THE LEADING MEN: Matthew James Thomas Discovers His Corner of the Sky in Broadway's Pippin
By Michael Gioia
April 25, 2013
British actor Matthew James Thomas, who made his Broadway debut as the Peter Parker alternate in Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — going on twice a week for star Reeve Carney — steps into the limelight in Pippin, flying to new heights and discovering his very own "Corner of the Sky."
As Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark began its lengthy journey to Broadway, an ambitious Matthew James Thomas, 25 — hailing from the small town of Wendover in Buckinghamshire, England — began his journey to New York City. Thomas, known in the U.K. for appearing on the British musical television series "Britannia High," was enlisted by Julie Taymor and the creative team of Spider-Man to play the musical's demanding title role — at certain performances, in place of rocker Reeve Carney. After packing his bags and heading to the States over two years ago, Thomas is now in his second Broadway musical — this time, starring in the title role at every performance. The British twentysomething, who recently received an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for his performance as prince Pippin in Diane Paulus' cirque-inspired revival of the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson modern classic, heads to the circus eight times a week at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, where he travels down the road to self-discovery. Like Spider-Man, Thomas plays with fire (literally, in Broadway's Pippin) by performing death-defying stunts on Broadway and soaring to new heights to prove that he is "extraordinary."
Had you ever been to New York City before being cast in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?
MJT: Yeah, on holidays with my parents. I'd been a couple of times. Actually, I always tell a funny story — even to [co-star] Andrea Martin, now, which is funny because everything links: I [had] just auditioned for a big television series in the U.K. [called "Britannia High"], and I missed a flight out with my parents — they planned a vacation to New York — so they said, "Just get on the next plane… Meet us at the Hilton Theatre [currently the Foxwoods Theatre and home of Spider-Man]," which is so weird. So I met them on the steps of the Hilton Theatre, which was playing Young Frankenstein at the time (with Andrea Martin, of course), and I look down the long corridor, which is kind of famous amongst the company of Spider-Man — the Apollo Link, which is where we'd all go and sit during tech because it was nice and cold and big, and we would socialize down there. Little did I know [at that time] that I was going to be spending most of my time in that [theatre, doing Spider-Man]. It's crazy, really, when you think about it. Now I'm talking to Andrea Martin everyday. My parents were in there watching her on stage!
Matthew James Thomas
photo by Joan Marcus
Speaking of the comic genius that is Andrea Martin, it looked like the cast had a hard time keeping themselves together after "No Time At All." She received a full-house standing ovation the night I was at the theatre.
MJT: Yeah, it's the same every night. She's always so present. It's always so funny that moment after she leaves the stage because there's this huge, amazing energy [that] kind of wanders off, and then you're left with it, and it's like, "Woah!" I always find her hilarious. How could anybody compete with [her performance]? It's just groundbreaking. She is so incredible, and I have such a fond relationship with her now — offstage, too. We're very close. As you probably noticed, I don't always keep it together because she does new things every show, and that's part of what this production is about — playing and exploring and trying new things, and Andrea certainly likes to do her… It's so many little things, but they're always surprising, and it always looks like she's surprising herself.
Getting back to moving to the United States, what was that like coming to New York? Were you nervous? Were you anxious? Were you by yourself?
MJT: Yeah, it was kind of tough! I was going through a little bit of a tough time at home — not with my family. My family is great, my parents are so supportive, and I have a really great relationship with them, [but] I was just going through some stuff. Spider-Man had been delayed, and I was doing another TV series and just working really hard — and then, [to] pick up and go, it was all very sudden. My whole life was completely reshuffled, and I knew it wasn't going to be a couple-of-week kind of [job]. I had a sense that this was a long-term venture. It was really exciting, but, at the same time, I was all of a sudden all alone in America, which was great and fantastic, [but], on the other hand, all my friends were at home. I have some really great people in my life who have been very supportive and keep in contact and come visit me, [but] it was scary at first, and my apartment was completely empty. I just found it the day before [I began working on Spider-Man] with a friend of mine, and that was it — I was living on 10th Avenue, which is crazy! [Laughs.]
Terrence Mann and Matthew James Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus
How did you find adjusting to New York City life?
MJT: Well, New York City life is different from all other city life. It's incredibly relentless and fast, and I think when I first got here, it was incredibly exciting. It was also so hot. I didn't know New York got so hot. I'm not a fan of the heat! [Laughs.] When I got in, I could not believe that I was going to be rehearsing this crazy show through summer, and that summer, in particular, was so bad. But then, of course, I get to experience the incredible winter here, which is my favorite season, and there is no more magical place on earth when it snows in New York.
Tell me about doing these different circus stunts in Pippin. Was that part of your training for the show?
MJT: It's a very collaborative process… Gypsy [Snider, who incorporates circus choreography and acrobatics] really wants you to find where you are [comfortable]. Like, the back somersault is something completely new — I've never done that before in my life, and it's always been something I've wanted to do. Whenever I see people do it, I [think], "Oh, I wish I could do that." And, I saw the opportunity, and they trained me in a couple of weeks. Just before previews began — like, three days before — was the first day I did it without wires, and Gypsy [asked], "Are you sure you're okay to do this in the show?" I know I'm surrounded by these incredible circus performers, so I always feel safe, but there is danger involved in these things. Going up on that trapeze and climbing that pole — if I make any self-error, that's it. It's the end. There's no wires or anything. People [ask], "How does this compare to Spider-Man?" I say, "Physically, it's twice as difficult." Spider-Man was certainly about technique, and especially with the singing and being thrown around in that rig — which I loved also, and was so exciting — but this is my responsibility. I really love that Pippin gets to do these things, too.
I'm super tired doing this show. I have to keep up a pretty heavy physical routine of running and diet just to stay fit for the show, but I wish that I could do more, and I'm going to keep pushing for more. I hope that Diane's open, even after we're [officially open], to [adding] little bits here and there because the show is themed around exploration… It's like professional playing. It can be dangerous, but it's really thrilling.
Matthew James Thomas in rehearsal
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Between Spider-Man and Pippin, you seem to be playing with fire on Broadway.
MJT: Apparently! [Laughs.]
It was reported that you were injured during Spider-Man.
MJT: Yeah, I jumped into a wall. That had nothing to do with [the stunts performed in] Spider-Man. Actually, I remember seeing that come out [in the news], and I thought, "This is not another Spider-Man accident. I just jumped into a wall. I'm an idiot!" One day I was just so excited during the show, I was running down one of the stairways, and I jumped to try and scare my friend who was on the stairs below, and I didn't realize the ceiling was as high as it was, so I went straight into it and really hit my head. That's what it is! [Laughs.] That knocked some sense into me, I think… Well, apparently not because I'm climbing poles [in Pippin]!
A moment I really loved in the show was your second-act song-and-dance number, "On the Right Track," with Patina Miller. I imagine it being a great time working on that in the rehearsal room.
MJT: Patina is kind of amazing. She's a machine. She's got so much soul and so much personality, but yet she can just do anything, and her voice is so resilient and accurate. In rehearsal, the first time around, we [were] doing a little bit of dancing and a little bit of push and shove here and there. Then, one day, both me and Patina said, "Chet, we want to dance." I don't even know if [choreographer] Chet [Walker] knew that I could dance because we did not do any dancing in the auditions… I haven't danced in a long, long, long time. I do not call myself a dancer by any stretch of the imagination — I'm far from it — but it's so fun to have a go! It's my turn to have a go at dancing with Patina. It's us playing around on stage together… It feels kind of electric, especially with her. She's great in the rehearsal room and even better on stage.
Patina Miller and Matthew James Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus
Your dog is making his Broadway debut in the show?
MJT: He is — Porridge the Dog. I got him as my room companion at [Spider-Man] because I only did those two shows [a week], and I was there all the time, so I trained him in my room [and] he became kind of famous in the company. To be honest, Porridge is everybody's dog. I just look after him, but he's everybody's dog. I [brought] him to [Pippin] rehearsal one day, and Porridge jumped up on stage, and I showed [off his] tricks, and they [thought], "Maybe there can be a dog," and Diane saw the potential of that looking like the perfect kind of family picture with the dog… So yeah, Porridge is now a pro. He's loving every minute of it. I assure you!
I read that music also plays a big part in your life.
MJT: Yeah. I'm a pianist, and I play the guitar in the show. I mean, I'm not a great guitarist, but I do bits and bobs. I'm mainly a songwriter and a composer. I've done a lot of scoring and some stuff for British pop music that did pretty well, but I've mainly been working on my own stuff with Duncan Sheik. Duncan Sheik is producing some of my own music, which I have been working on over the last year with my manager Ron Shapiro. I've been really trying to find what it is I want to do with music and poetry. I write a lot of poetry and have been wanting to see where it fits… [I'm] also working on a musical, which I've been working on for like six years now, which is coming together… I think we're going to put it up in the next year or [sometime in] 2014.
Can you tease what it's about?
MJT: I can tell you right now that the working title is Malenkaya. It's a feminine term in Russia… The translation is "Oh little one," which is what [Grand Duchess] Anastasia [Nikolaevna]'s sisters in the [Russian Imperial] Romanov family used to call Anastasia because she was the younger one. That was her nickname. It's basically a story based on the lead up to the [Romanov family] assassination and after. My friend Ian MacGregor an is incredible musician and composer and also the manager of the New London Orchestra. We worked together on a project, and he told me about this idea. I [said], "I don't know why somebody hasn't done this yet. Let's just do it." And, six years later, we've spent God-knows-how-many hours working on this piece. We had a reading about a year ago, and that put us into a spiral of other exciting changes and developments, and studio sessions and recordings. It's getting to this place where we'll probably do a presentation with some really cool people!
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)