one job because of it on a cable sitcom when I was much younger — that was essentially the feedback that I got, that I was too gay for the role.
So it’s definitely affected me over time, but ultimately, why would I ever want to work with those people at all? That would just be absolutely miserable. And I always say that to young actors who are questioning it — trust me on this, you will end up in the right places if you’re living honestly. You will end up in the places that make you happiest. [Being inauthentic] is not the right to road to take. You might find what you consider to be success that way, but it’s not going to make you happy.
And it’s inherently dishonest, so there’s always something hollow inside.
MD: Exactly. There’s something hollow inside, and what a missed opportunity for our community and for others to see themselves in you.
Your cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Mary Jane” on your solo album is so unexpected and lovely. Can we expect more music from you after you finish this run?
MD: Thank you for saying that! I’ve always said after Company I wanted to do another record — and that was supposed to be two years ago! [Laughs.] I’ve wanted to do something different, a little outside the box — perhaps a tribute to the artists I grew up with and became madly in love with, perhaps in more of an 80s vein. That side of [my work] — so much of that has been fan-supported through things like Kickstarter. I owe those records to very, very generous fans. One thing I always say — do not underestimate Broadway fans. They are the most dedicated and supportive people I’ve ever met.
You’ve spoken at length about the importance of physical fitness, especially for performers.
MD: Yes. Self-care is the most important thing at whatever shape and size you are. I want to be very clear that it’s not about being fit and ripped — it’s about making sure if you’re a performer, that you can do a show eight times a week. I know so many of my friends, including some who are plus-sized, who know the importance of having that endurance. For me, being able to do this show, a lot of it comes down to cardio work — I run about 5K a day to just keep that endurance up for myself. I find it helps me with my mental health, my anxiety disorder — I’ve found a lot of passion and a lot of healing in fitness over the years.
You have to take care of your body, especially if you’re a performer — it’s your instrument. They tell you this in acting school, and a lot of performers roll their eyes because they’re young and think they’re invincible, but man, it catches up to you fast, especially once you hit your 30s. Patti’s actually a perfect example of that — it’s unbelievable the things she’s able to do, and it’s because she’s taken care of her instrument.
Speaking of mental health, you’ve been quite open about your struggles with depression and anxiety, which is so important since it can help others going through the same thing. It’s inspiring that you’ve managed to deal with this in an anxiety-driven business that can often be so cutthroat. What have you learned?
MD: I manage it daily to this day, with the support of my partner and my family. I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is to communicate and be open. That’s how I got my support team. By that, I mean my psychiatrist and the people I go to when things are getting bad — I know who to go to [for help]. I kind of call it like ‘my crisis team’ when things are rough.
That’s what’s gotten me through because, like you said, it is a very anxiety-driven business, and it can be extremely overwhelming at times, as well as subjective. The self-doubt can be absolutely crushing. I know if I wasn’t able to communicate properly with my partner, my family — if I didn’t have my psychiatrist, my therapist — on top of the help from medication — I [wouldn’t be able to do this]. I think of it almost like being a diabetic — there’s a chemical imbalance. It’s something I’ve dealt with since I was a kid, and I think we need to normalize that and talk more freely about it because the more that we continue to tie shame into it, that makes it so much worse. There’s a better way, absolutely.
Sondheim taught gay men like us how to be ourselves, with the darkness and the beauty, the brooding and coming to terms with disappointment. It’s a subtext in his work. I wonder if he ever thought at our age that he’d live to see a gay relationship portrayed so matter-of-factly on stage, let alone in one of his own pieces. What was it like to not only see him experience this but to be the nexus of such a full-circle moment?
MD: That’s so beautiful and overwhelming to hear… He really loved the line “I’m the next bride.” He would say to me all the time it was his favorite line in the show. He believed it was one of the greatest exit lines ever written — that discovery of how exciting that is for Amy and now Jamie.
I think the last thing that he pointed out to me was — on that first preview when we came back — I finally said it the way he really wanted to hear it, which was to scream it up to the heavens. He was ecstatic about it. He said, “Especially now — especially from the perspective of the gay man. There’s just nothing better.” I think it really did mean a lot to him to see that, and to recognize how far he had come within his lifetime, and to recognize how far gay rights have come, too. That was a huge moment for him and a really special thing for him to witness on stage, especially in his own work.
I feel that weight and responsibility every single night, especially on that line, and I say it for him every night. I really do think about him every time I say it. Him telling me that, noting me on that, and then finally feeling I had done the line justice — that’s something I will carry with me the rest of my life.