THE LEADING MEN: Vamp Till Ready

By Wayman Wong
05 Apr 2006

Three years ago in Urban Cowboy: The Musical, Matt Cavenaugh burst onto Broadway playing a redneck. But now until April 23, he’s co-starring in Playwrights Horizons’ Grey Gardens as a blueblood: Joseph Kennedy Jr. With a book by Doug Wright, this mesmerizing musical boasts the season’s most gorgeous and glorious score (by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie). It’s based on Albert and David Maysles’ “Grey Gardens,” a 1975 documentary about Edith Bouvier Beale, a socialite and Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ aunt, and her own daughter, “Little Edie.” Act I is set in 1941 amid their elegant Long Island mansion, where Joe Kennedy comes to see Little Edie [played by Sara Gettelfinger]. Christine Ebersole, who gives a tour de force, plays her mother, and then returns in Act II, now set in 1973, as the middle-aged Little Edie. There, she battles with her elderly mother (Mary Louise Wilson) in their rundown estate, befriended by a good-hearted gardener named Jerry (also played by Cavenaugh).

Cavenaugh, 27, says, “I first got involved with the show when Scott asked me to play Joe, and we did a workshop at Sundance. It’s fun to play a Kennedy. Joe was the golden child who was being groomed to be the first Catholic President of the United States. He was in love with Edie, and our number, ‘Better Fall Out of Love,’ harkens back to a Rodgers & Hart tune like ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again.’ It’s catchy, but if you listen to the chords, they clash and don’t quite go together. It’s very smart on Scott’s part, and Michael’s lyrics are clever.” In this delightful duet, Kennedy sings, “I need a leading lady by me neck and neck to help me lobby for a campaign check,” and Little Edie, who’s an aspiring actress, replies, “The only lobby I know is the Martin Beck.”

In Act II, Cavenaugh becomes Jerry, a long-haired Long Island teen. “I love playing him. Jerry’s got a goofy, sweet nature. And he had a real affection for Mother [Beale], who treated him like a son.” Though the old woman brags that this boy “has a new girl every night,” the real-life Jerry is gay. At one workshop, “Doug Wright told me that ‘Jerry’s here and he wants to meet you.’ I thought, ‘Omigosh. I’m s***ting myself.’ Jerry couldn’t be sweeter. He loves the show. And he lives in Queens. The New Yorker interviewed him, and Jerry says that Jackie Onassis once asked him out to go clubbing and invited him home for a drink. But Jerry said “no, thanks” and went to a gay bar instead. That’s hilarious!” (Speaking of hilarious, Cavenaugh adds, “Christine’s a great leader. She’s kooky, crazy fun. She’s a nutcase — in all the best ways.”)

This 5-foot-11 hunk from Jonesboro, AR, has toured in Thoroughly Modern Millie; tackled new musicals like Palm Beach at La Jolla Playhouse; and played a gay student on ABC’s “One Life to Live.” And like riding the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy, he’s learned to enjoy the ups and downs: “I’m very proud of that show. I loved every minute. As tumultuous as it was, I’d do Urban Cowboy again in a heartbeat. I’m a much better actor for going through that. It was tough sometimes. I kept a bottle of Jameson [whiskey] in my dressing room. I’m not gonna lie. Some matinees, I might take a shot. It was disheartening to know you were in a theatre that seats 1,100, and there might be only 200 people there, but they came to see a show, so we gave it to them. It was a great ensemble, and we had so much fun.”

Though he’s single, Cavenaugh enjoys keeping company with an Idiot. That’s the name of his blue Betta fish. “When Michelle Kittrell and I dated, she gave him to me. I was in L.A. for pilot season by myself, so she sent me a beautiful vase of flowers, and Idiot was swimming in the bottom. He drove cross-country with me, and like me, he’s a loner. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s a good listener. I love my Idiot.”

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Do you love 1970's pop songs sung with warmth, sensitivity and sincerity? Then take the Doobie Brothers’ advice and “whoa, whoa, listen to the music” on Jonathan Rayson’s “Shiny and New” debut CD (LML Music). Whether he’s sweetly singing Richard Carpenter’s “I Need to Be in Love,” Don McLean’s “And I Love You So” or Tom Waits’ “Rainbow Sleeves,” this Broadway pro proves beautiful ballads are his Rayson d’etre. “Shiny and New,” which hits the stores on April 11, was inspired by a bright idea. “When I started putting together this CD, I wanted to do an homage to my musical roots,” says the friendly 5-foot-11 singer-actor from Omaha, NE. “I started performing when I was six or seven with my dad’s cover band, and my signature tune was Clint Holmes’ ‘Playground in My Mind.’ It went: ‘My name is Michael/ I’ve got a nickel/ I’ve got a nickel shiny and new.’ And that’s how we got the title for the album.”

Rayson, 38, says, “I picked songs for this CD that had a personal connection, like ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.’ In kindergarten, I’d get up on a table and sing that for the other kids. Usually, ‘Raindrops’ can sound kinda cheesy, so Dan Chouinard, my amazing musical director and co-producer, slowed down the tempo. I wanted to give it more weight. I’m a ballad boy at heart. I tend to gravitate toward the melancholy and concentrate on the lyrics. And there were so many great lyrical writers in the 1970's: Billy Joel, John Denver, James Taylor. This CD’s really about what we choose to hold onto and what we choose to let go — not just things but our beliefs.”

If making this album was a dream for Rayson, so was getting to play Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. On Broadway he understudied Hunter Foster, and on tour, he took over for Anthony Rapp. He says Seymour was his dream role because “I always felt like a dork growing up. I was in the junior high mime troupe.” As much as he loved the show, there were problems working at the plant: Audrey II, that is. On tour, “the plant had a lotta technical difficulties. Once the computer went down while I was inside Audrey II, and I couldn’t get out, so the cast had to do the finale without Seymour. It was terrifying.” Rayson adds, “The road was very challenging. There were places that seemed to hate us. Houston was miserable. But Boston was fantastic. And I was blown away by the response in Minneapolis. I had spent 13 years there [as an actor]. One of my friends is on the City Council, so they declared it Jonathan Rayson Day.”

In Minnesota, Rayson played in everything from A Little Night Music to Love! Valour! Compassion! He was a big tadpole in a small pond, but he got to leapfrog to Broadway as a standby for the Children’s Theatre Company production of A Year With Frog and Toad (2003). Jay Goede, who played Frog, suffered a burst appendix, so Rayson had to hop in on short notice: “Mark Linn-Baker, who played Toad, is a fantastic man and a brilliant comedian. I was so intimidated. I didn’t want to let him down. Mark came in that day on his own time to go over some scenes. That night, he was so generous. At the end of the show, Mark told the audience: 'One of the most difficult jobs in our field is being an understudy, and I want you all to know that this was Jonathan’s first night going on as Frog. And not only did he do a terrific job, this performance marks his Broadway debut.' I still get choked up about it. Sometimes, I feel like I live under a star. I once left this business for three years, but I came back because I wasn’t doing what I love. I feel so fortunate and appreciate it every day.

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There’s so much to see in New York: David Gurland and Randi Driscoll share a delightful double bill, joined by Tim Di Pasqua, on April 9 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438). . . . Douglas Ladnier (Jekyll & Hyde) brings his deep, beautiful baritone to Danny’s Skylight Room on April 11, 18 and 25 at 9:30 PM at 346 W. 46th St. (212-265-8133). . . . Finally, “Roasts, Toasts and Tributes” will whistle a happy tune as it salutes cabaret booster Michael Nelsen on April 30 at 8 PM at the St. Clement’s Theater, 423 W. 46th St. (212-868-4444). Produced and hosted by Carolyn Montgomery, it’ll include Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter, Baby Jane Dexter, Tim Di Pasqua, Natalie Douglas, David Gurland, Julie Reyburn, Sue Matsuki and many more.

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at

Until next month, let’s hear it for the “boys”!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.