BWW Interview: The Groundling's Matthew Loren Cohen's Got the Music In Him
Anyone who's had the pleasure of experiencing a Groundlings show will not only have tired hands from all the clapping and strained lungs from all the whooping and laughing, but also have worn-out toes from tapping along with the smoking hot Groundlings house band. Musical director Matthew Loren Cohen took a break from his many musical commitments and rehearsals to share some behind-the-scene Groundlings magic with BroadwayWorld. Their next Friday/Saturday night show THE GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW will open December 1, 2017.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Matt!
When did you start musical directing at The Groundlings?
I started in July of 2016.
What serendipity brought you to The Groundlings?
Current Groundling Edi Patterson is a friend of mine whom I've worked with in the past, and when the music director position became available at The Groundlings, she forwarded me the information. I applied, interviewed and was offered the job.
In seeing various Groundlings shows, I've chuckled at the tie-ins of your song choices with the preceding skits. Do you sit in on the sketch rehearsals to compose your inter-skits set list?
The band does not really sit in on rehearsals, per se. Before a new show opens, The Groundlings has preview nights during which new material is tried out. The band comes up with ideas then, and if a sketch stays, we implement the transition.
Any rules of thumbs for including the songs you do? I've heard Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy" a few times. (Love it, BTW!)
I'm glad you enjoy that one. We love playing it, which is why you've heard it more than once. On that note, we don't have enough rehearsal time to learn all new transitions for each show, so we learn a few new ones each show and then keep some we love in the rotation. "Fantasy" is a favorite because of those fantastic chord changes and great disco/funk beat.
As for rules of thumb, I think the only real rule we have is choosing songs that we, as a trio, can play well. Meaning, there are certain songs we'd love to cover, but keyboards, guitar and drums wouldn't do them justice. In a past show, one of the sketches ended with a recording of Gloria Estefan's "Get On Your Feet" playing. I thought the band might also play it during the transition. At one of our rehearsals, we listened to it and decided we couldn't really reproduce the big, brassy sound of the original, so we scrapped the idea.
How did you connect with Greg Kanaga and Larry Treadwell? You guys are so amazing together!
I was hired as music director at The Groundlings, walked into the first rehearsal and met Greg and Larry. That's truly how it happened. They have each been at the theater for many years, as had the music director whom I replaced. It was obviously nerve-wracking to step into such a position, but Greg and Larry made it easy. They are extremely kind, funny and talented gents, and we work very well together.
Do you three even need to have long rehearsals now? Do you three finish each other's musical sentences?
We generally, formally rehearse six hours with each new show. It's usually two three-hour sessions. The first is devoted to either writing the new overture and entr'acte, or composing a medley for both using one band's songs. For instance, the overture and entr'acte for GROUNDLINGS OF THE CORN were original compositions, whereas for the previous show, GARBAGE PAIL GROUNDLINGS, we used bits of six songs by the band Garbage.
The second rehearsal session is devoted to learning new transitions. We usually have this rehearsal right before each opening night, so we know which sketches are in the running order and can learn transitions that relate to them.
Do we finish each other's musical sentences? I'm not sure about that, though we definitely all have great musical ideas that make for a true collaboration.
Let's go way back to before you received your Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Florida State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. What originally got you started in music?
My mom wanted me to play violin, but I think the story is she and my dad were at a thrift shop and found a cheap piano. So they bought that instead. And the rest is history. I actually learned to play piano through the Suzuki method, which is a controversial curriculum of ear-training rather than theory and note-reading. I excelled at it and was in national competitions throughout my five years with Suzuki. Once I started to have to learn to read music, I became frustrated with playing, and it started feeling like a chore. I ended up taking lessons for 17 years, through college, but most of the time I just sat at the piano and made stuff up. Because of Suzuki, I hated reading music and am terrible at it.
Whose music spoke to you as a youngster?
Well, I remember my first records being the soundtracks to The Muppet Movie and Xanadu. So, Paul Williams, Olivia Newton-John and ELO? And I've loved Dolly Parton ever since 9 to 5. I'm gay, by the way. If "youngster" includes elementary school, I definitely was into all the '80s new wave on the radio. Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, OMD. I still love that stuff! Musical theater was a huge musical part of my childhood, namely JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and BARNUM. Oh, and of course, Prince.
Who was your first music idol? And why?
Before I was obsessed with Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs? Probably, Billy Joel. I obviously felt kinship to him because of the piano. But there was a weird personal connection because my mom's high-school band in Long Island played against his in a battle of the bands. (His won.) I always thought that was so cool. And he can certainly write a pop song. But honestly, I haven't listened to him in years and don't really have any inclination to. Also, Tori Amos came along when I was in high school and made Billy Joel's piano rock seem... simple. However, I still absolutely know all the words to "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."
How did you find your niche of improv musical comedy?
When I was at Florida State there happened to be an improv group named The Whammo Players. The group was made up of FSU theater students, and they had a music director! I loathed music school, so I would mostly hang out with the theater kids, and I got to know the group a bit. The bulk of the Whammos, including the music director, graduated in 1995 and went on to form Dad's Garage in Atlanta. A few of us who remained became The Whammo Players: The Next Generation, and my non-music-reading abilities were put to good use. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been introduced to music improv in college.
What was your most uniquely memorable cruise ship experience you had working for Chicago's Second City aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Gem in 2009.
I've actually music directed improv and sketch on five cruise ships: one for Disney on their 'Magic' in 1999, and then four for Second City on NCL between 2009 and 2013. I have spent 16 months of my life living on giant boats, and I don't recommend it. The most memorable experience probably did happen on the Gem, because for the last two weeks of my contract, Oprah Winfrey rented the entire ship for a vacation for her whole staff. So I was on the ship with Oprah and a few thousand Oprah employees for two weeks going to places like Sicily, Turkey and Greece. And I believe the ship ran out of vodka on the third night of the two-week cruise. I did not meet Oprah, but I did meet Gayle while I was drunk. A handful of Winans were there, too!
How did your stint on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart come about?
My friend was a producer on The Daily Show, and we had worked together before on an improv show for the Sundance Channel. The Daily Show did a segment on the Koch Brothers, in which Jason Jones made up a MUSIC MAN-style song á cappella. My friend called me and asked me if I could track music to it. Because The Daily Show operates on a strict time frame, they needed it done quickly. I work quickly because music in improv is, obviously, instantaneous; and sketch shows evolve even as they're running. Music tends to need to quickly evolve with it. I agreed to do the job, and in the middle of doing that, they asked me to write the music for a song about Sean Hannity's threat to leave New York because of Governor Cuomo's statement that conservatives had no place in the state. I got the Hannity job on a Wednesday and it was sung by the cast of JERSEY BOYS on the following Monday night's episode. That's how fast that song happened. So between both songs, it was an intense two weeks. And so fun.
You teach, you write your own original material, you play weddings. Is there anything musical you won't do?
Anything that requires me to read music.
What's a most memorable faux pas that you were involved in during a Groundlings show that you so smoothly covered up that the audience didn't even know happened?
I don't know if there's a way to smoothly cover up a musical faux pas. There was one time where going into intermission of a sketch show, Greg, Larry and I each played something different, instead of the actual transition. It was very Ives-ian. But I don't think anyone noticed because it was a short bit of music, and they were probably halfway to the bathroom.
Any musician/performer that you would meet today that would leave you tongue-tied?
They all died in 2016, right? I already spent three days driving Philip Glass around in my white Mazda Protégé when he visited FSU, and we had great conversations; so he's out. I've corresponded with Stephen Sondheim, so that's done. Let's see. This is really tough, but I would have to say Mavis Staples.
What creative projects in the near future for Matthew Loren Cohen?
Improvising and teaching. It's basically my life.
Thank you again, Matt!
To experience the best set-changing musical intervals in Los Angeles (owing to the sizzling Groundlings trio of Matt, Larry and Greg), log onto www.groundlings.com for available tickets and scheduling for all The Groundlings shows. Their main Friday/Saturday night show GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW begins December 1 and runs through December 23, 2017.