When I heard that Matt Cowart (Sondheim the Birthday Concert) was directing You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at No Rules Theatre Company, I knew I had to interview him. After speaking with Matt on the phone, I realized that I had seen many productions where Matt assisted one of my favorite directors – Lonny Price. I can’t wait to see Matt work his magic with No Rules’ Peanuts gang.
Joel: How did you get involved with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown?
Matt: I had been talking to Joshua [Morgan], Brian [Sutow], and Anne [Kohn] for some time about directing a musical for No Rules – we had batted several titles back and forth, and when they suggested Charlie Brown, it seemed like the right fit. I’ve known the original for years, and when the revival came out, I absolutely loved what (Andrew) Lippa did to update the score. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
I met Joshua and Brian when I cast them as Orville and Wilbur Wright in Dream Machines, a musical that I co-wrote and directed last summer for the Open Dream Ensemble, a company based out of Winston-Salem, NC. While working on the show with Joshua and Brian, we developed a strong relationship as artistic collaborators, which is when I started to get involved with No Rules.
Joel: Won’t producing a sweet and mainstream musical take away No Rules’s reputation for edgier work?
Matt: Even though No Rules has a reputation for “edgy” work, they are much more interested in producing high-quality theater that can appeal to the largest audience base possible within the community. At the start of their second season they didn’t want to be pigeon holed for doing dark, subversive material. Charlie Brown seemed like the best choice to break that stigma, and still put a strong foot forward.
Joel: From DC, Charlie Brown transfers to the Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Sales NC for a two week run in November. Have you ever transferred a show to another theatre?
Matt: Believe it or not, the first show that I ever directed in New York, an Off-Off (Off?) Broadway production of Snakebit by David Marshall Grant, was a transfer. I took it from North Carolina to East Hampton to New York.
Joel: Will you be taking the same cast to North Carolina, or will you be casting some local actors when the show moves to Winston-Salem?
Matt: We will be taking the same cast for several reasons—first of all, they are TERRIFIC. I can’t imagine finding a better cast for this show. Each actor is so perfectly suited to his or her role I wouldn’t even want to recast it if I had the choice. Secondly, when we transfer down to Winston-Salem, we will only have about a week of rehearsal. It just makes more sense to keep the same cast, than try and put up an entirely new show in a week.
Luckily, both spaces are flexible, as the seating can be changed depending on the needs of each individual show. The designers and I have been planning for the transfer ever since our initial conversations in order to make the transition between the two theaters as smooth as possible.
Joel: What were auditions like?
Matt: Offhand, I can’t recall how many people we saw for this show, but it was A LOT. In an ensemble musical like Charlie Brown, every role needs a star – someone who can bring the material to life alongside the rest of the cast. For this show, No Rules and I searched far and wide. We auditioned actors in DC, New York, and even put people on tape in Chicago. It was a lot of work, but it paid off – we have a fantastic cast, and I think the DC theater community is going to be very impressed by all of them.
Joel: Introduce us to the cast:
Matt: Co-Artistic Director of No Rules’ Joshua Morgan plays Linus:
After weeks and weeks of casting, this was the one role that we were having trouble nailing down. Joshua, Anne, Brian, and I were sitting down together after another long day of seeing people, and they asked me to describe exactly what I was looking for. When I finished, we all looked at Joshua and said, “Well, I guess you’re Linus!” I hadn’t considered him before because of a conflict he had in the rehearsal schedule, and he had said he didn’t want to do it! After some shameless begging on my part, I was finally able to convince him that he would be terrific in the part, and he accepted. Whew!
Kristen Graffo plays Sally:
The moment Kristen walked into the room and sang “My New Philosophy” I knew that we had found our Sally. Cute as a button with a terrific voice. Put quite simply, she blew away the rest of the competition.
Sean Maurice Lynch plays Schroeder:
When looking for a Schroeder, I knew that I wanted a good looking guy (after all, he is Lucy’s love interest) who had a voice that makes you swoon. At the time, Sean was about to start understudying for [title of show] at Signature, and Joshua said I should make the time to see him. I did, and cast him without a second thought.
Augie Praley plays Charlie Brown:
When Augie walked into the audition he made some kind of self-deprecating remark – a very Charlie Brown-like thing to do. After reading through the sides and singing his song, he stopped himself and asked if he could start over again. I said the he could, and he pulled off his sweater to reveal the classic Charlie Brown yellow T-shirt with the telltale black zigzag. He read through the material again, but he was transformed. Augie has a quality about him that is both self-hating, and loveable -desperate, but filled with hope. In my book, those are the most important (and relateable) qualities about Charlie Brown.
Carolyn Cole (Lucy):
Carolyn was a last minute find for us. We had cast someone else in the role of Lucy, but at the last minute she needed to leave the show for personal reasons. I was in Chicago working on a production of Annie Get Your Gun with Patti LuPone, and wasn’t able to get to DC or New York for a casting session. No Rules put out a last-minute casting announcement for submissions by tape, and I watched them in the evenings after my rehearsals in Chicago. To be quite honest, I was getting a little nervous—until I saw Carolyn’s tape. She was the only person that actually made me laugh out loud when she sang “Schroeder,” and I called her the next day to offer her the role—ONE WEEK before we started rehearsals. She accepted, and boy, were we lucky to get her.
Chris French (Snoopy):
I knew Chris’s work as an actor from several shows that I had seen previously, the most recent being Hedwig and the Angry Inch here in DC. I’ve always wanted to work with him on a show because he is such a terrific performer with wonderful stage sense. I knew he would be a perfect match for Snoopy.
Joel: Taylor Williams is the Musical Director. Have you worked with him before? How many musicians will work with Taylor?
Matt: This is my first time collaborating with Taylor. Our band is five pieces – a keyboard, drums, bass, violin/viola, and a reed player.
Joel: How would you describe Pauline Grossman’s choreography for the show?
Matt: This is my first time working with Pauline, and I would jump at the chance to work with her again. I would describe her choreography as playful, character-driven movement that is both danced and child-like at the same time.
Joel: What “look” of the show have Ryan Wineinger (Scenic Designer), Dina Perez (Costume Designer), and Travis McHale (Lighting Designer) created for this production?
Matt: We started by looking at other versions of the show that are already out there. We looked at everything from the original production to the Broadway revival to regional and high school productions. What we saw were a lot of literal interpretations of the cartoons put onto the stage. However, one of the reasons the comics were turned into a musical was to give them life. What we set out to create was the cartoon come to life. The comics are just the starting place for this musical, but the real joy of the piece is seeing these characters live! With the Peanuts comic strip, Charles Shultz embodied the challenges all people face within the lives of these children. If you are only doing a staged version of the cartoon, how can an audience connect to that? It might be “cute”, sure, but it won’t really reach people on the level that a musical (and theater in general) is capable of.
Joel: When did you first see You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown?
Matt: My first exposure to the show was while I was in Middle School—I played Linus in our production. What can I say? Since then, I’ve been in love with the show!
Joel: What is your favorite scene and song from the show?
Matt: You’re going to make me choose?? Well, if I have to… hands down my favorite number in the show is “Book Report”, the end of Act I. It’s a big group number that features everyone in the cast, and perfectly sums up what is unique about each actor’s performance. (and it has a nice big finish — I’m a sucker for those.)
Joel: Now, let’s talk about you. How did a guy from Montgomery, Alabama land up co-directing shows and concerts with Director Lonny Price? Where did you train to become a director?
Matt: I met Lonny when I directed a musical that he wrote (Kiki Baby) at the Eugene O’Neill Music Theater Conference. We found out very quickly that we work well together, and I guess the rest is history. I started our assisting him on shows, and then became his Associate Director, and now, we’ve co-directed two shows together, and most recently co-produced Sondheim’s 80th Birthday Celebration with the New York Philharmonic.
I trained at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts under Gerald Freedman, who I still consider to be my mentor even though I graduated several years ago.
Joel: What have been some of your favorite projects with Lonny, and which one do you wish was not on your resume?
Matt: I think my favorite show with Lonny has to have been 110 in the Shade. That was one of the first shows that we worked on together, and was my first time working with Audra McDonald – who is one of the most amazing performers in musical theater. I still get chills when I think about “Old Maid.”
As for which one I want off my resume? I think I’ll politely decline to answer. The truth is, I’ve really enjoyed every project that I’ve done with Lonny.
Joel: You co-directed a concert version of Bye Bye Birdie at Three Generations at the Kennedy Center. Remind my readers about the cast if Birdie.
Matt: We had a GREAT cast! Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenn Colella, Bobby Steggert, Laura Osness, Randy Graff, Max Von Essen, Lisa Brescia, Michael McElroy, and others that I’m leaving out, I’m sure. I loved working on that show (it’s one of my favorites) and being able to re-open the Eisenhower Theatre with that evening was something really special.
Joel: As you said above: You were part of the NY Philharmonic’s ‘Sondheim the Birthday Concert’, which took place this year on March 15-16th at Avery Fisher Hall. Fortunately for all of us who couldn’t get a ticket to the two sold-out concerts, it will be broadcast on Great Performances on PBS on Wednesday, November 24th., and the DVD will be released earlier on November 16th. How long did it take to put this concert together?
Matt: The performances were in March of this year, and Lonny and I started putting the evening together back in July of 2009.
Joel: What was your favorite performance(s) of the concert?
Matt: So hard to choose! But if you’re twisting my arm, I would have to say Audra’s performance of “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music (the movie version).
Joel: Did you get to meet and talk to Stephen?
Matt: Through Lonny, I’ve been lucky enough to meet him a few times now. In fact, on the second night of the concert, my mom even got a picture with him (much to my embarrassment). But I have to admit that I get a little tongue-tied in his presence. I mean, it’s Stephen Sondheim for crying out loud!
Joel: Did you work with PBS on the filming?
Matt: Yes. Lonny was doing most of the work (he directed the cameras for the DVD/television release), but I was around for all of the pre-production, filming, and the majority of the edit. I feel so damn lucky that I was able to be a part of an evening that special.
Joel: Are there any shows that you would love to direct that you haven’t directed yet?
Matt: YES! PLENTY. But I’m scared to put them all in writing, lest some other director come by and scoop them up.
Joel: Why should families come and see You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown?
Matt: Charlie Brown is a show that is built around the lives of children, going through the same struggles people of every age face. It’s funny, warm, moving, and the tunes are terrific. But most of all, it really is a show that people of all ages can connect to on many different levels.
The No Rules Theatre Company production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown plays through Oct 17th, 2010 at H Street Playhouse, in Washington, DC. For information, directions, and to purchase tickets, click here.
The show then transfers to the Handsbrand Theatre in the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. Nov 13 – 28.