Matt Doyle is one of Broadway’s most promising young actors, with a resume that includes three Tony-winning productions, and a major role in what might be the hottest ticket (after “Hamilton,” natch) right now. The stage has been his home since he was 13, when Doyle landed a small part in a community theater production of “Oklahoma!” to escape the merciless bullying of his classmates.
Yet the Jersey City actor’s current role as Anthony, the infatuated young sailor in an immersive off-Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” gives him more agita than any other moment in the spotlight.
“You don’t get to hide in any way, shape of form,” Doyle says in an interview with NJ.com before a recent performance.
This claustrophobic staging of the bloody fable, a transfer from London, is set inside Harrington’s Pie and Mash, a down-on-its-heels Victorian tuck shop recreated inside the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village.
There is no stage per se, only the steps to Sweeney’s dread tonsorial parlor, where he slashes the throats of unsuspecting customers; the pie counter where Mrs. Lovett cheerfully serves up their remains in pastry; and the tables at which the audience members sit (and dine on actual meat pies, if not actual people), and where they might be nudged, needled or even kneaded by Doyle and his castmates during the show.
“If someone comes into the theater and they’re clearly not on board,” Doyle says, “I usually will target them, just to get them to loosen up and have a good time and enjoy the ride,” he says.
Doyle, 29, is an anxious sort who relishes the distance of the proscenium, literally and figuratively. He moved to Jersey City two years and half years ago for an escape from the theater crowd. “I had lived in Midtown for eight years, and I was losing my mind. I always felt like I was at work when I living there,” he explains. “It’s not that I don’t like actors” — his boyfriend is a fellow Broadway veteran, Max M. Clayton, is starring in the upcoming “Bandstand” — “but there was not a sense of going home.”
When he is on stage, Doyle says, “that’s me playing someone else. I get to hide behind the fourth wall. [In ‘Sweeney Todd’] I have to kneel down two feet away from someone and stare them in the eye and relate to them … It’s certainly testing my boundaries and forcing me to grow as a performer.”
The role of the hopeful, hopelessly besotted Anthony isn’t as flashy as Sweeney, conducting mayhem with his silver razor. But their philosophical extreme is one of the show’s central tensions, and in the immediacy of the staging, you can practically hear Doyle’s heart beating faster as he swoons over Johanna.
For the boyishly handsome actor Doyle, it also seems to mark him as a potentially major romantic leading man on the verge of breakout stardom. That certainly seemed to be the perception of many following his performance as Tony in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s top-selling revival of “West Side Story” last season.
“‘West Side Story’ was terrifying for me,” Doyle says. “I’d been doing rock musicals and I’d been playing the emo kid. I didn’t know if I would find comfort in it because it was so legit and so classical. ‘West Side Story,’ that role, that score, it was unbelievable, and it really kind of reignited the musical theater bug inside of me again.”
Matt Doyle starred in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2016 production of “West Side Story” with Belinda Allyn. Courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse
The role of Tony, says Mark Hoebee, the Paper Mill’s artistic director who also directed the 2016 production, “is one of the most deceptively difficult to cast in modern musical theater,” for the actor has to be believable both a feared gang leader and as a romantic figure.
“Not only did Matt have a glorious voice, but he brought a sensitivity and strength to the acting that I’ve rarely seen in young men who play this role … He was so facile and eager and open to all suggestions, and the pairing of him with Belinda Allyn as Maria was magical. The audience fell in love with him every night.”
Doyle has what he calls a “pretty typical musical theater kid story”: A Massachusetts native whose family moved to the San Francisco Bay area for his father’s advertising career, he was bullied in his middle school, both verbally and physically. He sought an outlet in community theater and found kindred souls, including his lifelong best friend Beth Behrs, the star of CBS’s long-running “2 Broke Girls.”
“I felt comfortable in my skin finally,” he says. “I found a place where I could perform and be an extrovert and be accepted.”
#tbt to my first time on stage. I was a farmer in Oklahoma. Just a farmer. But I was LIVING. #communitytheatre #grateful
After high school, Doyle was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, but deferred to attend the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Art for its intensive classical theater program. After a year, he decided to give New York a shot. “It was a bold choice, and my parents were behind it.” Sort of. “They cut me off financially,” he laughs. “They weren’t going to pay for me to play house in the city.”
But within a year, they wouldn’t have had to. In 2006, after waiting nine hours on the non-equity bench at an open call and surviving seven callbacks, Doyle earned a spot as the standby for Melchior (only performing when Jonathan Groff was out) in “Spring Awakening,” the rock musical that went on to win eight Tonys. At the same time, he won the role of Jonathan Whitney, the boyfriend of Eric van der Woodsen in the CW’s “Gossip Girl,” which taped in New York.
His next Broadway show was the star-studded but ill-fated revival of “Bye Bye Birdie,” but Doyle rebounded in not one, but two landmark productions: In 2011, he played Billy Narracott in the original Broadway production of “War Horse,” the ensemble war drama built around an ingeniously articulated life-size equine puppet. In 2012, he joined “Book of Mormon” as Elder Price, the role created a year earlier by Andrew Rannells.
“‘War Horse’ taught me how to work with an ensemble,” Doyle says. “It was 35 cast members and there wasn’t a single star. The star was a puppet … There was no way you could possibly have an ego in the production.”
In between musicals, Doyle co-writes a digital comic book, “Dents,” with Behrs, about identical twins with superpowers (it’s being turned into a TV show), and last year, with the help of Kickstarter, he released his first pop LP, “Uncontrolled,” written with his friend and Broadway music director Will Van Dyke.
Through the end of the year, though, he’ll be with “Sweeney Todd,” which recently extended its Barrow Street run. It features veterans of the London production, including the terrifically and terrifyingly bug-eyed Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney, but the new actors, Doyle says, were shocked by the scope and intensity of the immersion: “Our jaws were on the floor half the time.”
The actors can chose the audience members with whom they’d like to interact, he says. At one recent performance, he spotted a young boy, perhaps eight years old, seated at the end of one of the table, and at the point of the performance when he is supposed to kneel by audience member and urge him to gaze up at the luminous Joanna in her gilded cage, he tapped the boy on the shoulder.
“He looked up at me and shrugged, and was so cute and funny, and the whole audience laughed, and it just completely changed the moment,” Doyle says. “It was a completely original moment for that show. It is such a special thing about this production that those moments can happen.”