Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews the Directors of Into the Woods.
Ted Sod: Will you tell us where you were born and educated, and how you got involved in the theater as a music director?
Matt Castle: I was born in Sacramento, California and lived there until age 17. I attended University of the Pacific for my undergraduate degree. I was in the music conservatory there, so almost all my classes outside general ed were music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I did music education because it seemed somehow legitimate to have a statement of career goal inherent in the curriculum. I took two years off, and then still not knowing, I went to grad school for a master's in composition at Northern Illinois, University of Illinois. I was 28 by the time I moved to New York. I came here to be an actor. As is the case with many actors when they first move to New York, I had a limited resume – community theatre and college shows. And I had no idea what was involved in being an actor in New York, so it took me a few months to figure out how to get a head shot and how to put together some form of a resume. I started taking whatever work I could get, and that included playing piano, which is what I had been doing for a living since I was in high school. It turns out that my experience as an actor, director, writer and teacher all came in handy in the work that I do as a music director.
TS: Tell us what the music director does on this particular production of Into the Woods?
MC: It started as one thing, and it expanded into something else. The Fiasco folks knew as we went into production at the McCarter Theatre that they needed someone who was sufficiently strong as a piano player to hold up the show just with his two hands. It turned out that I would need to be able to reduce what I see on the page down to something that's playable by one person. And it is not easy to do full service to the music with just two hands on the keys. So, that was one prong of my job. The other was to interact with the actors because everyone in the room in a Fiasco show is involved with the table work. Since I'm also an actor and understand what they're doing as actors, I can be a full participant in the table work and had a lot to contribute there.
And, moreover, I can translate what is happening in the music as text, non-verbal text, into something usable for the actors. It’s just a musical/analytical tool that I have.
TS: Is there any other instrumentation? I've seen other shows of Fiasco, and many in the company play instruments.
MC: The part of the show that has expanded the most is the instrumental component. When we started at the McCarter, we had a permission slip to work on a piano-based version of the show, with the addition of other instruments where we might deem necessary, with the proviso that we do not use any orchestral material known to have been created by Jonathan Tunick. We could not do service to Jonathan Tunick's work without doing it in toto.
The more I learned about what the actors could do, the more inspired I got about the ways we could use instruments. The show is not fully, utterly re-orchestrated, but my husband and I are both engaged on the show as co-orchestrators. We're there to oversee and approve the use of instruments in the show however they're going to be used. For instance, we have an actor who plays cello very well, and an actor who plays bassoon very well, and more than one actor who plays guitar well. All three of those instruments appear fairly frequently in the show, and then we have a number of pianists. So while they don’t ever come to share the keys with me -- at least not in the two productions that we've done so far -- their piano skills are still useful in other parts of the show.
The set is made partly of old piano harps that have been mounted on walls. And they are tuned by our sound designer, Darron West, so that if you hit them they make a noise. Darron’s treated them with microphones. People can make all kinds of musical sounds, which contributes to the sound of the show.
TS: Is it complicated wearing both hats, playing the show and musically directing? Or is that something you’ve done often?
MC: It is a thing I've done more often than not.
TS: Did Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine see the show? Did they give you any specific notes?
MC: Stephen and James both saw the show, and they both were warmly enthusiastic with what we had done, but they didn’t take part in the rehearsal process. The artistic directors of Fiasco had a meeting with Lapine before we began rehearsal at the McCarter, and they got a clear sense from him of what he would and would not be okay with. Sondheim did reach out to me directly and approved the changes that we had made to the score: cuts, changes of feel, changes of vocal range, changes of vocal arrangements in some of the choral moments. We never tamper with melody or melodic contour. We never tamper with the accompanying harmony. Beyond that, we're limited by how much counterpoint we can achieve with my two hands and the other instruments that we have on stage.
TS: Can you give us a flavor for how you collaborated with Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the co-directors?
MC: I will try. The reality of how the rehearsal room works is it is democratic in terms of the airing of ideas, brainstorming for how to stage things, discussion of what characters are doing, what is happening in a scene. People who are not in a particular scene make observations about what is going on, a change that they saw somebody try and what was interesting about it, what maybe didn’t work about it. That's not a dynamic that will work for every show and every group of actors. But with this particular cast it is brilliantly successful, and very stimulating. It's the most fully participating room of actors I've ever been in, which is really saying something.
TS: So when they decided to bring some people in from outside the company – the understudies, for instance -- were you involved in that casting process?
MC: I was involved. I also went through a process of being vetted, interviewed, tried out, and then ultimately hired. I was outside the company until I became part of it. So I've had experience with Fiasco from both sides of the audition table, so to speak.
Casting understudies was a challenge. Of course, hiring understudies for a show that's already happened is always a challenge. Because what we do in our production has become so connected to the specific abilities of our 10 actors, finding four actors who can cover them reasonably well is a daunting task. The instrumental aspect of the show has been the one that had to give way. If we can't find someone who plays this instrument for this role, especially the bassoon that Liz Hayes plays (she plays Jack's mother), then we'll have to come up with another solution. We're creative people; we'll come up with something.
TS: Can you talk about playing Sondheim? Is this the first time you’ve played a score of his?
MC: I’ve played many of his shows. His music is made with such integrity of purpose, such excellence of craft and such passion for the story that it is rewarding to play every time. At home alone, in a piano bar, on a Broadway stage -- it is always rewarding to play. His writing is layered and multi-faceted, and he takes great care to make sure that everything is there and works on every level. All I have to do is remember that I am the luckiest person in the world because I am on stage playing his music.
TS: Is there a part of the score you love playing every night?
MC: There are a few parts that stand out. Some of them stand out because it was so challenging to reduce the intricate orchestral arrangements. That's the case with “Your Fault” and “Last Midnight.” Then the ones where we've transformed the music in some kind of way like “Hello, Little Girl” and “Giants in the Sky” -- the way we use the instruments and the way we characterize the music is not what people are accustomed to. The whole show feels like playing chamber music, which it literally is because there are one to 10 singers, one to 11 singers including me. Everybody has an essential part to contribute. We collaborated on this and made it together.
TS: What rarely-seen musicals you would like to music direct and/or conduct?
MC: City of Angels. The Secret Garden. Once Upon a Mattress. Mame. I love those shows.
TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who might want to be a music director?
MC: Learn to play piano, improvise, become a singer. Understand how to harmonize your voice to somebody else's. Understand how singers sing and how they learn. Understand other instruments and the jobs that other people do in the theatre. Regard music as text and devote yourself to the study of how musical text serves character, emotion and story.
Into the Woods begins previews December 18 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
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