For photographer Matthew Murphy, being married to composer Ryan Scott Oliver is like starring in the musical version of his favorite rom com: "Love, Actually." One big romantic gesture follows the next with surprise proposals in the middle of Washington Square Park, a wedding flash choir and songs like "On Monday," which Oliver wrote about the beginning of he and Murphy's relationship. At times it's hard for Murphy to compete with Oliver's over-the-top productions, but he's happy to arm with himself with a box of Kleenex and be the Keira Knightley to Oliver's Andrew Lincoln.
Together they have built a life at the center of Broadway's millennial talents, with Oliver creating modern musicals like 35mm, a musical exhibition inspired by Murphy's photography, the inventive Jasper in Deadland, and a dark, sexy version of Peter Pan called Darling, while Murphy has photographed shows like Kinky Boots and Rocky, as well as some of today's biggest theatre and dance stars for the New York Times, Playbill, Vanity Fair and Dance Magazine. Their best friends — many of them Broadway stars like Matt Doyle, Lindsay Mendez and Alex Brightman — are often on hand to sing Oliver's songs and pose for Murphy's photos, as well as take on supporting roles in Oliver's sweeping romantic declarations — making Oliver and Murphy's love story one of the hottest tickets in town.
Although theirs is not a traditional showmance, in the sense that they did not meet while doing a show, they ended up creating one together, so this might just be the finest showmance of all. For this latest installment of "A Fine Showmance" Murphy and Oliver talk about trying to start their relationship off slow, their favorite upstate getaway and how Murphy ended up crying in the middle of Washington Square Park with a Chipotle burrito in his hand.
Traditionally showmances happen during the run of a show, but since Matt is a photographer, how did you two meet?
Matthew Murphy: We officially met in 2009, because a mutual friend of ours, Jake Wilson, who had a show on YouTube called "Battery's Down," had a "Battery's Down" concert at Joe's Pub. Ryan was [contributing to] the concert and I was photographing the show. We met in passing backstage, and we chatted for a minute at the bar after the show. When I posted all the photos online, Ryan sent me a very sweet message and said he'd like me to photograph his show in September of that year. I felt very flattered because I obviously knew his work, and I was really excited about the possibility of getting to collaborate with him. We stayed in touch that summer. He was on the West Coast, and I was in Manhattan. We talked on Instant Messenger, and began a friendship that way.
Ryan Scott Oliver: When we started dating, it went very quickly. Based on our life experiences we both knew what we wanted and what we needed in our lives, and that was each other. Ryan, was that really the only reason you emailed Matt? To tell him you liked his photos?
RSO: It was the only reason I emailed him at the time; in the sense that I wasn't necessarily available at the time…
MM: I knew that as well. I thought he was really cute when I met him backstage at Joe's Pub, and I made sure to maintain a friendship.
RSO: When the opportunity became available, and we were able to go on a real date much later that year. It was great and worth the wait.
MM: The great thing was that because we began as friends we already had so much common ground. We already knew each other really well, so the awkwardness of any first date had already been alleviated.
How were you able to go from being friends to going on a date?
RSO: We made our interests pretty clear, but we were very respectful of each other, and of our situations. We really wanted to do it right. That was a huge component. We didn't want to mess anything up, and we didn't want to do anything too soon. We wanted to take it relatively slowly. My song, "On Monday," from 35mm, which is the show we worked on together, is all about how I wanted to take it really fast, and he wanted to take it much slower. Ultimately, [taking it slow] was the right thing to do.
MM: That hadn't necessarily been my style, before. I'd always rushed into things, and it had never really worked. I was so attracted to him in all ways, and I felt from the very beginning that something was different about him, and different about our energy together. I felt nervous to mess that up, so I was very cautious.
Ryan, when in this process did you start working on 35mm?
RSO: Very shortly after we started dating.
MM: Which was hilarious for me because I would be sitting in a coffee shop working — at the time I was working more as a writer, so I'd be doing copy editing, or working on magazine articles — and Ryan would Instant Message me song lyrics that he'd written that were about a photograph I had taken. I was so flattered, and also like, "This is crazy that someone is writing music based on a photograph of mine." I didn't necessarily know how to process that at first, other than being kind of giddy with excitement, but also unsure what it meant.
Wait, Matt wanted to take it slow, but Ryan you were writing a musical based on his work? That seems to me like putting a ring on it!
RSO: It definitely was. I knew I wanted to marry him early on, and I was thinking to myself: "I'll [propose] this season, next season, the following season…"
MM: We only think in terms of theatrical seasons.
RSO: It ultimately took about three and a half years before I was able to pull the trigger.
MM: The first month or two we moved very slowly; tiptoeing around saying too much too soon, but then once we opened the floodgates it was like, "Oh my God I love you," into, "We need to move in together," into, "We're furniture shopping." We moved really quickly after that, and then once we hit the year mark we kind of slowed down again, and just let everything breathe, even though we'd already moved in with each other at that point. Everyone in our lives probably knew that marriage was going to be something in the not-so-distant future. What did my mom say to you the first time you met her?
RSO: She was like, "I want you two to get married."
MM: As she's like crying at the table.
It seems to me that writing about someone and working with someone would add another layer of intimacy and seriousness to a relationship. Did you feel that way?
MM: I think because Ryan was writing the music and lyrics to everything, and using words to express emotion, and sometimes the emotion was based directly on our relationship or directly on a photo that I had made, I feel like I was always excited about the prospect of hearing emotions you were feeling about our relationship come through your music.
Ryan, was it easier for you to say things to and about Matt through your music?
RSO: No. I have no trouble expressing myself. It was actually because I had so much to say. I had so many feelings, that I started keeping a journal. I'm a very expressive person, so sometimes I have so much to express that it has to be channeled through additional mediums.
Did you two ever have any trouble working together on 35mm?
RSO: No. 35mm was always really, really easy to work on together. I would say the only difficulty we ever had was whenever Matt would have to photograph me. He didn't like the idea that I [could be] judging him. He thought I was judging and critiquing him. It's so ironic — knowing now that he's such a Broadway photographer superstar — that he was insecure about what he was doing, and insecure about what I was thinking of him.
MM: Well, I think in the same way that writing songs is very intimate for Ryan, photographing somebody and being one on one like that is a different type of intimacy for me. Whenever I would photograph him for a press shot, or for his website, or song books, I would always get nervous, and kind of cautious about everything. I would always want it to be my best, and to impress him, and to feel like we were creating magic. That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, but I always think he's the most handsome, so it's fun to take his picture.
Ryan, do you have a favorite photo that Matt's taken of you?
RSO: That's a difficult question. All the photos he takes of me mean a lot to me. I enjoy them very, very much. I wish he would take more photos of me.
MM: I think the one that sticks out in my head though is the one we did of you sitting on the chair — the black and white one. I like that portrait of you.
What was your wedding like?
MM: It sounds so cliche, but if I could live in one day for the rest of my life I would live that wedding day over, and over, and over again. There was so much love in the room from everybody. It wasn't just about us. It was about how everybody had been such a part of each other's lives. That was really special. Then, being a gay couple you feel this kind of wonderful freedom when planning a wedding. It doesn't necessarily have any structure that it has to adhere to. Not that any wedding does, but I think there's a little bit more pressure on straight couples to do this standard wedding protocol. For the two of us, we just tried to keep it as true to our sense of humor, and our passions as we could.
There were a lot of elements that included music. One of the most incredible parts for me was when we started going through what you would call the "performance portion" of our wedding. We had some of our best friends sing a couple of songs from 35mm that were particularly meaningful to our relationship, and then we had Matt Doyle and our friend Katie Gassert sing "The Origin of Love" because Hedwig had a really important role in both of our young lives as gay men. I thought that whole portion was over, but then Ryan got up on the mike and said, "What kind of composer would I be if I hadn't written a song for Matt for the wedding?" I was already kind of a disaster, because I'd been crying all day, so now I'm like sobbing. He starts telling the story about how he started writing this song when we first got together and hadn't finished it until recently. Then Lindsay [Mendez] gets up and starts singing the song for us. Lindsay's our closest mutual friend and has meant so much to us as a couple for the past six years, so seeing her sing that and listening to the words was incredible. Then halfway through the song everyone in the room stands up and starts singing this choral arrangement that they had been practicing. It was hilarious because our program for our wedding had been printed music, but I didn't know what the music was, and I kept giving Ryan a hard time for it. I thought that if we were going to print music it should be something to important to us, and then I realized after the fact that the piece of music on the program was the music everybody was learning.
Wow! I'm tearing up just listening to this! You must have been a mess!
MM: As far as grand romantic gestures go, Ryan Scott Oliver takes the cake. Every. Time. I just have to throw my hands up and try to remember to get him flowers or give him kisses and hugs when he needs them, because he's always going to trump me when it comes to sweeping productions of romance.
I don't even want to know how you guys got engaged!
MM: I'll tell that story too! This is another ridiculous one. A friend of mine had told me that I needed to be at Washington Square Park on a Saturday because they were having a big fundraiser for Christine Quinn, so I went and met him and it turned out that there was no fundraiser, and that it was actually Ryan proposing to me. One of my favorite silly romance movies is "Love, Actually." I love the cue-card moment in the movie, where [Andrew Lincoln] professes his love to Keira Knightley, so he did his whole proposal in cue cards and as we were walking through Washington Square Park. Everytime he had a new cue card there was a new person from our life there that had something for me, or performed some portion of our history. Lindsay and Alex Brightman sang a song from 35mm; My sister was there; our dog was there in a little tux; and someone had brought me Chipotle which was obviously the most important portion. Ryan hadn't said a word to me the whole time. No one was talking to me even though I was just sobbing. At the end of it, he gets down on one knee and turns to the last cue card. It said, "Will you marry me?" I said, "Absolutely." That was the beginning of the silly romantic gestures that no one can top.
These are like little shows within your life!
MM: Completely. I think he had done a full call sheet for the proposal. Everyone had kept it secret. There were literally like 100 people that knew it was happening, because we had an engagement party that night that he had organized. People had booked fake headshot sessions, so that I would technically be "busy" that weekend. I mean he had thought of every possible loophole and not a single person slipped, which is still stunning to me. I want to see this as a movie or a Broadway show! What do you guys like to do when you're not planning or partaking in these sweeping romantic productions?
MM: We go see a ton of movies, and we have a wine bar in our neighborhood that's kind of our favorite place in the city. We actually did our rehearsal dinner there.
RSO: We love to drink!
MM: We love to go have some wine, and some tapas and enjoy our neighborhood. We're on the Upper East Side. We're very "off campus" as Lindsay Mendez would say.
RSO: One our favorite things to do is go to Cold Spring, NY, which is about an hour away by train. Every year, for the last three or four years, we have this day where we go get brunch, do a three-hour hike with our dog, get some coffee, eat dinner, and then get ice cream and eat it on the dock. After the day runs out we get back on the train and go home. It's just relaxing, and magical, and very therapeutic. It's one of my favorite days. I always look forward to it, and I never get bored with it. That's our speed. That's what we like to do.