BWW INTERVIEWS: Matt Shingledecker from SPRING AWAKENING on Tour
For more than a year now, the national touring cast of SPRING AWAKENING have been traveling up and down the country (and Canada), performing the multiple Tony® Award-winning musical for a mass of believers, new converts, and Guilty Ones. Since its off-Broadway debut—that made stars out of its young leads Lea Michele (now on Fox's Glee), Jonathan Groff and Tony® winner John Gallagher, Jr.—the show has struck a chord with most who see it, especially young audiences who can relate to the angst on stage.
Beginning with a well-received preview run in San Diego in August of 2008, the tour has been going strong for more than a year, including stops in San Francisco, Toronto and Washington D.C. Like most on-going tours, cast changes are the norm (recent additions include Taylor Trensch and Jake Epstein). One of the many that soldier on is Matt Shingledecker, currently wowing audiences across the country as Georg, the student with a penchant for piano-teaching "cougars" (he also occasionally steps into the lead, as an understudy for Melchior). A former member of the Broadway company, Shingledecker is now enjoying the fun trappings of life in hotel rooms and never-before-visited locales (including exotic...Orange County).
As Shi-Shi (as his fans and co-stars affectionately call him) readies with the cast to spend two weeks in the O.C., he sits down (and even briefly runs) with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos to talk about his life on the road, his musical and educational roots, and what it means for him to be a part of the hit stage musical.
So, Matt, Spring Awakening fans in Orange County are really looking forward to the shows coming here!
Yeah! I'm so excited to get back in the area! And we're all so glad to be going back to Southern California!
Oh, that's right! I saw the tour when it first hit San Diego and then later when the tour came up to Los Angeles—right about the same time last year.
I know! It's crazy... that it's been over a year now!
So, how has the last year been on tour?
Oh, it's been fantastic! I mean, it's been the greatest opportunity for us, especially, since...I mean, we're all, like, right out of high school or are in college. For me, personally, I had just finished college right before I started the Broadway show. It's been so great to, you know, travel around the country and get paid to do a fantastic show that really affects people, and to see places that I would never go otherwise. So, it's been just incredible.
Describe for me a typical day for you on tour.
Well, I guess our schedules are little bit different than, I think, most people. I think we tend to go to bed a little later, then wake up a little later just because our days don't usually start until at least noon, work-wise. Then our days go until 11 at night. So, our clocks are a little different than everybody else's... just the nature of things for us, I guess. I personally, like to get up and go to the gym and then I usually like to get some breakfast... and then I have to get to the theater an hour earlier [than other cast members] because, for everybody involved in any of the fight sequences, we have to be there an hour early for "fight call." And then, between that time and when they call "half-hour" (when I have to get dressed), I usually have to shave. Some of us have to shave everyday, you know, to keep us looking young! I'm playing a 15-year-old, but I'm really 23! [Laughs] After that, in every city they usually set aside a music room for us to warm up and have access to a piano. So, we warm up, get dressed, and then we go and put on a show!
Oh, but on days whenever we don't have rehearsal, we try to go out and see the sights. And me,I like to play tennis. One of my little hobbies is that I play tennis with one of the drummers at least once a week. So we always set aside a court to go at it!
Do you normally, on your downtime, always hang out with the rest of the cast? Do you get any personal time at all?
Yeah, I do. It's kind of an interesting situation. In New York it was different because, though we all work together, afterwards we could always, you know, go home. I mean, there are times when [the cast] will hang out outside of the show, but if you wanted to get away or have friends outside of the show, it was easier to do that there. But on tour it's a little different, because, you know, you're living in the same place with the same people you're working with, and you're going into different places where you can't really go out on your own, unless you already know someone there ahead of time—and that happens occasionally, but not often. So the only people you can hang out with are either yourself or with the people that are traveling with you.
But I think we're all really fortunate to have such a fantastic cast where we all just pretty much get along great and we all hang out! I hang out with the band sometimes and then hang out with the cast other times. We do this thing called "Boys' Night" and the girls do a "Girls' Night" where we kind of separate. The boys just hang out with the boys and the girls just hang with the girls. We pretty much do this every week in each city which is pretty cool. So we have our own little time, you know, to get away from each other. But really, we're all pretty much together all the time, though, like I said, we're lucky that we all get along so well.
I can totally see that! Judging from the videos on the tour's blog site, the way all of you interact with each other, you all seem very tight-knit.
We are! It's great... we feel so fortunate, because, you know, it could totally not be like that. And in a situation like this where you get a bunch of people that are not like this cast, that would be, well, bad.
With every new city you visit, is the reaction to the show pretty much the same?
Actually, not at all. They're drastically different, depending on where we go. But the one thing I will say is that, I think, we can tell that in every place the show goes to, [that city] appreciates it. We can tell, even if one place may not scream as loud as another. What I tend to think about that is, if a place is not going, like, super crazy, I almost think we affect them more because [that audience] is not used to our show. Basically, they're not coming to, like, "have a good time" but they're just there to see the show. I think that attitude means they're more affected by it. The people who are screaming and stuff have obviously either seen the show before or know of the show, and they probably agree with all of the ideas that show kind of pushes on you. So it's really cool sometimes when it's just... quiet.
Actually, Andy Mientus (who plays Hanschen) and I always joked about this... We always say that whenever [the theater] is quiet, we say "it's more like a play today" instead of, like, a rock concert. It's kind of cool that with each city, we get to do both! We get to, you know, entertain and do this rock concert sometimes and then sometimes we get to do this very serious play. That's just so ideal for an actor/singer. What more can you ask for, you know?
Do you think geography has anything to do with the varying difference in the reactions to the show?
Sure. I mean, like, the South definitely takes it a little more differently. But it's really interesting, though, that certain cities in the South are a little more liberal than others. Houston, for example, was a very "quiet" city but the reception there was still great. But then Austin went, like, crazy. You know, people were screaming and having a great time! So the two were so drastically different for two cities being in the same state. So, yeah, it all depends. It's so interesting: sometimes we'll be in a place that you might think is going to be, you know, "quiet," but then we arrive and they'll be crazy! Like Des Moines! Des Moines went nuts over the show! So it was very interesting because none of us were expecting much from Des Moines. It's funny, the idea of preconceived notions—really, judging a book by it's cover—you had to just throw that out the window. We never really know the reaction until we get there.
Do you have any favorite cities so far that you guys have visited during the tour?
I really love San Francisco a lot. I mean, there have been a few that I've loved, but San Francisco was the best because I'm a very outdoor-sy kind of guy. I love that I can take a dollar bus ride that takes ten minutes to go hiking on a cliff. I thought that was so awesome. I just think the city's got great culture, it's so accessible and there were so many good things to see like Alcatraz... the Golden Gate bridge... There's good theater...We were fortunate enough to [officially] open there, so it holds a really special place in my heart. And we did the show there for six whole weeks, which was a big plus. That's one thing I wish about the tour is that I wish we could do two-week stops at pretty much every place, so we can at least have one full day off. We do a lot of one-week stops and then we travel to the next town on our day off.
The show, of course, has quite the vocal fan base. Why do you think this show has such a cult following?
I think it really touches on every teen issue. I mean, it touches on Love. Sex. Parents. School. Friendship. Things that are a little more risqué, perhaps. It just touches, really, on every aspect [of teen life] in these vignettes that are tied together by the plot. And I think because it runs the gamut of things that [many] people feel, someone is going to connect with it in some way... with any or all of the issues. To choose something more substantial from the show, for example, we've had people that come to see the shows and then afterwards, share a few stories with us. People would come up and tell us that they've been abused and say how much the show affected them. That's the main thing for us, that they connect with the show like that. I mean, it's very sad, you know, hearing what happened to them, but it's also very touching.
On the flip side of those touching reactions, have you had any interesting, perhaps scary interactions with fans?
Oh... scary fan interactions! [Laughs] No, you know what... they're all great! The good thing about the fans is that they do so much promoting for the show; so much that we could never do. Touching a fan base like that is really interesting. It's not as easy as, say something like Wicked, where you could put a big billboard up or show a television commercial. Getting to teenagers to get them to come see our show is fun because they're pretty much our biggest fan base. I mean, we get audiences of all ages, but these young fans do so much promoting [on our behalf]—especially the Guilty Ones—and they love doing it because they care so much about the show. It's so cool to have that kind of publicity, because honestly, otherwise, I don't think the tour would do nearly as well without them. So we're all just very thankful for our fans.
Now, I hear fans call you "Shi-Shi." How did you get that nickname?
Oh, lord, Shi-Shi! [Laughs] That is funny! Actually, you know what, this happened while we were in rehearsals in San Diego. I don't know why, but my good friend Kyle Riabko—who originated Melchior in the tour—just one day said it. And it just stuck. Even Michael Mayer calls me Shi Shi now. I don't know how I feel about that, but... I just said to myself, "I guess I'll go with it. I guess I'll embrace it, since everybody on the show calls me that, including our Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer."
While on the road, you and the cast have had some opportunities to do side-shows like cabarets and fundraisers. How important is it for you to step outside of your regular show to do a different kind of project?
I think it's great because it's an outlet to do something else! It's really nice to be able to do something that stretches you a little bit. For me, personally, I studied a lot of classical music in college, so it's really good to be able to have an outlet to do that. In most of the cabarets, I've tried to show a more "legit" side to my voice—meaning a more classical musical theater approach to singing. I like all musical theater, so it's so nice to do other things. And I love that we have raised a lot of money at these fundraisers, so they're not just outlets for us to perform and promote our shows. At these charity events, the cast has done a great job of raising thousands of dollars. When we were collecting for BC/EFA in L.A., we raised over $100,000, plus our cabaret! It's mostly from just collecting, but still, it's a great feeling to know that you can make a difference.
So, specifically, what kind of music do you prefer performing at these fundraisers or other shows outside of Spring Awakening?
Me in particular, I guess, because I've been performing the rock thing for so long now, I think the next thing I would maybe like to do is something a little more classical. But I love all genres equally, so for me, I think it's the case of me wanting to do what I don't have, you know? We all want variety.
There's a sudden loud noise of construction audible in the background.
Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry, I'm outside right now, and I'm running to the theater for my fight call. It's so loud... there's all this construction! Wow, they're totally ripping up the road right now! Hold on, let me get pass this...
After a bit of running, the noise subsides.
There! I hope you can hear me better now! Anyway, getting back to fundraising... I did this thing in Toronto where I climbed the CN Tower, which, for a while, was considered the tallest structure in the world. It looks like a giant space needle. If you've ever seen pictures of Toronto, you'll recognize it. So, anyway, they had this climb to raise money for a Wildlife fund, and, I thought, well we haven't done anything like that...so, I went on my web site and thought maybe the fans wanted to get involved with the climb and donate. The initial goal was to raise $75—the amount you needed to sign up for the climb—then I would match that $75 once we reach it. I was stunned because in just one day, the fans actually raised double that amount. And by the end of it, we had raised $1,250... and just from the fans! They were so kind and generous! It was amazing because it was so cool to see that people were willing to give. I just thought it was so cool that I just put this [announcement] on my web site and over 100 people responded and gave money. It's amazing... the power of the fans!
Getting back to Spring Awakening, you've been involved with the tour for more than a year now...
Well, since New York.... I started rehearsals for the Broadway show in April of 2008, so I've been really involved with this show for a good year and a half!
And within that time span, there's been a lot of cast changes. Does that change the dynamic of the show at all?
It's been great! You know what? It's not better, it's not worse... it's just different. And what that does, I think, is it keeps the show very fresh. I know we all appreciate that. I mean, I know we all miss the old cast members that have left, but we also love the new cast! So, it's really cool to have them here because they're so new that they sort of reinvigorate the show with their energy.
Now, you've decided, obviously, to stay on with the tour. What guided your decision to stay versus departing like others have done?
You know, I just love doing the show, and it's a fantastic job and there are still a lot of cities that are coming up that I want to go to that a little closer to my home in Charleston, and closer to my old school, Elon University. So I was really excited to do all that... to go to these cities. And I had no reason to leave, really, because I've been so happy.
Sounds great! Let's talk a little bit about your background. Was musical theater always something you wanted to do?
Well, I really started in the musical theater vein. I was a musical theater major at Elon University, but I decided that I was also going to study Opera at the same time. That was sort of a passion of mine; I went to London to study at the Royal College of Music for a semester, and so I was really into that for a while. I was sort of going along the lines of maybe doing classical music theater and switching back and forth between that and maybe doing opera shows, if I would get cast. But then I got Spring Awakening! I just went to the audition and I was like, well... this should be interesting. But, honestly, I listened to the CD and I was like, "okay... I think I can do this... I can kind of feel this." And so I went for it, and ended up getting it! In doing the show, I've learned so much about popular music and rock—something that wasn't really my passion—so this show has really opened up a lot of doors for me which is really cool. This show is so good and the music is so good, that I've really come to appreciate a lot of different styles [of music].
So you had no prior interest in pop or rock music before this show?
Honestly, no, not much of it. I didn't even know that much about that kind of music.
With that said, what music influences you? What's on your iPod right now?
Well, now it's different... I've been more open, because a lot of the other cast members are really into a lot of great music, and they've shared with me some of the songs they like the best. I've sort of developed a new appreciation for different styles because of that. Oh, God, there's just so much on my iPod right now, that I can't even name anyone really in particular! But I think before I got here, a big influence on me musically is a guy named David Phelps. He's just this amazing vocalist. He's a Christian music singer, though I myself am not really into Christian music in that way at all. But, for me, it was more about his voice that I thought was just incredible. All my friends used to joke that if he was not a Christian music singer that he would be more famous. Other than him, I really like jazz... like Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé... all those guys!
In terms of musical theater, what other roles have you played in the past?
In college, my last show that I did was... [Laughs] Actually, this is funny. They released the rights to Phantom of the Opera, which they had never done before, to a few high schools and a couple of colleges. Elon was one of the colleges. Anyway, I played the Phantom! So, it's kind of funny that the last show I did was totally in a different vein from Spring Awakening. I think it's pretty cool that I've been able to do such different stuff. I really like it that I'm not, like, pigeon-holed into one thing.
What was your audition process like?
Well, for Spring Awakening, I was going to this event called SETC, which is the Southeastern Theater Conference. I was just looking for summer work and year-round work because I was about to graduate. Spring Awakening happened to be auditioning there because Jim Carnahan, who cast the show, had family there in Chattanooga, Tennessee where it was held. So, when I saw that they had moved dates for auditions there, I decided, well, I could audition for this! I should try it out! So, I did. Then a couple of weeks later, they called me to New York and then they asked me to do the show...in a week! I had to move out of the college literally over the weekend and start rehearsals for the Broadway company, like, overnight almost! I ended up finishing college on-line.
So for you it wasn't some long, drawn-out process of waiting and waiting?
Not for me! But I do know there have been people who were [auditioning] for two years! Like, for instance, the guy playing Moritz now [Taylor Trensch] has been in auditions for this show for literally two years before he finally got it. But for me it was, like... two weeks. [Laughs]. But, yeah, everyone's audition process is a little different.
And I take it you're still constantly auditioning for other shows as well?
Yeah, we're always auditioning. The company's really great about letting us audition for different things. But, it's kind of hard on tour because you have to fly to either New York or L.A. which is pretty much where everything is cast from. So, yes, we go on auditions, but for me, it's so great to have this. I wouldn't leave this for a job I didn't want.
Oh... you know what, I have to go to a "fight call" now! Can we resume this in a little bit?
Ten minutes pass.
Okay! I'm done with "fight call!" It goes really fast, and it's kind of a funny thing. We all just pretty much run through the motions, just to be safe. And, it's an Equity rule, to have it every day. I think it's there to keep you in check, and also for when an understudy goes on. Today in particular an understudy is going on. So for them, since they don't do the show every single day, it's really important to go over it with them before they do it... so they don't have, you know, a brain fart. [Laughs] People can potentially get hurt. We use a razor in the show... it's obviously not that sharp or anything, but still, it's a metal object that's very thin. So we tend to still be a little weary of it.
As someone who has played Georg on the tour for more than a year now—and occasionally Melchior—how much creative license do you get to put into your roles?
I think it's great because the show is based on a very structured form. A lot of the moments are very specific to the lights and to the music and the cues of the other people. And so the show, naturally, because of that has a very consistent feel. But within that consistency, we're all free to sort of find our own moments, as long as they're grounded in the piece. I do get a lot more license playing Melchior, because that character has "scene" work that doesn't rely on cues or things like that. Georg, however, is very cue-reliant. Lights go off of sounds that I make, and when I play the piano. There are all these short little vignette moments that are very specific, so there's a lot less freedom in that. But, you know, the goal there is to find the freshness in playing the role every single time. And I think it goes in waves with everybody, to really strive to feel connected to our characters, and nearly every time, we do pull it off. The great thing about this show is that we are on-stage all the time. We're always watching the action, so we're always involved and a part of it. The concept of the show is that we are ourselves in Modern Day when we're singing the songs. So, being "yourself" is, well, easy! So, during the songs, all we have to do is play ourselves!
Do I dare ask which of the two roles you like playing more?
Oh, lord. Well, it's funny because on Broadway, I understudied a lot more of the roles—which were all the boy roles except for Moritz. Because I'm a certain type, I'm just not a Moritz. But... hmmm... wow... I love Melchior! I think it's a fantastic role! It's got a lot of meat to it, and, actually, a it's a little bit bigger role over Georg. I guess I've been playing Georg for so long... you know, everyone longs for something new and so I've loved getting the chance to play Melchior. But I'm just so attached to Georg at the same time because I got to originate it in the tour, and I've been playing the role for so long that I feel really connected to him. So I feel I'm in the best situation I could possibly be in: I get to play this really funny, quirky guy who has some great solos! And I get to play the piano! As a pianist, I think it's great that I get to play the piano in the show. And then, on occasion, I get to play Melchior and do something different and new! I think it's just a blessing to be able to do both parts.
Was it difficult learning two such contrasting characters?
Well, when I was on Broadway, I had to know five roles, which was really hard. I really feel for the swings in the cast the most. One of the guys in our company, Lucas [Wells] knows all six! It's cool because he's a type that can go between Melchior and Moritz... and he's great and just amazing. I remember on Broadway, learning four roles and being really freaked out because, you know, there are different harmonies, different moves, different steps, and you got to be ready at a moment's notice... to be ready to step into any of them! So it's crazy hard! So, compared to swings, my job's pretty simple! We have rehearsals every few weeks, so I get to rehearse being Melchior—sometimes more often, sometimes a little less often. But I always do it on occasion to keep it in my body.
Speaking of different roles, are there any parts in other musicals you want to play someday?
Oh, gosh... there are a few! I know the revival of West Side Story is going on right now...wow, I would love to play Tony in that. That's been a dream of mine forever and I've never done it. So, for me, that's right up there. Let's see... as far as shows that are on right now, I would love to play Younger Brother in Ragtime, and I hear the new production's great! But, yeah, Tony, definitely, is my dream role that I hope to play one day... but I may be a little too young-looking for it now. They tend to cast someone a little older for the role. I have a baby face, so that's why I'm playing fifteen! [Laughs].
What has been your favorite part of being on the tour?
Pretty much what I've said before... the cities I've visited have been fantastic, getting to do the two roles I've been able to play, and doing the show every night is amazing! All of those things have been great! I guess when you put everything together, it makes a "whole" that adds up to be, well, really great.
What's your least favorite part about being on the tour?
Well, doing those one-week engagements are little too short for me sometimes. That can be a little stressful: Not really having a true day off because you're bussing or flying all your belongings somewhere else. And we've got quite a lot of stuff, so travel day is a little hard for us. We all basically have just two suitcases that we can check and a carry-on or two, and then we also each get a trunk that holds all your stuff that [the company] travels for us. So, you know, it's hectic going from place to place. I do miss having a home, a place that I can go home to and have all my stuff there. But there's ups and downs with everything. I'm sure if I had a place in New York, I will long to do this again.
Now, forgive me for going a little TMZ on you now—and you don't have to answer this if you don't want to—but there's been some chatter on a few fan sites and message boards that you are currently in a relationship with a fellow cast member. Care to go on record and finally confirm these rumors?
Oh, lord... no... [Laughs] No, I don't think so. I think I'd like to keep it a mystery. They can conjecture all they want, but that's the best part of it: not ever really knowing... [Laughs]
Okay, then, we'll leave it at that. So, we've talked about this briefly before, how young people are really passionate about the show. Do you have any advice for all those up-and-coming young kids who hope to someday work in your profession?
My main thing is that musical theater has gone into a very real place. A lot of the shows now are really grounded in reality. And that's a good thing for an actor. I think to focus on that is the most important part, because to be in musical theater, our job is to tell a story. And when telling a story, the more real it is, the better it is. Now that's kind of funny coming from someone like me who plays Georg, who's so quirky and out there and is so big sometimes. But for other roles like Melchior, for example, just be grounded in realism. And also: never give up! It's so crazy how luck gets you in one door, and then once you get in the door, you're in it! And after that, you just strive for the next door. Really, just stay in it! The best part of this life is the chase, honestly. No one ever gets to where they ideally want to be because there's always something next! That is what's great about this career, that there's always something more that you can do... another project you can aspire to get.
And, remember, it's always a competition. I remember the cast talking to some kids in Kansas City, and this question came up. We told them that another main thing is to learn to be happy for other people. A few us in the cast did an audition the other day. There were three of us vying for the same part, so we all helped each other... we read lines with each other... If anyone asked for an opinion, we'd give it, but just in a very helpful way. Especially in this group, we're generally very happy for other people when they are successful, and I think that just makes you happier as a person. Because most of the time you're not going to get the job, honestly. But luckily, you only need to do it 50 more times to make a career out of it! [Laughs]
But anyway, if you're only happy for yourself, you're going to feel down so much, because you can only audition so much and not get it. But if you're happy for other people, you'll be a happier person. You'll stay in the business longer and people will appreciate you more. That's another aspect of it: being a nice person, being friendly, and being a professional is so important. If they have someone who's amazing in one corner, but then they also discover someone else who's kind of amazing but maybe isn't quite as good but has this genuine air, they're going to pick the "genuine" one every time. Why? You have to work with that somebody for a long time! Think about it... I've been in this tour for a year-and-a-half now, and... if I was someone they didn't want to work with, then that would be terrible!
What's your take on this whole phenomenon of the TV series Glee exposing musical theatricality to the masses?
Well, it's certainly great to see Lea [Michele] and Jenna [Ushkowitz] in it because I worked with them in New York doing Spring Awakening. And now I hear Jonathan Groff is going to be on it soon, which is really exciting because I got to work with him too. They're all so talented on that show. And it was exciting to see them sing the national anthem at the Yankees game since I'm a big Yankees fan! [Laughs]. But, yeah, I think the show is really funny, really cute, and people seem to really enjoy watching it because it's such an entertaining show!
And what a great showcase for a lot of musical theater greats!
Okay, one final question. Since you and the cast are here in Orange County for two whole weeks, any plans on squeezing in a trip to our very own Disneyland while you're here?
You know, that sounds like a really good idea! I believe Andy Mientus' birthday falls around the time we're in Costa Mesa... or maybe I'm wrong, but I know we'll have a party for him. Actually, I think it will be great to reunite with a some old friends while we're there... like Blake Bashoff and Kyle Riabko—they're both living there now. So yeah, I think a lot of our time will be spent reuniting with friends and putting on a great show in Costa Mesa!
Sounds awesome! We really look forward to your shows here!