THE LEADING MEN: Justin Matthew Sargent and Jason Gotay, Spider-Man's Newest Broadway Superheroes
By Michael Gioia
November 8, 2013
Meet Justin Matthew Sargent and Jason Gotay, Broadway's newest superheroes and the latest actors to take flight in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.
Growing up in the Tampa, FL, area, Justin Matthew Sargent experienced a bit of bullying in middle school and high school — much like Peter Parker, the character that he plays six nights a week in Broadway's Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. However, Sargent knew that something special was in store for him and even imagined growing up to become a superhero — a birthmark on his wrist was in the same spot as Spider-Man's "web-shooters." After shedding over 100 lbs. and finding solace in community theatre, his path became clear, and Sargent earned his BFA in Musical Theatre from the University of Central Florida. Shortly after his college graduation, he auditioned for the Broadway-bound Spider-Man, received a callback and — although he wasn't chosen as the musical's first superhero — landed his first Broadway credit (Rock of Ages). Rock of Ages led to a stint in the short-lived show Bonnie & Clyde before he returned to the 1980s-inspired musical to star as leading man Drew.
Sargent now plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the high-flying musical (featuring a score by Bono and The Edge with a book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), succeeding original star Reeve Carney, who starred in the role for three years. Following his first month-and-a-half of performances, Playbill.com caught up with the show's newest leading man.
At Reeve Carney's final performance, the production announced that you would take over as the next Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Tell me about that moment, where he "passed on the torch."
Justin Matthew Sargent: It was emotional, especially for Reeve. You could see it on his face. He was saying goodbye to this show. It had to have been tough for him, and I felt a little strange. I felt like it was a moment for him to have and a moment for him to say thank you to the cast, the crew and the audience. I was very, very grateful that he wanted to share that moment with me and introduce me as the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It was just a really nice, honest moment.
Previously, the producers announced that the next leading man would be picked from a coast-to-coast open call, so what was it like when they told you that you'd be taking over full-time?
JMS: It was a dream come true, honestly. I auditioned for this show [before it came to Broadway] in Orlando, FL, when I was there. I just graduated from college, and I was working at a theme park as a singing waiter in a restaurant, and I went to a big open call that they had at this convention center. I was the 181st person, and I was the first person to sing a U2 song for the audition that day.
Sargent as Spider-Man
What song did you sing?
JMS: I sang, "[I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For] (Only to Be With You)." And, Justin Huff and Tiffany Canfield, who were there from Telsey [+ Company casting], auditioning said, "Yes! You were the first person to sing a U2 song. What number are you?" I said, "181." And, they [said], "You get a callback, no matter what," and then they let me continue. I actually did go through the whole big, open-call process, and then I flew to New York and went through all the final callbacks with [original director] Julie Taymor — this is back in the original conception of the project — so to get that phone call that I was actually going to take over for Reeve, it was kind of a culmination of a lot of things that had happened in the last [few] years. It was just a great feeling.
After that audition, you came to New York and went into Rock of Ages?
JMS: Absolutely, yes. After my audition with Julie Taymor and the creative team, [casting director] Bernie Telsey, [who also casts Rock of Ages], walked me out of the room and said, "Do you have any plans to move into the city? I think it's a good idea if you did." Five months later, I moved up here, and I think it was seven or eight months after that I was in Rock of Ages.
In between your latest stint in Rock of Ages and going into Spider-Man, you got married?
JMS: I did, yes! I got married on Aug. 25 to my fiancé and girlfriend of six-and-a-half years, Celine, and it's been an amazing year. She's not an actress. She has a degree in event management, and she travels all over the country, managing meetings and security logistics for large-scale events and conventions. We met… She came to see my college production of The Rocky Horror Show. I was Riff Raff, and it was kind of like an underground, grunge-rock version of the show. My costume was based on Edward Scissorhands. I had long hair that was all dyed black [and] purple. She came to the show dressed in a corset and fishnets and high heels. We locked eyes in the lobby after the show, and that was it! [Laughs.]
Sargent in Rock of Ages.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
What is it like to be Broadway's newest superhero? Was there any pressure taking over for Reeve after originally being announced as the show's next Alternate?
JMS: I never actually got to start performances as the [Peter Parker/Spider-Man] Alternate. I was originally hired to be the Alternate, and then the next week Reeve announced that he was leaving the show. It's a really long rehearsal process, so I was in rehearsals for about five-and-a-half weeks, and during that process, I guess they saw something in me [and thought], "This is the guy who is going to be replacing Reeve." Yeah, it was a lot of pressure. Reeve's performance in the show was extremely unique, and it just fits in the world so perfectly, and the last thing I wanted to do was replicate that. I wanted to do something that was unique to me, but still try to find a way for it to fit in the world. Of course, I'm playing the superhero, but at the same time, I've also got to play this really hurt and downtrodden kid, who is going through a tough time. I was able to draw a little bit on my own childhood. I was bullied a little bit as a kid — I was really heavy. I weighed 100 lbs. more than I do now, when I was in high school, so I've been able to draw on that to relate to Peter Parker.
Growing up, did you ever have a special attachment to comic books, comic-book characters or superheroes?
JMS: Actually, nobody believes me when I tell this story — and it's 100-percent true — but I've got a birthmark right on my wrist where [Spider-Man's] spider-webbing comes out of. And, as a kid, I always thought I was going to grow up to be Spider-Man. Spider-Man was my favorite superhero, and I was running around the house doing all the moves, and my parents — when I got the role — sent me a huge care package full of all my old toys and all my old comic books that I had when I was a kid. They framed a couple of them, so my dressing room is decorated with all my old childhood Spider-Man stuff.
Were you nervous going up in the air for the first time?
JMS: During the audition process for this show, they had you fly to see how comfortable you are, to see if you're going to get nervous about it, if you have a fear of heights — all that kind of stuff. I definitely had some practice before starting rehearsals, but yes, the very first time that you fly, it's like your first time doing anything… Nothing is going to come natural. Gosh, how do I explain it? It's like learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time… But, over time, you learn to trust what the rigging is doing. It just goes, and you've got to go with it. But, it is exhilarating. It's like riding a roller coaster every night. Singing upside down is not the most easy thing in the world, but it's fun to do. Again, that's on the list of things I never thought I'd be doing in my career — singing upside down on my bedroom wall [in] "Bouncing Off the Walls." I'm the only person in the show who gets to use the "twisty belt." It's this special harness that you can do full rotations and flips and all kinds of fun stuff in. That number is a lot of fun.
Sargent with Reeve Carney
photo by Jenny Anderson
Do you always feel safe when flying or doing the stunts that the role requires?
JMS: Absolutely. [The creative team's] main priority — their sole concern for this show — is safety. It's a massive show. There's a lot of large set pieces going in and out and up and down, and there are things lifting on the stage, things moving around all the time, and if you don't ever feel comfortable, one of the things that they stress — especially when it's new company members — is, "If you don't feel comfortable — if you feel like something's off, even if it's just a premonition you're having — put up your hands and make an X symbol with your arms." There are cameras all over the stage. They can see everybody at all times, and if you do that, they will stop the show. They say, "Do not worry about stopping the show. We don't discourage it at all. The priority is safety." There have been a couple times since I've been in the show that stunts haven't been able to happen — not because there were any real concerns of danger, but because somebody didn't feel comfortable. They want to make sure that everybody knows that you're not going to hurt the integrity of the show if you have to stop it.
Did you take part in the recent Web of Love benefit for Daniel Curry?
JMS: I did! Rebecca Faulkenberry and I did a little duet. We both played Drew and Sherrie in Rock of Ages, each for a year and a half, and we actually never got to do it together, so when they asked us to do a duet for this benefit, I said, "Let's just do 'High Enough' because we never got to do it on stage together, and I think it'd be fun." That was just an incredible night. Daniel was there, and he was just so moved, and we were all moved by him. This cast and this entire team is just so supportive and so loving.
What was your first brush with theatre? When did you first get bit by the theatre bug?
JMS: I was a new kid in a new town. I just moved. It was halfway through my eighth grade year — I moved to a completely new town, and I didn't know anybody, and coming into the second half of eighth grade is not easy because everyone has their friends already. Being a heavy kid, I was like the new fat kid in school, and my English teacher was involved in the community theatre, and she saw that I was a little bit introverted. She recommended to my parents and me that I join community theatre and give it a shot, so I did. I went out, and I auditioned for Oliver!, and I was cast as the Artful Dodger. Honestly, from the moment of that audition, and the moment that I got the phone call that they wanted me to be in it, [I thought], "Oh my God, this is awesome. I want to do this!" That show took place the summer before my freshman year of high school, so from then until I graduated high school, I had done over 30 productions with the community theatre and with my high school. It was never a question. I just knew I wanted to do it, and I knew that there was nothing else I'd rather do.
BRING IT ON!
When Jason Gotay learned the news that he would be Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark's newest Peter Parker/Spider-Man Alternate (performing Wednesday and Saturday matinees), he found it nearly impossible to keep the big news "on the 'DL,'" he said, since Seth Rudetsky hinted on Playbill.com's "Obsessed!" that the actor would take on more high-flying Broadway stunts than he did in Bring It On: The Musical. By the time the "cat was out of the bag," however, Gotay was already getting rigged and ready to soar across the audience at the Foxwoods Theatre. The actor, who — after closing Bring It On, in which he made his Broadway debut, and Off-Broadway's F#%cking Up Everything — remains busy by headlining various concerts at 54 Below, Joe's Pub, (le) Poisson Rouge and The Highline Ballroom, was scheduled to make his Spider-Man debut Oct. 23. When Matt Wilkas, the show's previous Alternate, was sick and unable to go on Oct. 19, the latest "superhero" was called to the rescue and started performances four days earlier than expected. With high anxiety (and tons of water and tea), Gotay dove in head first — and even had his mother greet him at the stage door following his first flight. After his third performance as Spider-Man, we chatted with Gotay about his latest theatrical outing, his numerous concert performances and being a "badass" on Broadway.
You began performances in Spider-Man just a few days before Halloween. Did you ever think you'd be a superhero this year — on Broadway? Did you have any special ties to the comic-book characters?
JG: [Laughs.] I was not like a super fan of Marvel Comics or anything — that wasn't really my world — but I remember seeing all of the movies growing up, the old-school "Batman" films [as well as] the new series [from writer-director-producer] Christopher Nolan. I was "in" on it, but I never, ever anticipated being a part of this show. I remember being in high school hearing that they were bringing Spider-Man to Broadway and just having no idea what that was going to be like. Never in a million years would I ever have imagined anything like it. I never thought of myself in that light, [as a superhero], but what's so brilliant about Peter Parker is that he's kind of the anti-superhero. He's just a kid who wants to get the girl and is in love with science… Once I started to think about it in that way, I was like, "Oh, that makes sense. I guess I could see myself doing this."
Gotay meets some young Spider-Man fans
Well, you have such a great duality as a performer — you played this bad-boy rocker in F#%cking Up Everything, and you were the sweet heartthrob in Bring It On. We see a bit of both sides to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Which do you like to explore more?
JG: For me, growing up — just being in acting class and musical theatre school — I never thought of myself as a typical leading man because I didn't look like that, [and] I didn't sound like that. I never thought that was the kind of stuff I was going to do, so I'm really drawn to the idea of this quirky leading man — the leading man with a twist, in some way. I think my character [Randall] in Bring It On was totally a reflection of that. Even though he was the love interest of the show, he was really alternative and had a very unique thing going on. There's a similar vibe here with Peter Parker because he is a leading man, in one sense — he has really strong morals, delivers these really powerful songs, and it's a really strong character — but there is that softer, vulnerable side to him. He does have a sweetness and is really quirky. It's fun for me to get to dig into a character like that because I think, as an actor, I don't fall into one specific category. I like to play a character that explores multiple sides. Getting to play him — and all of the sides of him — is the most exciting part for me.
You often explore your softer side in concert, and you're all over the New York City cabaret scene. What excites you about taking on new material by emerging musical theatre writers?
JG: It's so exciting, for me, not only to get to work with these up-and-coming composers — who are all developing their voice in this community — but it's also exciting to take on the challenge of having to learn a song, get barely any rehearsal for it, make immediate choices about what you're going to do and then allow yourself to just be present in the moment and "ride the ride." It's an amazing exercise for any actor to have to perform in a concert where they're not given an ample amount of rehearsal time or guidance, really. I've flexed that muscle of having to learn really fast and deliver a performance really quickly. I think that can only inform the work you're doing in any show. It's always a gift for an actor to get to work with a composer and sing their music for — sometimes — the first time. Getting to bring their material to life is such a privilege. I'm just a huge fan of new musical theatre, and I champion young writers. I think these amazing, young composers are the next generation of theatre, and I want to be a part of [the process of] them developing their voice.
Gotay in concert
On the concert horizon, we will see Jason as "Vulnerable Spice" in Broadway Loves the Spice Girls…
JG: [Laughs.] Yes! That's going to be a ridiculous night! [Laughs.] [Musical director] Ben Rauhala is a genius — not only in his conception of these concerts and how he decides to celebrate these artists, but also, his vocal arrangements are always amazing and surprising. I love getting to be able to collaborate with him on that. It's going to be such a fun night of some of the best singers on Broadway letting loose and just being silly and also…making really good music. I get to sing with four of the best male singers on Broadway, [Darren Bluestone, Max Chernin, Corey Cott and Ben Fankhauser], which is just a huge treat for me. And, yeah… "Vulnerable Spice" is something that we came up with because in every concert I seem to be pegged as the one singing a quiet, emotional ballad. [Laughs.] I mean, obviously, it only made sense that would be the role that I play… We're doing "Say You'll Be There," and then I think we're finishing up the concert with "Mama," so it will be a cute homage to mama's boys everywhere.
What was it like going up in the air for the first time in Spider-Man? Were you nervous?
JG: I was nervous going up in the air the first time — not because I didn't feel safe, but just because I had no idea what it was going to feel like. I had never been asked to do anything like that, and I never thought I was ever going to be hired to do any kind of flying or stunt-related [tricks]. But, I have to say that the first time I ever did it at my final callback, I had a blast, and I felt like a superhero immediately because how can you not feel like a badass flying around this theatre with one hand holding this wire and your body soaring through the air?
The Broadway shows you have been in, Bring It On and Spider-Man — they have very high stakes…
JG: Yes, and I think it's amazing when people try to stretch the limits of what's been seen on a Broadway stage before. I've been so lucky to be a part of Bring It On and Spider-Man because, visually and physically, they are both really pushing the boundaries of what we've seen in theatre. It's been so exciting to be a part of that. But, I do think that in any show you're doing that involves heavy movement — even if it's all on the ground — there's always going to be that risk factor to it. Bring It On and Spider-Man have extraordinary risk attached, [but] you're either going to do it with no fear holding you back or it's not a job for you. These guys that I've encountered in Bring It On and Spider-Man are some of the most courageous actors I've met, and they are just so brave. It's amazing to see what they do every night.
Gotay in Bring It On
photo by Craig Schwartz
Speaking of Bring It On, that show is like the "Where are they now?" of Broadway!
JG: [Laughs.] It kind of is, actually!
You're in Spider-Man, Ariana DeBose just finished her run in Motown, Elle McLemore is on TV in "Army Wives," Janet Krupin and Ryann Redmond are in If/Then (to name a few), and most of that cast made their Broadway debuts in Bring It On. What do you think was so special about that show?
JG: I think that we owe a lot of that to our incredible creative team, who saw a lot of raw potential in all of us. Even though most of us didn't have a lot of experience, I think they saw something in us that had potential to grow and flourish in this community, and I was so lucky that they saw that in me. I think that it was a really special group, and everyone was so different, but brought something so amazing to the table. It kind of exposed us to the industry in a really big way and kind of prepared us for what was to come. I think after that [show], we all felt like we had the momentum to keep going. [It's] really hard to top such an amazing experience, but I think that it was thanks to the creative team, who searched long and hard to find people who were right for that particular show… We owe a lot to them for giving us that first opportunity that allowed us to soar.
Aside from performing, you also teach musical theatre classes?
JG: I've been teaching since January — so almost for a full year — [but] since Spider-Man happened, I had to hold off. I had two different workshops back home in Brooklyn all set and planned, and then Spider-Man kind of threw a curve ball at me, so once I settle into the groove of the show after the holiday season, I'll [get] back into teaching a bit… Growing up [in Brooklyn], I worked at a performing-arts day camp in my neighborhood, and I always loved working with kids. After Bring It On closed, I was looking for teaching opportunities, and I collaborated with a community theatre in my neighborhood and came to them with the idea of doing a musical theatre workshop intensive. Over the course of six weeks, I coached students on contemporary musical theatre songs, which culminated in a showcase of their work for family and friends, which led to another showcase where we did musical theatre scenes and duets and some group stuff. I formed some really amazing relationships with them, and it allowed me to get better at what I do just by watching them learn. Because I am so young and some of my students are only a couple years younger than me, it was amazing to create an environment where we were all working together as opposed to a "teacher-student" relationship.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)