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What's New on the Rialto

Amy Justman & Matt Castle of Company

By Beth Herstein

Along with Tony nominees Raul Esparza and Barbara Walsh and several other Broadway veterans, eight talented actors are making their Broadway debuts in the current revival of Company. Amy Justman (Susan) and Matt Castle (Peter) are two of these performers. Amy completed her graduate work at Manhattan School of Music just four years ago, and she has been extremely busy since then. She currently studies voice with Tony winner Victoria Clark and has been in shows in New York (including The Screams of Kitty Genovese) and around the world. Amy also won the Lotte Lenya Competition and she has performed as a soloist with the American Symphony Orchestra. At 35, Matt has a host of New York credits both as an actor (most recently, The Musical of Musicals —The Musical!) and a musical director (Gutenberg! The Musical and numerous York Theatre productions). Matt, classically trained musician, has taught in a university setting and has performed professionally with orchestras and in recitals.

I recently spoke to Matt Castle and Amy Justman in Matt's cozy dressing room backstage at Company.

Beth Herstein:  Congratulations on your Broadway debuts. How has it been for you?

Amy Justman:  It's been really incredible. This always has been my ultimate goal. I never really said to myself, "I want to win a Tony" or "I want to be a star" or something. My goal was always to do a Broadway show. I had faith that it would happen. I just thought that it would be a longer wait.

Matt Castle:  To some extent it hasn't sunk in. Everybody else is so excited for me. They say to me, "Oh, you must be so excited." I just say "yes." But, in reality, we're doing a lot of hours of work a day right now, and if I got in a tizzy for every single person I know who's excited for me —which is wonderful of them —[laughs] there would be nothing left. I would just burn out. So, to some extent I feel like I'm still putting off the reality of it. Part of me feels like this is the next logical step, this is what I should be doing.

But, on the other hand, a part of me thinks, "Why is this happening? It's so odd." ... It's a weird combination of "This can't be real" and "Of course, what's the big deal?"

BH:  In addition to acting, you've both done a lot of concert work.

AJ:  Because of the nature of the production, not everyone in the cast has always been a straight ahead musical theater person. Obviously we all have instrumental backgrounds. There are a lot of us who came from the classical singing world. There are people who come from the street theater world. We've all been kind of varied in what we've done over the years.

BH:  How does that come together in the ensemble?

AJ:  It's just been an incredible group of people to work with. I think we were all worried on some level about how it was all going to come together. But, you just sort of looked around you and saw how talented everyone else was. It didn't take long for me to go, "Wow. There's really not a weak link in this room." Everyone had so much to give and was so talented on so many levels. It was definitely humbling.

MC:  That's certainly one of the factors that helped build my personal confidence. I thought, "All right, [director John Doyle] picked me. How do I stack up?" But, then I looked at all the other people he picked. So I decided that if he thinks I belong here, I must belong here. So why don't I just stand up tall and do my job.

BH:  As it is such an ensemble piece, how does John Doyle balance all the performers onstage?

MC:  It's just not an ego-driven event here. John is forthright with the actors about his own insecurities, his own questions, about the show. He is interested in not walking in the door and knowing everything in advance. His style of leadership is not controlling or anything like that. Right from the first moment, though, I think he helped us shape our attitudes the way they needed to be, so that we kept our priorities aligned with each other. I don't know how else to describe it.

AJ:  With every other show I've worked on, you always have one or two people who are negative about the way things are going on some level. And, we'd go out to dinner every night, and everyone would be so on board. I've never seen it before where everyone was so positive about what was happening. I think some of it comes from the lack of ego in the rehearsal room.

MC:  [John Doyle] also picked us carefully. He has a keen intuition about what makes people tick. He was at my very first call back audition, after the initial weed out. He was on the wrong side of the table, where I was, sitting in a chair and looking me in the eye. Not with a note pad, but looking at me and seeing me as a human being. It was unlike any other audition I'd ever had. I felt that whether or not I got the job, that was one of my best theatrical experiences in New York City. I think he wouldn't hire people where ego was going to become an issue or who were not going to enjoy his way of working. So, really, the whole thing is rigged. [laughter] It's beautiful. It's wonderful to work this way.

BH:  How did you all find out about the show to begin with?

AJ:  When I was a kid, I used to take out scores from the library, of Sondheim shows and stuff. I would play all the different parts and record them together. It was a symptom of a lonely childhood. [laughter]

It's so funny, though, because I had been freelancing with an agent for a while and this was one of the first things they had ever gotten for me. Usually, I would hear about something or see something in Backstage and think, "Oh, I have to do this!" But, I hadn't heard anything about this project.

I had worked with Mary Mitchell Campbell, the musical director, previously. We had done a project that was very difficult musically. So, I think [my casting] might have had something to do with her because she knew I could handle hard music.

MC:  I had been freelancing for about a year and a half with Bret Adams Limited. I'd met Bret at a presentation of another one of his clients, Keith Hermann - the composer of Romance Romance. I was singing in something that Keith wrote that connected me to Bret. When I first met the folks at the agency, I was in The Musical of Musicals and I was happy in the job. So I wasn't looking for work and they didn't send me out for much. [One of the auditions] was this ... I thought either I would get it, which would be wonderful, or I wouldn't, in which case I'd still have the other show. I would win either way. Then, right after I got the offer for this job, within five days we got a closing notice for The Musical of Musicals. I had my jobs lined up for the holidays, arranging or playing, then a couple of weeks off and then it was time to start up in Cincinnati. So, it was serendipity.

I was so happy about the way it all timed out for me also because I didn't have an edge of desperation on my audition. I had this easy feeling about it. I rented a cello, which was freaky, because I hadn't touched a cello in years. But, it was much cheaper to rent a cello than a bass. I don't own either. I hadn't played bass regularly since college.

BH:  How do you all find the balance, both playing the instruments and acting?

AJ:  Sometimes the less you think about it, the more effective it is ... The thinking about the music and about what we are playing brings it across more than if we were standing there asking, "What's this song about?" It brings the acting to a more subconscious easy place ... Sometimes, John would give us physical tasks to do in our scenes to take our heads out of what we were doing. In a way, playing the instruments becomes our physical task for the song.

MC:  The most horrible kind of acting I think to do is where you're fifteenth person from the left in the chorus and you have no direction, except, "You're all happy." There's nothing written for you except the lyrics that are written for everyone, and you have to make up everything. Here, of course, we're all principal roles, which is nice, but we do have a lot of time onstage in scenes in which we wouldn't normally take a direct part. So there's still the potential for a lot of traps like that. What do I do with my hands? What am I thinking? What am I doing here? Our hands are taken care of because we're playing —that's a real gift —and, again, John helps to fill in those blanks. He gives me leads with my imagination without spelling it out for me page by page.

BH:  What does having you do both add to the show?

MC:   In a theatrical setting, orchestra players have their notes and all of that, but they haven't been included in the action by the director. They don't have the invite to take part the way the actors do. So, there's a weird disconnect. I said to a friend recently, "Oh, you did a show with my friend so-and-so." He said, "No. I don't know her." I said, "Well, she played in the pit." He said, "No wonder I don't know her." So, that's the norm. This format eliminates those barriers. All of my notes on the piano are part of the play, and they're dramatically driven. There's no other way I'd rather do it. [laughs] I don't want to do another kind of show now.

BH:  Sometimes it's obvious why the characters are playing the instruments they're playing at a particular time. How much is that true in a larger sense?

AJ:  When Mary Mitchell was putting it together, they wanted couples to be playing similar instruments. And, some people, their characters match their instruments. It's not always an exact fit. One of the funny stories about that, my character changed a lot over the rehearsals. When I was first playing, I was working on playing this very proper southern belle, and I was playing piano like Marian the Librarian in The Music Man —you know, very proper. John came up to me one day and said, "I really want you to dig into those keys. What you're playing is what's going on outside. You should be playing what's going on underneath." For me, it's less a question of the instrument being an extension of my character. Instead, when I'm playing, I think about what the chords and what I'm playing would be like if they were text —what I'm saying through the music.

MC:  There are some surprises in who plays what. Marta to me is the one who is most conspicuous in that way. People like to think of Marta as the oddball in the group. How did Robert even meet her? She's so off his path in life. She is this weird chick with purple hair —at least, she has purple hair in our show. No matter how you stack it, Marta's always a little different. You'd expect something kookier than the violin. But when she comes out with a violin on her shoulder playing this beautiful thing —it fits.

AJ:  I think about Susan and why she is playing piano. I do sort of think about somebody who was raised very traditionally and of course, you do have your piano lessons. That was what you did. You had your ballet lessons and your piano lessons. And, especially with the disconnect within her marriage, that's the way she sublimates it. I know in my own life, sometimes growing up, sometimes being really upset and going to the piano and playing and singing. You'd just do it as a release.

MC:  The stuff I play at the synthesizer is more structured. But when I'm at the piano, the real keyboard, the material I have has more loose ends on it than the stuff that you have on the piano. All of that comes most to the surface when we sit side by side in "Side by Side." She has on beats, I have off beats.

AJ:  That's so funny. I didn't even realize that.

MC:  Her part is the foundation; it's the part that is just right. My part, I'm making up. I still make up stuff. I'll play things wrong by accident, messy. There's something there that parallels the dichotomy between Peter and Susan. It's fun. Even if it's irritating, it's still fun.

BH:  Initially, Company was viewed as a series of vignettes about the couples and Bobby was just the conduit for the story, the voyeur.

MC:   That's right. Most or all of the others are based on people George Furth knew. Robert was the fictional character, made up as a thread to hang them all on dramatically.

BH:  And, then they shifted songs around and gave him more songs in order to give him more depth.

MC:  People complain that Robert is the zero in the middle of the play and no one ever notices him. One of the things that John has done is keep us all onstage and have us put the focus on him, really without any relief at all. So the pressure on him by the end of the play is unbearable. It makes it all his story. We are now accessories to his story, instead of other way around.

BH:  I was surprised to see how many people have written about and vigorously debated Robert's sexual orientation.

AJ:  People still say it. I read in articles, or hear people say, "Oh, Bobby's clearly gay. That's the whole story of Company. He's gay."

MC:  I don't understand why people say that. Do they find him misogynistic, or do they think he's unable to connect with women? I don't know what they think it is that makes that case, but I don't see it myself.

BH:  It seems like a pretty universal story about the struggle we all have to connect with other people, and Robert's struggle with commitment.

MC:  Exactly. If Robert found some man who was perfect for him, that still wouldn't solve his problem. His problem isn't about finding the right person. His problem is about being willing to look for the right person. But, no matter how you stack it up, Bobby's sexual orientation not what the play is focused on.

BH [to MC]:  Before the interview, you were saying that it's daunting musically, that in some ways the show felt very tied to its time. In some ways it does, with the stewardess –

MC:   —even using the word "stewardess."

BH:  Exactly. Also, the kind of bachelor life that Bobby enjoys, seems kind of rooted in the period. At the same time, the shows feels very contemporary, and very much about the kinds of issues people still struggle with today.

AJ:  Obviously, we all know the show inside and out. And there are some things where, when I think about it, I go, "Hmmm, that would probably be different today." But, I don't think that an audience coming to see it for the first time is really focused on those details. A lot of people who've come to see it have said that they think it's very contemporary. Even the things that pigeonhole it as being of its time, like the pot smoking scene. I think just the way that John's approached it, staging it not entirely literally, it's so much more universal than, say, just a couple sitting around toking on a joint. The staging takes the focus off of those little details. And certainly Mary Mitchell's reorchestration has made it a lot more contemporary. A lot of people still associate —and some of them are kind of married to —the old Company orchestration, with the organ and the wa-wa. That's very much of its time. The way she's done it, with the more chamber music sound to it, really puts it in a more contemporary place.

MC:  There are any number of factors that can make a play not relevant to an audience. Take Hamlet. How many of us are princes, or have parents up to what his parents have been up to? But if the thing is skillfully directed and acted, you feel for him. And, his story is so important to you as you watch it. Because it is about a mother and a son, and the pressure on a child. Things that we all do understand.

AJ:  And if you look at the opera world, how many operas have been staged in a totally different time period from the one in which they were originally set? John has said that he sees Sondheim's work as being on a par with Shakespeare or any of the great artists. So, why can't you take Sondheim's work in a different time period, too? I think because his work is relatively new, people sometimes have a hard time with that. But, [Company] should be viewed as a great piece of work that can stand the test of time.

MC:  What's interesting to me about the pot smoking scene is not what they're smoking. What's interesting is that when Robert is in the room, the two of them do something different than what they would normally do. David says, Jenny would never smoke the stuff, I'm surprised she did it tonight. It's not said in the scene, but she probably agreed to it because Robert was there and probably there was some pressure on her ... We get to infer a lot there. That's what the play is about and that's what the content is.

AJ:   Certainly [Peter and Susan's] situation is just as relevant today. You hear about couples who get divorced and continue living out of the same apartment. Or, you hear about people who never marry and stay together. That whole aspect is probably even more relevant today. The definition of what a married couple is or what a committed couple is, it's always changing.

MC:  Much that appears in this play on the surface and also underneath, as themes, meant a certain thing to audiences in 1970 because people couldn't believe they were talking about all of it out loud. Now, 36 years later, there's no shock value. You say the word "gay" onstage and people in New York are not titillated. It's not a shock at all. What does that mean, today, when you see 35-year-olds together onstage smoking a joint? So, now what's left of the story is interesting to us in a whole different way.

BH:  I'm sure doing the show has generated talk among the cast members about relationships and what they mean.

AJ:  The thing that is hilarious is that since we started the project one person's gotten engaged and one person's gotten married. You would think that doing the show, we would say, "I'm never going to get married." ... A good majority of us in the cast are in some sort of relationship. [laughs] I had one moment in Cincinnati when it was just hard being away from my boyfriend. I think I actually sent him verbatim lyrics from "Being Alive." Like, "This is what life is all about, this is what we have to go through. It's not about ‘Marry Me a Little,' it's about the hard things." So, we definitely have thought about the play in the context of our own lives.

MC:  Also, the message of the play is not how awful marriage is. The message is that you can avoid doing something difficult like finding someone and sticking with him or her. But, what's the alternative? Hiding all the time, or mooching off of somebody else's risks and joys. That's where Robert is stuck. He can't stand another minute of it. It takes the two-and-a-half hours of the play to sift through all those ideas.

AJ:  It also occurred to me when we were doing the show in Cincinnati that what we see in the couples is what Robert is choosing to show us. You're seeing them through his sensibility. There are probably all these other moments when these people are having a wonderful time together and you see the love between the couples. But, that's not what he's chosen to show us.

BH:  Even in those scenes, you see glimpses of something more between the couples.

MC:  That's what the stuff is about in the opening number, I think. They're asking, "How about some scrabble on Sunday?" and "The kids would love to see you." We must have years of good history built up. But, in these hours Robert spends alone in his apartment, he's trying to make his best case for saying, "Not me. I will never get married." But try as he might to focus on only the icky parts, he can't deny that there's wonderful stuff there too.

BH:  The show was a smash success in Cincinnati. How have you felt about the reception in New York so far?

AJ:  One of the things that's been slightly harder than Cincinnati is that this is the theater capital of the country. There are people out there who know every single note of this score and every single word in this script. If you miss something, there is going to be at least one guy out there who knows. "She didn't say ‘and,' she said ‘or.'" That's a little bit daunting to know. You can tell whether there are a lot of people like that in the audience, at certain points in the show. When they see what we've done with "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," with the saxophone, you can tell whether people are thinking, "Isn't that cute?" or "That's supposed to be this way, but you're doing it that way. That's so crazy!" It's a different type of response.

But the flip side is that it's rewarding to do this show, which we all really believe in, for so many people who have a real appreciation for it. Obviously not everyone is going to love it or agree on it, but we're doing it for people who have a real respect for Sondheim's work and for the piece. Also, this is such a New Yorky piece. It takes place in New York and so many of the jokes are New York centric. People in Cincinnati, they got it. But, in New York if you say something like, "On 14th Street, if you don't like it there's every subway you can name to take you where you want to go." People here go, "That's true. You can get every subway from 14th Street."

BH:  With so many people who love this show, there have to be people who are wedded to the original version and are not going to be happy with the changes in this production.

MC:  I think more of those opinions are present in every audience we have here than there were there. Although of any city we could have debuted the show in the United State, Cincinnati is probably the best place. I was told by a friend of mine who lives there that there are more theaters per person in Cincinnati than in any other city in the States besides New York. I don't know his basis for saying that, but there certainly is a lot of theater there.

AJ:  They were very appreciative. It was a wonderful place to do the show, just a fantastic theater. Here, it's a double-edged sword. There's more scrutiny here, but there's also more love for the show on a very deep level. People like me, who know "Being Alive" like the back of their hand. Now they get to see it done in a different way.

MC:  Amy and I both moved to New York City to be a part of that. The people in Cincinnati love theater and love the arts, but it doesn't have the same kind of artistic pull as New York City. There's something about being in the heart of it.

I'm not clever enough to have some theory about where theater is now. But, we're not in the Golden Age of musicals ... with new ones coming out all the time. There was a certain kind of glamour to it for a long time after that. If you were a theater star, like Mary Martin, everyone in the country knew who you were. That's just not the world we live in now. After that ended, there was the funny time when people wondered what was the role of New York theater in the culture. I feel that the theater community has settled into a place where it doesn't care as much about that question. We exist, and that's enough. There are people who love it who are here, and we're enough to make it keep going. Aside from the big picture theory —I'm happy I'm here, I'm happy I have a job —doing something that seems to matter to people.

Company at the Barrymore Theatre, in previews for a November 29 opening.

Tickets at Telecharge.

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