BWW Interviews: WSS's Matthew Hydzik
The role of Tony in WEST SIDE STORY may be the most difficult role to cast in musical theatre. It requires a young performer who can sing a tenor role, dance Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography, and act convincingly enough to make the audience believe that love-at-first-sight is a true possibility in the real world. Not every production of the show is successful in getting someone who scores in all these departments.
Of course, the original 1957 production had Larry Kert-a singing actor who went on to have a fine career in the theatre before his premature death in 1991. The movie version featured the young Richard Beymer as the Polish-American Tony. Beymer had his singing voice noticeably dubbed and resorted to a "dance double" in the more complicated aspects of the choreography. As far as his acting in the role, let's be kind and say he was much better in projects he was involved in during the latter part of his career. The cherished production of WEST SIDE STORY that was produced by the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center in 1968 had the young Kurt Peterson in the role. As an actor, Peterson was very effective and he was fine executing the dance moves. A excellent singer, Peterson today admits that he had trouble with the score. He's a legitimate baritone and some of the final notes of "Maria" presented problems for him. "In rehearsal Bernstein wrote a new obliggato which was tried several times and it really didn't work," Peterson recalled in an earlier BroadwayWorld interview. "Bernstein came up with the idea of having three chorus guys in the background enhancing what I was singing. That worked "
Happily, the current embodiment of WEST SIDE STORY currently on view at Broadway's Palace Theatre may feature the finest of the lot as Tony. Matthew Hydzik is a sensitive actor and dances with manly grace. His tenor voice may be one of the sweetest sounds heard on Broadway in many seasons and it's a pleasure to hear his renditions of "Maria", "Tonight", "Something's Coming" and "One Hand, One Heart", which are just some of the gems in the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score. What's more, Matthew Hydzik not only looks Polish, he is Polish. After serving as standby for the role, he has moved up to the plum role.
"I was trying to audition for this show and I couldn't get one to save my life," Hydzik explains in his dressing room before a Thursday evening performance. "Kind of late in the audition process my voice teacher called Stuart Howard Casting and said, ‘You've gotta see this kid. He's Polish, he's young and he can sing it.' As a result, I finally got an audition thanks to my wonderful friend and voice teacher Matt Farnsworth."
Hydzik discusses the fact that his grandfather came over during the invasion of Poland when at the age of 16. "Actually, he was born in the USA so he could be a US citizen and then his parents took him back home to Sonak," he says. "When the war got down and dirty and the Germans came rolling in everything pretty much got annihilated in his town but my grandfather got off in time and came here."
Raised in Pittsburgh, Matthew Hydzik began taking the dance and etiquette classes that the affluent kids in his town took. The same man who taught those classes was a teacher at the private school called the Sewickley Academy. This same man, Mario Melodia, taught dance in their theatre program. "He offered a summer camp that was really a three-week computer-intensive course and I took it every summer from the age eleven until the end of high school," Hydzik recalls. "Also, my mother started the first theatre club at the Edgewood Elementary School where she taught during my fifth grade year. So that was the first play I was ever in. It was called ‘Of Mice and Mozart'. It was about a mouse that lived below Mozart's home. It was just about then that my mother realized I was getting interested in all of this"
According to Hydzik, Pittsburgh is a great town for the arts. "It has a lot of theatres and a great music scene. My father works for Carnegie-Mellon. Through him I was able to meet a few acting teachers who really influenced me. I went to pre-college there and then to Penn State."
Hydzik says that the one real moment when he knew he wanted to become a performer took place during recess. I loved to play sports and stuff like that. I threw the football and played lacrosse and cross country, but I remember in elementary school my best friend and I would put on plays during recess. We'd write down a few lines and cast friends in it. We did little version of ‘The Wizard of Oz' and that sort of thing. I think that was that was the first time I realized I had an interest in performing. Maybe I'm just looking at it in hindsight, I don't know."
The first job that Hydzik had out of college was a touring production of GREASE. "Towards the end of my senior year I began driving to the city every weekend. It's about a two and a half hour drive from Penn State. Sometimes I'd skip out in the middle of the week if I head something was auditioning. I'd crash with a friend in the city. Ultimately I booked GREASE, playing the role of Kenickie. That was really pivotal, I think. You see, I was coming out of school and thought that I had just landed the dream job. At that time in my life it was. I'd done one or two professional things as a child where money wasn't an issue. This was the first time when I was out on my own and earning four fifty a week. I'd also be touring the country! I thought I was just the luckiest person in the world! I sort of was!"
The young actor continues by saying that, "Getting out of school when you've studied theatre is a tough thing because you get hit by a brick wall. Here, I had a really great opportunity to see how far I could push myself as a performer. It was bus-and-truck and much of it consisted of one-nighters or split-weeks. In fact, we had three months of one-nights. What that entailed was getting up in the morning and being driven to the destination. There you are dropped off while they're setting up and you go find food. After you perform, you find yourself hungry again and the only place that's open is a bar, so you go to the bar and get some bar food before you go to your hotel to get some sleep because the whole routine starts over again the next day." At the end of the tour GREASE had booked into a casino, where Hydzik and the cast were doing twelve shows a week. Needless to say, it wasn't an Equity production. "Everybody's gotta do it at some point," he remarks. "If your gonna be an actor, you've gotta go on the road." The experience ultimately paid off because when the reality-based version of GREASE was planned for Broadway, he was able to move right into it. "All the roles in that production were conventionally cast. After the TV show, the two leads were brought in." Looking back on the experience, Hydzik reflects on Laura Osnes' total professionalism. "She's amazing. We knew it the moment she came in. She was ‘on', she knew her stuff and she was nice. On the other hand, Max Crumm rubbed more than just a few people the wrong way. He told Emily Paget, who was one of the swings in GREASE, ‘Once a swing, always a swing'. She was very upset and responded that he didn't know what he was talking about. Personally, I was mad at him for making that comment and causing her cry," Hydzik recalls. "Crumm's prediction was false. In this crazy, ironic world, there's a part of me that will always be a swing: in the way that I watch shows and the way I'm with my fellow company members." For the record, Emily Paget is now playing the lead in Broadway's ROCK OF AGES, Laura Osnes just finished a highly praised run as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center's SOUTH PACIFIC and Hydzik has a starring role in WEST SIDE STORY. For all anyone knows, Max Crumm is parking cars in Los Angeles because his website has been suspended.
When it comes to his current job, Hydzik mentions that he was brought into the audtion process of WEST SIDE STORY. So was Matt Cavanaugh who originated the role of Tony in this production. "They'd been searching for a long time and I was in between agents and didn't have any representation." It was his aforementioned voice teacher who made the call that got him through the door. "That brought me in," he says, "It was mind boggling. My first audition was a blur. I totally lost my cool and all they had me do was sing ‘Maria'. It came out fine. They had me come back. When I returned, I sat down and I tried to remain focused. I wasn't going to think about anyone else who was there; I was just going to relax and be myself. Suddenly I felt some weight settling down beside me and I looked over and I saw it was Sondheim. He sort of looked over his glasses and kindda gave me a smile. He was on my right and Lea Michele was on my left. I had met her through my friend Jonathan Goff but she never remembers who I am. This was like the fifth time I'd met her. When she sat down she said, ‘Don't I know you?' and I said ‘No. You don't know me.' After that I was called to go in."
He continues with his recollection: "I read with Arthur and it was very quiet. His directing style is very focused--which I love. I was reading with my friend Cody, who got the part of Riff-we were both in GREASE on Broadway at that time. It went great but I sortta had a feeling that they'd already made up their minds. I felt I didn't get the part. I was called for another auditon and I went back and read another scene. My whole mantra for that one was, 'I know I didn't get it but I'm gonna change their minds.' And the audition went great. Arthur thanked me and then Lori Werner, the assistant chorographer for this show asked me to go into the next room and dance with her." That, he felt was an indication that he didn't get the role. "When they ask you to dance," he explains," they start fishing to see if you can ‘cover' anything."
Hydzik says that when the audition was over he walked around town with his hat down as far as it would go. "I think I walked down to the river and walked up the river and walked back. I walked all over town." After his walk he claims to have felt fine. Utimately Matt Cavanaugh was cast as Tony and Hydzik was cast as his standby.
It wasn't long before Hydzik was called to go on in the role. In fact, Hydzik refers to it as "the most dramatic story ever". Perhaps it is: WEST SIDE STORY was in its third week of previews in DC and Hydzik hadn't had any rehearsals yet. "I'd been watching because we were in New York for four weeks and then we went down to DC and had another week and a half of rehearsal before an audience showed up. That night, Emily Paget and I sat down in one of the box seats for the show and I told her that as soon as the curtain went up I was going to get the physical therapist to work on me. So I went up to the fourth floor and was listening to the show on the intercom. At the end of the "Prologue" music I heard someone shout ‘Oh, my God! Stop, stop, stop, stop!' Then there was silence. Russ, the therapist, stopped and said he was going to check it out. He left and I was putting my shirt back on when my phone rang. It was Emily. She said Cav's down. You're on!" The "Cav" mentioned was Matt Cavanaugh.
Hydzik continues his story by saying, "I went downstairs and walked onto the stage, where the curtain was down. Behind it the audience was buzzing like a beehive. I saw a crowd of people standing around these two legs that were sticking out. I recognized the Tony jeans and the Tony shoes. I went to the mic booth and got my mic I was surprised they had one because not only didn't I have a rehearsal, I didn't have a costume! I sort of stood around stage management but no one was there. Finally, I told one of the cast members that I would be in my dressing room trying to get my head together. I had to let someone know that I was up there. I walked into the dressing room and I had my street shoes and my everyday jeans. There was an old shirt that they were phasing out because they'd gone through all these different costumes before they decided on the ones Tony should wear. A whole fifteen minutes went by. That was a long time for me to just sit. Eventually the stage manager and the house manager came barging in the door and it was the most dramatic thing to watch because they had these ghost faces. I was told that they could either give the audience refunds and close the show for the weekend or they could put me on."
It turned out that Matt Cavanaugh had been seriously injured as the set he was standing on was moving into place. He'd suffered a broken rib and several contusions. He'd also hit his head on the ladder. Somehow the two pieces of scenery that represent the outside of Doc's Drugstore had opened up while moving, smashing Cavanaugh against the light tower in the process.
Luckily, Hydzik felt that he did know the role well enough to perform it. "Fortunately, the show I'd done before WEST SIDE STORY had me covering seven tracks. With this production I only had a single track to learn. The cast, however, didn't know if I could carry a note let alone, let alone act or move. Ultimately the decision was made that they'd continue the performance with Hydzik going on as Tony. There would be an announcement and they'd start the show from the scene outside Doc's Drugstore. "I still didn't want to think about it too much. I just wanted to get out there and do it. When I was led out to the stage the cast was there and you could tell they were thinking, ‘Dead man walking!'" he recalls with a laugh. He reassured them and remained upbeat.
Luckily Hydzik had run his first scene with Cody during auditions, so there was a familiarity with the other actor and even an element of friendship between the two of them. "That was very comforting," Hydzik muses. Then I heard ‘Something's Coming' start. It's a great song but it's easy to get lost in because it's a ‘list song'. I felt that if I could make it through ‘Something's Coming', I could think my way through the rest of the show. I couldn't think my way through that song. I just needed to jump on the wave."
"That performance was absolutely amazing because it was done under the most heightened circumstances," Hydzik remembers. "There was no acting going on. I was just completely taken away." Just as the vamp for the song started, Hydzik had a flashback to seventh grade where his voice teacher would play those notes on a rickety piano in the back of the school and he'd try to sing along. At that moment, he was listening to a 30 piece orchestra playing those very notes. "It was so breathtaking," he recalls. "When ‘Maria' started, I heard the first notes and when I started singing, I had to pull myself out of it because I was getting emotionally caught up with it. I was hearing the music for the first time here [he gestures to his heart]. Right here, and it gives me goose bumps even now as I remember it." The rest, he says, is pretty much "a blur". He adds that it was "the most exhilarating, scary thing in the world."
On the topic of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for WEST SIDE STORY and directed this particular production, Hydzik has considerable praise. "Sometimes he can be really, really hard, but I've had meaner directors and they didn't know what they were talking about. Arthur knows what he's talking about. It's tough to throw out the blanket statement that he's ‘old school' but he is ‘old school'. There is a softer, gentler side of handling actors these days, I feel. The man who ran the theatre camp when I was younger, Mario Melodia, was ‘old school' as well. I don't want to say that being ‘old school' necessitates being insensitive to another's feelings, but I think it does in many cases. If Arthur thinks something sucks, he'll say so in as many words. Now you can either choose to get mad, or you can crumble or you can get on your feel and ‘do it". Really, who wants a performance to get old and stale? I think that's one of the reasons why Arthur is still going."
As everyone knows, this production of WEST SIDE STORY opened on March 19, 2009 with whole segments of the show being performed in Spanish, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is credited with translating many of Stephen Sondheim's memorable lyrics into Spanish. The idea was that Puerto Ricans don't speak in English when they're not in the presence of non-Hispanics. There was a certain logic to that, although it didn't lead to complete comprehension from the audiences. The production which is now on view has considerably less Spanish and the only song that is entirely performed in Spanish is "I Feel Pretty", or "Me Siento Hermosa" as it is listed in the Playbill. What was the reason for the pretty much reverting back to English?
"It's crazy," Hydzik states. "There's no consistent criticism there. Some people who are Spanish-speaking hate it. Others who are Spanish-speaking say ‘thank you for bringing this to us and for honoring us' In the beginning, Arthur wouldn't budge for putting English back in certain spaces. At some point the producers said that they wanted us to say this in English and that in English. This is what people want to hear. At least, that's what our bosses think they want."
This production is in the second year of its run and recently its closing notice was given. Did this come as a surprise to Hydzik and the rest of the cast? "No," he quickly remarks. "The way it came was a relief. It wasn't like, ‘Hey guys, I saw in the paper that we're closing'. One of our producers, Jeffrey Seller came out on stage after a matinee and told us that he was proud of us and reminded us that the show was a hit artistically and fiscally. "He then told us we'd keep on making it a hit and that we were closing on January 2nd. At that point we'll have surpassed the original run and Seller re-stated that he was proud of all of us. I was honestly glad that he came out and told us we had three more months and not only one week. Hey, you know that happens. Three months is a good time to get one's affairs in order."
Hydzik recently married Megan Arnoldy and claims she's the best thing that ever happened to him. The newlywed now finds himself back to auditioning and doing readings. A few things seem promising, but nothing is set in stone at the present time. It's only a matter of time before his charming stage presence, boyish good-looks, personal warmth and angelic singing voice are will be heard on Broadway again. Until that time, Matthew Hydzik's performance in WEST SIDE STORY should not be missed. Neither should the production he's starring in.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus