Coming Home to New York with Venice: Matt Sax's Show Prepares for Public Theater Premiere
By Carey Purcell
Getting acting tips from Kevin Kline while attending a Knicks game was not something Matt Sax expected when he was a teenager. Nor did he expect to cross paths with Kline again 14 years later at the Public Theater, where he is mounting his first musical and Kline is revisiting one of his most famous roles.
Sax, who was playing the role of Nick Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, had just seen the film adaptation of the play, which featured Kline in the same role. When he saw Kline at a basketball game, he decided to ask him about playing the part.
"I snuck up to him, tapped him on the back, and there he was – a total luminary in my mind – and I asked him about the process of the play and with the part that I was playing at the same time," Sax said, describing the encounter.
Kline sat and talked with Sax throughout the entire halftime presentation, discussing the role.
"He was so gracious and lovely," Sax said. "It was totally inspiring."
Fourteen years after his conversation with Kline about Nick Bottom, both Sax and Kline are crossing paths again at the Public Theater, where Sax's new musical Venice is in rehearsal at the Public Lab and Kline is returning to the role of the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance for a one-night fundraising gala at the Delacorte Theater June 10.
"We live in circles, don't we?" Sax said, reflecting on the journey of Venice from its origins in Los Angeles to the Public Theater, a place he had dreamed of working at when he was a child.
Venice's route to the Public Theater has been a circuitous one. The show has been produced in six workshops in Los Angeles, in full productions in Kansas City and Los Angeles, and several other workshops throughout the country. Now, the musical, with a book by Eric Rosen, music by Sax, lyrics by Sax and Rosen, additional music by Curtis Moore, and choreography by Chase Brock, will begin previews May 28, with an official opening set for June 13. The production will run through June 23. The show is directed by Rosen, Sax's long-time collaborator.
Venice is set in a dystopian near-future fictional city of the same name. The musical follows a young man's journey as he fights for truth and honesty in a city of corruption.
Along with Sax, the cast includes Uzo Aduba, Jennifer Damiano, Jonathan-David, Claybourne Elder, Leslie Odom, Jr., Victoria Platt, Angela Polk and Haaz Sleiman, and the ensemble includes Emilee Dupre, Semhar Ghebremichael, Devin Roberts and Manuel Stark.
Sax, whose one-man show Clay was inspired by Henry IV and Falstaff, gets many of his ideas from Shakespeare, saying, "I'm inspired by great stories, by big stories. I've always believed that theatre should be raised to the level of ghosts and gods, and that's what makes the live experience special."
Along with Shakespeare, Sax credits world events, especially ones related to politics, as inspiration for Venice, including the nomination of Barack Obama, Arab Spring and the Boston bombings.
"What we saw in the stories that we were inspired by were very fundamental, very basic theatrical aspects," he said. "Betrayal, jealousy, grand love stories and miscommunication."
Grand theatrical aspects are nothing new to Sax, who grew up in New York and frequently saw musical theatre productions with his family. His first Brodway show was The Secret Garden, and he says he knows every lyric in Les Miserables, but he credits Hedwig and the Angry Itch with changing how he viewed theatre.
"I had the most amazing, thrilling experience," he said. "It opened my eyes that theatre could be like this. Theatre could be something different than what I was used to. The thing I'm most excited about when I look back at those shows and those experiences is that musical theatre has this amazing transformational quality. You can walk into the theatre and leave the theatre actually a different person. I think there's something very special about the art form that your heart can be totally transformed by."
The transformational quality of theatre is what Sax hopes to achieve with Venice; he said he and Rosen hope to give people the "first-time" experience that can change their perspective.
"That's a lofty goal, but the core of that thing is really important to me," he said. "Hopefully, even if it's just one kid that comes and sees this show is turned on by the fact that theatre can do this, theatre can be this, and is energized. I'm hoping we give that gift to someone else. That would be amazing."
Sax hopes Venice will be the first show some people see, because inspiring young people to become invested in the theatre has been a goal of his for a long time.
"It's always been a real passion of mine…to get young people excited about the theatre in ways they are not always," he said. "Because for whatever reason, they think theatre is standoffish. They think theatre is for an elite class."
One aspect in which Sax might shatter the illusion of elitism is the fact that even though he wrote the music for Venice, he cannot read music. Instead, he writes beats and melodies on his computer and he and Rosen collaborate on the song's story. Sax then records a version of it, and their music supervisor and collaborator Moore notates it for the page.
Sax views his lack of a traditional music education as an asset to his work, saying, "Because I don't have that training, I'm actually not limited by that training. There are positives and negatives, but I feel like my impulses are different than that of a traditional musical theatre composer, and I think that's part of what makes the score so unique."
Another unique aspect of Venice's score is the fusion of different musical genres, which Sax, who lists musical theatre, hip-hop, rock and classical music as his inspirations, credits to his age.
"I think what is distinct about my generation is that ability to disregard genre lines," he said. "The way in which we are capable of following multiple impulses at one time, because of the technology that is available to us. The fact that my generation sees no distinction in those genre lines is something that I think is very reflective of the score of this show."
The lack of distinction between genre lines is visible in the score of Venice, Sax said, describing the score and method of storytelling as new and edgy but the story itself as having classic roots.
"I think that is what makes the audience feel taken care of when they're watching this play," he said. "I think what was really important for us is that juxtaposition between the form and the content – feeling like we're telling a very classic and very global story set against very modern, current music and events."
By combining different themes and styles, Sax hopes that the combination of classic and modern in Venice will result in a new creation.
"I think what we're doing with this show is we're taking this impulse from Shakespeare, we're taking the impulse from modern current events, we're taking this musical style and hopefully putting it together to create something new," he said.
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