Matt Wolfe has been a professional actor for over twenty years, and part of the Seattle theatre community since 2003. He has been seen most often at Village Theatre, 5th Avenue Theatre, and Seattle Children’s Theatre and most recently in Assassins at ACT Theatre and as Harold Hill in The Music Man in Coeur D’Alene, ID. After training in an internship with Linda Hartzell at Seattle Children’s Theatre for a season, Matt succeeded Martin Charnin as the Artistic Director of Showtunes Theatre Company. He has done outstanding work for Showtunes, and was happy to talk about their very original take on Shenandoah running next weekend, with Matt directing.
Shenandoah to me has always seemed like a throwback to Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was quite a hit on Broadway and a solid touring show. Then it disappeared! How did Showtunes come to select it?
You can absolutely feel the reverberations of the Golden Age of musicals in this piece, even though it opened in 1975. The lead, Charlie, has some soaring solo pieces called “Meditations” that remind one of the famous “Soliloquy” from Carousel, and when the ensemble is judiciously used, it’s a pretty epic sound. You can also feel a tension in this piece that I think is fun where it’s influenced by folk music and country influences from the 70’s.
I discovered the show while I was in college, searching for repertory to perform in our library, which probably also speaks to how little the show is known. It’s always been on my mind. As I was putting our season together way back in the winter, the presidential election was already so divisive and ugly that it led me to search for American stories that would give us hope of overcoming the lines that divide us. That led us to our season called “Defying Expectations.” Shenandoah and the civil war became a natural direction to look towards.
The lead character, Charlie, is a farmer living deep in the Confederacy who is a conscientious objector to the war and refuses to practice slavery. That works fine for him and his family until the war lands in their backyard. The challenge of keeping his (now “her” in our production) family together while honoring those principles is immense. I loved the idea of seeing an everyday family dealing with the deep division around them. And boy has that become timelier than I ever imagined. How many of us are trying to figure out how to co-exist with loved ones on Facebook who may stand on the “other side” in this election, unable to comprehend their viewpoint?
Why did you choose veteran actress Anne Allgood to reinvent the role of Matriarch Charlie Anderson vs. a man like Jimmy Stewart who did the non-musical film or John Cullum who created Charlie on Broadway?
I can’t remember for the life of me when I thought of this, but the idea of seeing a mother in 1864 face the obstacles that the father as originally written faces was beautifully compelling. The character is a widow, so the gender flip leaves Charlie as a single mother during the Civil War with seven kids, many of whom are wanted to become soldiers by the Confederacy. This change offers a great exploration of what a woman in that time would have to sacrifice from her sense of motherhood and gender to go toe to toe with men of religious, governmental, and military power to preserve her family.
When I tried to think of someone who could be a female analog to Jimmy and re-interpret and build on the role, Anne Allgood was the first person I thought of. Her inner strength and honesty as a person, let alone as an actress, seemed a perfect fit. (Apologies to John Cullum, who was a powerhouse performer and won the Tony, but Jimmy is the best-known comparison.)
It’s important to note that, so far as we know, this version of the show has never been done before, and we are doing it with the author’s permission. Peter Udell, who collaborated on the book and wrote the lyrics, gave us his blessing, and we are very grateful.
This show is also a first collaboration between Showtunes and ACT Theatre. What prompted this and what do you hope comes of it.
I was playing Sam Byck in Assassins in the ACT/5th Avenue collaboration earlier this year under the direction of John Langs. I had been searching for venues that would allow Showtunes to “experiment” with new ways of presenting our concerts, and ACT has incredibly interesting spaces. I approached him about the ACTLab program, and fortunately he was excited about the idea. I’m so grateful that he’s given our company this opportunity to be part of this new family. ACTLab clearly exists to help incubate smaller companies in Seattle, and that’s exactly what I hope for us – to gain exposure to a new audience and grow.
The artistic goal was equally important–allowing Showtunes to offer our audience some new and wonderful ways to experience musicals. The Showtunes production of Shenandoah is a concert version of a classic musical, presented acoustically in a three-quarter round, immersive environment in the Allen. It is partially staged, striking a balance between traditional concerts at music stands and fully staged productions, all for the sake of allowing our audience to experience the story in a closer, more intimate way.
Most Seattle audience members know you as an actor. Do you now hope to go between acting, directing and artistic direction?
Yes indeed. I’ve been in Seattle since 2003, except for a period where I left for the opportunity to be on Broadway and relocate to NYC. I left a successful career that was building there to return to Seattle in 2014 because I felt I was at a point in my career where I could give back to the business I love, where I would feel most fulfilled by helping other artists grow and find opportunities. I came back and accepted Linda Hartzell’s gracious invitation to take on an internship at Seattle Children’s Theatre for a season to learn about the art of artistic direction. At the same time, I dove head first back into my directing work, directing six productions during my first year back. Now, I seem to be finding a nice balance again between the different worlds. I love it. I feel more complete as an artist now that I understand the industry from all sides.
You just marked a one year wedding anniversary to lovely actress, singer, and dancer Bryan Tramontana. Is being a husband one of your favorite roles of all?
Yes! And we just moved into a new home, which is a whole other story. But most pertinent to this is that just before rehearsals for Shenandoah, I moved into a new home, working hard to make it our own and build a new dream with my amazing wife, and it happens to look out over a valley and farmland in Snohomish county. My connection to this show only got deeper and more personal then.
Showtunes’ production of Shenandoah at ACT Theatre on October 22 at 8pm, October 23 at 2pm and 7:00 pm only. For tickets go to showtunestheatre.org/ticket