THE LEADING MEN: Cavenaugh and Shulman | Playbill

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News THE LEADING MEN: Cavenaugh and Shulman Matt Cavenaugh from West Side Story and the busy Michael Shulman are our Leading Men for March.
Matt Cavenaugh
Matt Cavenaugh

Matt Cavenaugh, Tony in the new revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre, was sitting at home one night as a teenager in Jonesboro, AR, when his mom told him to come to the high school and see a show with her. Up to this point, Cavenaugh, the second of seven kids, had envisioned playing professional baseball or maybe eventually college football at Notre Dame. He wasn't dying to go see a show, much less a musical. It turned out to be a show that changed the course of his life. And now, he's the leading man bringing that same show to Broadway.

Q: So that's a true story. West Side Story inspired your career choice?
Cavenaugh: Oh yeah! I'm not just saying that. It was the year before I got to high school. My mom dragged me to it. I reluctantly went and was blown away. From the minute it started, I was like, "What is this? How do I do it?" I remember just being blown away. I remember the kid who played Tony. His name was Patrick Ashlock. And it really was what opened my eyes to this new world. The next year I got to high school and I dove right in.

Q: How great for Patrick Ashlock to know he inspired Broadway's Tony!
Cavenaugh: He did. And it's funny. A few years ago, he called me up. He said, "Hey Matt, I'm thinking about getting back into acting. You have any tips for me?" That was a fun little full circle that came about. He's an incredible trumpet player. I can't do half the things he can do.

Q: Do you feel the weight of how classic this show is, how familiar so many people are with the music and the film?
Cavenaugh: I guess the answer to that is yes and no. Obviously this is a landmark show, arguably the greatest musical ever written. There is an excitement we have to do it better than it's ever been done before, to do it in a new and exciting way. I don't have the film burned in my memory at all, and [director and book writer] Arthur Laurents certainly doesn't. It's certainly a matter of public record that he hated the film, so he hasn't steered us in any of those directions. He, from day one, has been all about trying to create a timeless production of West Side Story that speaks in 2009. The crowd, the minute the first notes are played, they go wild. That's exciting. Obviously people know the show, they love the show. I'm sure a lot of people want to see it the way they know it or have done it before. This is not what that is. This is a very new and exciting production. The reception has been good so far. People really seem to be taking the journey with us. We're having a great time at the Palace. Every night, we're all collectively falling in love with each other and the piece all over again.

Q: What are some things about the new production that people might not expect?
Cavenaugh: There has been a lot of press about how this is a bilingual production, so some people will have knowledge of that, but there will be some people who come to see it that don't know the extent it is going to be bilingual. That includes famous songs like "I Feel Pretty" now sung in Spanish beautifully by Josefina Scaglione. Things like "A Boy Like That," Karen Olivo does incredibly in Spanish. Arthur has really tried to focus this production on the love story between Tony and Maria to make sure that is front and center in our storytelling. The ballet is a bit different than it was originally done. This time, Tony and Maria are there the entire time, and the ballet is orchestrated through them. This imaginary Utopia where there is no racial prejudice or hate really comes about through Tony and Maria conjuring it up. That is something different. Arthur is trying to make sure that yes, it has an amazing score and choreography, but he really wants to make sure that the acting and the love story is really front and center.

Josefina Scaglione with Matt Cavenaugh in West Side Story
photo by Joan Marcus
Q: Most folks haven't seen the original staging. The music is how they have experienced the show — the cast album is one of the top-selling records ever.
Cavenaugh: I know my story is like thousands of others of people who were inspired by a production of the show and that's how they got involved in the theatre. I did have the cast recording. I haven't listened to it in many years. Leonard Bernstein's score is more than just great music. It is a work of art. When the orchestra plays the score, it is an event, and it sounds incredible in the Palace. Thirty musicians, drummers in the pit and two percussion players in the right and left box in the mezzanine, and I tell you, it is electric. It is amazing when they get cooking. Q: That is exciting, just to hear about that many musicians in the pit.
Cavenaugh: They don't write scores like this anymore, and I think that is just our taste now. There are people capable of writing in this style, but that is not what our taste as a modern audience is. To have this score played by such incredible musicians… We don't have that many musicians in a Broadway orchestra anymore. You cannot replicate this score on a synthesizer. It is something that has to be done by real human beings who are passionate about their music as well as skilled musicians that bring new life into it. The cast, we've all been blown away, and we're hearing things in the score that we've never heard before. The percussion in the boxes was Sondheim's recollection of how they did it in 1957 at the Winter Garden. Because they didn't have room for the musicians in the pit there either, so they put the two percussion players in the boxes. It's a great idea.

Q: So how does one go from Jonesboro, AR, to acting school at Ithaca College?
Cavenaugh: I was very involved in my high school theatre program. I had an incredible teacher by the name of Keith Salter, who was a real mentor and father figure to me and helped me out immensely. I made the decision that hey, maybe I could do this for a living. So we researched what we felt were the top programs in the country, and we spent a lot of time working on my audition. My first visit to Ithaca, it felt like home right away. I know it sounds corny, but it is such a gorgeous, gorgeous part of the country, a great college town, a beautiful campus. I thought, if I get in here, this is it. And I did.

Q: It seems like so many guys I talk to, it comes down to one teacher in school, who really inspired them. You mentioned your teacher, Mr. Salter...
Cavenaugh: If seeing West Side Story before I got to high school lit the spark, he really set off the fire. He laid a great groundwork for me as an actor, an artist and a professional. He instilled a great work ethic in me that really served me well when I went to college. I had a lot of faculty at Ithaca who were instrumental in me having success once I got to New York City, so I could go on and on…

Q: Was your family cool with you pursuing acting?
Cavenaugh: My family was always quite supportive of what I wanted to do. My father didn't quite understand it, but he was always supportive, and once he saw that I could make a living from it, hell, he thought it was great. One less kid I gotta worry about! And my mom loves it, has always been a big fan.

Q: If we could go into the past for a bit, I really enjoyed A Catered Affair and was sad that had such a short go.
Cavenaugh: Thanks. I think we were all certainly surprised that it didn't do a little better than it did. I loved that process and had a great time working with John Doyle. I think he and Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino really crafted a great story. I am obviously a bit biased, but I thought it was a courageous way of telling a musical story. West Side Story is a great musical, there's no denying it. It shows the best of the adage, "We can no longer speak about what we are feeling, we must sing now." A Catered Affair, I thought that it was a cool idea that the singing, rather than being an elevation of speech, oftentimes, it was simply an extension of speech. Some people really dug it. Some people thought it fell flat, but I really enjoyed it. It made me a better actor working with Doyle and that incredible cast.

Q: How about Grey Gardens? Was that a good experience?
Cavenaugh: That was one of the best creative experiences I've had in my young career. I first got a call in 2004 to go to Sundance Theatre Institute to work on a workshop and play Joe Kennedy Jr. I thought that was cool. I had no idea I'd also be playing Jerry. So, I got to play two very different characters, a leading man in the first act and a character actor in the second act — polar opposites of each other. I thought Doug Wright [book] and Scott Frankel [music] and Michael Korie [lyrics] and [director] Michael Greif created a beautiful work of art that I think will continue to live. It was a fantastic experience.

Q: You became sort of a heartthrob when you did Urban Cowboy, with the poster and all. Was that odd?
Cavenaugh: Let's be honest, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing for me. It gave me a certain amount of recognition. I don't think that poster really sold the show well. It sold posters [laughs], not necessarily tickets. But the poster lives on. I signed one last night as I came out of the stage door. But that's not really who I am. I never really was that guy… that was sort of a by-product that took off in its own direction. I certainly want people to come to West Side Story and say, "Wow, Matt Cavenaugh is a great actor or has a great voice," rather than, "Look at that six pack."

Q: Word is, you are engaged, correct?
Cavenaugh: I am engaged to Jenny Powers, who is in tech right now up at Lincoln Center for a new musical called Happiness that Frankel and Korie are doing the music and lyrics to. So, we're both in the thick of it. I don't know what we are thinking, opening two shows and planning a wedding to boot.

Matt Cavenaugh and Jenny Powers
photo by Aubrey Reuben
Q: Maybe you could be married on stage?
Cavenaugh: Exactly, we can have the wedding at the Palace, and we'll have the reception at the Mitzi Newhouse [laughs]. [West Side Story is now in previews now for a March 19 opening. The Palace Theatre is located at 1564 Broadway in Manhattan. For more information, go to]

Michael Shulman
photo by Aubrey Reuben
Caught the irrepressible Michael Shulman in White People at Atlantic Stage 2 last month, and was able to talk to him about the show, the new movie he produced and starred in, and his memories of playing chess with Stephen Sondheim. Shulman played Billy in the original Off-Broadway production of Assassins and spent a couple years as Gavroche in Les Miz before joining the cast of TV's "Party of Five." His new movie is titled "Sherman's Way" and also features James LeGros, Donna Murphy, Enrico Colantoni and Brooke Nevin. Q: How have you enjoyed doing White People?
Michael Shulman: It's an intense play, but it's been a thrill. The writing is incredible. With my character, there's just so much there. It is a joy to do every scene. Since it is all monologues, the audience is my scene partner. I'd never done that before, a monologue play where you're really just talking to the audience. But I learned to really enjoy it because you get to see people's feedback and play off their reactions more than you would in a typical play. One performance, when I said the "n" word at the end, this woman went, "Oh my God!" Just screamed it. Things like that are just so exciting because it changes the way my next line comes out.

Q: Since you basically had three actors doing monologues, did you ever meet John Dossett and Rebecca Brooksher, your co-stars?
Shulman: It was the strangest rehearsal experience I've ever had. We got together in the beginning to do a table read with all the designers and the director. Then we split up for two-and-a-half weeks and did individual work, so I was working with the director for two hours a day, and then Rebecca would, and then John would. So I really didn't see them at all [laughs] till the end of rehearsal when we did a couple runs. I showed up to the theatre, and here I am sharing a dressing room with John Dossett, and we'd gone through a three-week rehearsal and I really didn't know him at all! [laughs]. We quickly bonded. He's just the nicest guy and has had so much experience and so much to offer.

Michael Shulman in White People
photo by Joaquin Sedillo
Q: What are your memories of Assassins?
Shulman: That was one of my first musicals. To work with these incredible people, Stephen Sondheim…Jerry Zaks directed it. Victor Garber…I wish I could go back in time and relive that moment because when I was doing it, I don't think I really appreciated it because I was younger. I didn't know who any of these people were! [Laughs.] I'd heard of Stephen Sondheim. But when I told my mom I was playing chess with him during the breaks, she dropped on the floor, and here I was, just so excited to be playing chess! It was one of those experiences, to be working with Victor Garber and Jonathan Hadary and Debra Monk, these wonderful, incredible actors. It was an experience that I still remember. I'm still in touch years later with people like Lee Wilkof. That's the kind of thing you remember the most. The same thing with Les Miserables where I was with this incredible cast and it was so exciting to go perform every night, but what you remember often are the off moments where you went to dinner, or when I hung out with all the other kids. It was like a huge family. So it's really an honor to get to be a part of a show like Assassins. Q: Did musical theatre acting come first for you?
Shulman: Yeah, I started doing musicals. I did Assassins and Les Miserables. I fell into the business. I've never done anything like White People where the stage is so small. I'm used to looking — like Les Miserables — where you'd look out and it would be total blackness, like you were performing in front of nothing. The good thing about that is that if someone is sleeping, you don't see them [laughs]. For White People, when I see someone sleeping, I can really see someone sleeping. I was talking with John also, that with a musical, you get a high off of the audience, but it's really set. So you know, if you hit these notes, the audience reaction is kind of set up for you, so there's something reassuring in that. You can improvise a little, but you can't decide that all of a sudden you are going to walk to the right, or take a beat. So [doing plays] is really different than doing musicals.

Q: So tell folks about "Sherman's Way."
Shulman: "Sherman's Way," I'm very excited about. It's coming out the first week in March in New York and Los Angeles. It's a story that's really personal to me. It's about an uptight, New York City-raised Yale junior who thinks he has everything figured out until he winds up on this road trip through Napa Valley with this older guy [James LeGros] who has nothing figured out. It's kind of a buddy picture/coming-of-age picture/love story. I meet a girl who changes my life. What I love about it is it teaches you that it is about the journey, not the destination, finding little detours that will change your direction. For me, that has been the story of my life. I stumbled into acting, stumbled into singing; traveled doing films and movies of the week to all these different parts of the country. I realized that each thing I've ever done, not getting a part, not doing something I thought would be great for my career, has helped me. Going to a regular school, not a performer's school — that's informed my life. Going to Yale and studying art history instead of drama has helped me. I think it is an important message, and I was happy to do something like it. There's some great humor in it, some moments I would love to take back, but that's film. I learned how to drive a stick shift, how to climb a tree, which nobody could believe. There's one scene where a bunch of us go skinny-dipping. I had never in my life done that. I was so out of my element. It paralleled my character perfectly.

Michael Shulman in "Sherman's Way"
© 2009 Starry Night Entertainment
Q: How did you get Donna Murphy involved? It is always fun seeing her on film.
Shulman: We were talking about who should play my mom, and Donna and I had worked together before on an HBO film, "Someone Had to Be Benny," and she's been a huge mentor and role model for me. Almost like a second mom. She told me she'd play my mom in anything at any time. She's such a wonderful woman. She has this huge presence in this film. We wanted someone who is a real force, and you know she is the force in musical theatre. ["Sherman's Way" opens March 6 at Village East Cinema, 181-189 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, and on March 13 at the Laemmle Monica, 1332 2nd Street in Santa Monica, CA.]

The show that cannot be stopped, The York Theatre Company's Enter Laughing rolls on at The Theatre at Saint Peter's (619 Lexington Ave.) now until March 20. Josh Grisetti stars, and Bob Dishy is also in the cast. Dishy is married to one of my childhood crushes, Judy Graubart, once the lovable Winnie on "The Electric Company." (This came back to me with the new "Electric Company" finally airing on PBS. I also saw that L. Steven Taylor of Broadway's The Lion King is among the new "EC" cast.) As for Enter Laughing, go to for information. . . .The celebrated (2008 Bistro & MAC Award winner) Jonathan Whitton brings his cabaret evening titled "Something Beautiful" to the Laurie Beechman on March 30 at 7 PM. Fellow MAC Award winner Miles Phillips directs the show in which you can expect to hear some John Cameron Mitchell and John Bucchino songs, among others. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Café at 407 West 42nd Street (at 9th Avenue). Call (212) 695-6909 for ticket info. . . . Speaking of Bucchino, the composer will be at Birdland on March 9 at 7 PM, as part of the ongoing gift to theatre fans from Jim Caruso known as "Broadway at Birdland." Bucchino's guests include Brian Stokes Mitchell and Brian Lane Green. Other guests not named Brian and with only two names include Lucas Steele and Jamison Stern. Ann Hampton Callaway and Daisy Prince are among the distaff side. Birdland is located at 315 West 44th Street; call (212) 581-3080 for reservations. . . . Next weekend (the weekend of March 8) is the last chance to catch Some Enchanted Evening, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Revue at St. Bart's (Park and 50th). Call (212) 378-0248 for tix. . . . John Tartaglia has what promises to be a great night at Feinstein's on March 30. Check out . . . Finally, I was introduced to her through her singing on many of the Ben Bagley "Revisited" albums, but little did I know I already knew her voice through her singing on several of TV's "Schoolhouse Rock" episodes. There was only one Blossom Dearie, friends, and we lost her on Feb. 7. All of her albums on the Verve label are incredible recordings. The gentleness of her voice and her piano on a song like Cy Coleman's "I Walk a Little Faster" make it seem as if she is sitting beside you, whispering the song into your ear. She did magic with numerous Cole Porter tunes as well. One thing is for certain, wherever Ms. Dearie is now, she is surely giving 'em the "Ooh-la-la."

Tom Nondorf can be reached at [email protected]

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