PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Matthew Risch

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Matthew Risch It happened to Shirley MacLaine. It happened to Sutton Foster. It happened to Cheyenne Jackson. It happened to Brad Oscar. And now it's Matthew Risch's turn for a spin on the understudy's wheel of fortune.
Matthew Risch
Matthew Risch

The first four actors in that tally had their names made for them when, as understudies for The Pajama Game, Thoroughly Modern Millie, All Shook Up and The Producers, respectively, they were suddenly forced by circumstance to take the stage. Whether Risch's sudden elevation to the title role in the Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey — following the limping exit of original star Christian Hoff, who injured a foot — will do the same for the suddenly-in-the-news actor remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, his story is now part of Broadway lore. The actor talked to Playbill.com two days before he was scheduled to make his official Broadway debut as a star. (Opening night is Dec. 18 at Studio 54.)

Playbill.com: What was it like having the director and producers of Pal Joey inform you that you were now playing the leading role?
Matthew Risch: I said it before, and I'll say it again: it was 100 percent bittersweet.

Playbill.com: Did you expect it?
MR: Not in a million years did I expect it. I was just doing my job. I always take my job very seriously. I didn't think Christian's injury was that serious, but I didn't know to what degree he had hurt himself. I thought he would heal quickly and come back to the show. But then of course the results came back and it was much more serious than anyone anticipated. It was a complete shock.

Playbill.com: Did you feel you were ready to assume the part?
MR: I did and I didn't at the same time. I had been watching Christian all through rehearsals. He was gracious enough to let me trail him. I felt really nervous at first, because I didn't know how much work I had in front of me. But, luckily, having the team that we have, I felt more and more comfortable.

Playbill.com: The main challenge of playing Joey is to simultaneously play a cad and be charming, to exhibit repulsive behavior while keeping the audience's sympathy. What's the key to doing that, in your opinion?
MR: The key for me is in [librettist] Richard Greenberg's writing. The book he's written is so excellent. It's constructed in such a way that you go on this ride with Joey and at the end I don't think you have a choice but to sympathize with him. It's certainly a challenge for the actor, playing this part. But I'm always up for a challenge and I’ve always had this affinity for playing jerks and learning how to give them a lovable charm. That curtain goes up and I have to own every single person in that audience and own every person on that stage and I have to get them on my side. Just like he charms his way into these women's lives, I have to charm my way into the audience's lives from the get-go, or else. Playbill.com: Was the ending ever played around with, or was it always the way it is?
MR: I came into this process very late. I'm not too sure how many different endings they had. I have a feeling they've been sticking with this one for a long time. Ever since the beginning of the rehearsal process for me, that was always the choice.

Playbill.com: Has anyone ever told you that you resemble a young Peter Gallagher?
MR: (Laughs) Yeah, I get that a lot. It's the brows. I've always wanted to meet him so I could say, "If you ever need someone to play your son or a younger version of you, I'm it."

Matthew Risch in <i>Pal Joey</i>
Matthew Risch in Pal Joey Photo by Joan Marcus
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