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Interview with Matt Cavenaugh
A Catered Affair

By Beth Herstein


Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh in
A Catered Affair

A Catered Affair is one of a number of high profile musicals currently on Broadway. The show features a book by Harvey Fierstein, direction by John Doyle, and a cast headed by Fierstein, Tom Wopat, and Faith Prince, in her first Broadway appearance since 2002. Also, like the upcoming John Waters' show Cry Baby, it is a new musical, adapted from an earlier film. In this case, the source is the 1956 drama The Catered Affair starring Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine. The core of the story is a simple one: a lower income family, headed by Aggie and Tom Hurley (Prince and Wopat), struggles to put on a fancy wedding for daughter Jane (Leslie Kritzer), who would prefer to elope. However, the story is more poignant and complex than it at first seems, examining familial familial relationships, societal pressures, and the human cost of war.

Matt Cavenaugh is the extremely personable actor who plays Ralph, the husband-to-be. Cavenaugh first appeared on Broadway at the age of 24 as the star of 2003's Urban Cowboy. More recently, he played the dual parts of Joseph Kennedy, Jr. and Jerry in the award-winning musical Grey Gardens, at Playwrights Horizons and on Broadway. Like the rest of this cast, he was in the original production of A Catered Affair at the Old Globe in San Diego, where the show won seven San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards last season. I recently spoke to Cavenaugh about his career and his role in A Catered Affair.

Beth Herstein:  This is your third Broadway show in a relatively short period of time, and they're all adapted from films. The other two had audiences with a strong attachment to the original material. That probably doesn't apply as much in this instance.

Matt Cavenaugh:  That's true. Unless you're a real movie buff, you probably don't know the movie The Catered Affair.

BH:  I read that when you did Urban Cowboy, you did a little research but didn't want to watch the movie too much. Did you approach this show similarly?

MC:  Yes. I remembered seeing parts of the Urban Cowboy on TV, but I did watch it once [in preparing for the show]. It's the same with this. I read the script first, actually. I got a call from my agent, when I was doing Grey Gardens, and I read the script between shows on a Wednesday afternoon. I was very moved by it, just by the black ink on a white page. Not knowing any of the music or what conceptually it was going to be, I was moved by the story.

BH:  What kind of changes were made in adapting the film?

MC:  I think Harvey [Fierstein] did an excellent job of adapting it. He was very smart to make more of the community around the story. He and [composer] John Bucchino wrote these three ladies in the windows who are always there. They're Aggie's friends, the nosy neighbors who know everything. You get more of the feeling of this poor family living in this tightly knit apartment complex in the Bronx. Everybody knows each other's business. I grew up in a small town and it's the same way. Everybody knows everybody's business. You don't really get that in the movie, as much.

Another thing Harvey did that was great was more of the death of [bride-to-be] Janey's brother Terence. It is mentioned in the film but if you're not really listening you may miss it. It certainly doesn't carry the weight that it does in the theater. The other day, I met a group of people who had been watching the show, and one of them said, "It's really a show about Terence." And, it kind of is. He's a character you never see on the stage, but is very present the entire show. It's a very smart way of raising the stakes for everyone, certainly for Aggie and Tom. It's also a smart way of reminding everyone that we are a country at war right now. Obviously, this isn't a protest piece in any way, about gay marriage or ending the war. It's about two people getting married and the strains it puts on a family. But, just that weight of knowing that the character was there, and knowing how it affects the mom, dad, sister and fiancé, neighbors, friends - hits home.

BH:  What is it like working with this cast?

MC:  My first thought after I read the script - besides being moved by it and wanting to honor that - was that I would love to work with John Doyle. I had seen his two productions here in New York [Sweeney Todd and Company], and loved them. And my agent told me, "Every actor I know who has worked with him has said it's changed their lives." They've loved working with him. He's really an actor's director and he's really fantastic.

BH:  What makes him an actor's director?

MC:  He trusts his actors. He respects them. He gives the actors room to play. I also love that he's very economical in his approach to dealing with a situation. He gets rid of the clutter. That helps us actors get out of our own way, so that we can honor the text.

Then there's Harvey. I'd known Harvey socially, but I'd never worked with him. He's great. He's such a force, an entity. He's really a swell guy underneath, and he's a real artist ... It's great to work with a pro like him. When you're out on the stage with him, you know you're with someone who's a team player. He's not going to drop the ball.

Faith Prince is the salt of the earth. There's not a trace of ego in that woman. She's a real mother, I mean, she's so warm. She owns this show, from the minute she walks out on the stage, and the audience knows it from the get go.

BH:  She and Tom Wopat are great together onstage.

MC:  This is the fifth time, I think, that they're working together.

BH:  There are a lot of longstanding friendships in this ensemble.

MC:  It certainly helps to have a relationship outside of what is on the page. I'd known Leslie [Kritzer, who plays Janey] socially too, but we'd never worked together. You saw the show last night, so you know Leslie's not yucking it up. This is something that's very different from what people might expect of her, from Legally Blonde or her Patti Lupone show down at Joe's Pub. She's getting a terrific response from it. As well she should. She's just terrific.

It's great to work with such a natural comedian, too. There's just a certain energy that an actor or performer or someone like that has. I think it helps me, makes me a better actor. The sparks are always flying. There's always spontaneity. We have a blast up there. We laugh a lot - hopefully you don't catch all that.

And then there's Tom [Wopat].

BH:  I love his performance in the show.

MC:  Yes. He's terrific in this show. And, he's just a regular dude, a great guy. Katie Klaus [who plays Janey's best friend Alice and an army sergeant] I had known before. I am a big fan of her work in this. Heather [McRae], and all three women up there [McRae, Lori Wilner, and Kristine Zbornik]. Zbornik is crazy, and she wouldn't mind me saying that. She's a riot. And, I love my "parents," Phil [Hoffman] and Lori [Wilner]. I love that they just get on my nerves so much. I want to throw them out of the room. Not them, of course, but the characters.

What's great is that it's a small group. It's a very mature group. There's not a lot of ego or shenanigans. It's a nice, calm environment. We come to work, we do our show, we have a good time doing it and then we go home.

BH:  How much has the show evolved, moving to New York?

MC:  Every show, certainly every musical, evolves quite a bit from the first day of rehearsal to opening night. One rewrite here was that they strengthened my character. We really follow the mom and dad's story a lot, which is as it should be. But Harvey and John wanted to give more insight into the relationship of the young couple. They wanted to give it more of a journey and more completion.

The biggest changes were just in solidifying the tone and style of the piece, to make sure we were all living in the same world, the same story. So that Faith isn't doing Odets while Leslie and I are doing musical comedy.

We were only in the studio a week before we went into tech here in town. There was so much work and growth that was done in that room. We were all jazzed about that week. When we finished with our run through there, before the tech, we were all hoping and thinking that we had something special.

BH:  In the show, people identify you as the guy with the glasses. Even the poster for the show identifies you that way. Did the glasses help you find your way to your character?

MC:  Actually, back when I read the script, it was the glasses that first made me want to do this part. I made my debut doing Urban Cowboy, which was a great experience for me. We also sold more show posters I think than actual show tickets. Maybe not literally. Still, I was sort of branded as that oiled up sinewy guy. I've never really been that guy. I certainly didn't grow up as that guy. Nor was I that guy in college. That kind of took a while to grow comfortable with. But I am very comfortable in Ralph's skin. So I was very excited about the opportunity to play something very different from that, and from Joe Kennedy [in Grey Gardens], too. Joe was a great, handsome, classic figure of Americana, from the royal family of our country. I loved doing that, but it was great to do something different. That sounds stupid; they're just glasses. But, that communicates a lot to an audience, and also to an actor who's trying to form a character.

I actually do wear glasses. The ones in the show are actually my prescription, so I don't have to wear contacts. Which means I'll be taking them with me when I leave too. I don't know if you know that, producers, but I will be.

BH:  I have to ask you about Grey Gardens. I saw it at Playwrights Horizons, and really loved it.

MC:  It was a pretty incredible artistic experience for me from day one. I got a call in November of 2004 to come down to Sundance in December and workshop it for two weeks. They wanted me to come down and do Joe Kennedy, Jr. At that time, I had no idea that I would also be doing Jerry. Act two hadn't even been written. They had the basic shell of Act one, which for the most part stayed intact through Broadway. But, Act two - there was no shape to it at all. To be part of something that I think was a real bold artistic undertaking - I loved it. Working with [director] Michael Greif was wonderful. I would love to do it again and again. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie [music and lyrics, respectively], and Doug Wright [book] ... we certainly know of their intelligence, but they're also sweet, loyal men, just incredible. To say nothing of the cast. I loved working on that one.

BH:  I read that you were doing a soap at that time, during part of the run of Grey Gardens, and running back and forth between the two jobs. Sometimes it takes an actor a while to get out of character after a performance, and you had to shift gears pretty quickly. You were also playing two characters in Grey Gardens.

MC:  Yeah. At that time, I was playing three characters a day. I started working on "As the World Turns" during previews. I don't know how I did it. There were nights when I had literally about four hours sleep, tops. ...

An actor never complains about having too much work, and I was happy to have it. But those were long, long days. Eighteen hour days. Plus, my off days never matched up. Soaps are off on the weekends. The theater is off on Monday. For one or two months I never had a day off. Listen, I was getting paid to act and there are much tougher jobs in the world. But, it seemed like all I did all day was climb stairs. Climb stairs at CBS. Climb stairs at the Kerr Theatre. I actually paid for it physically. It really took a toll on my knees and back.

BH:  And, you're not an old man.

MC:  It made me feel like one. It taught me a lesson. I'm not a young man. I mean, I'm young, but not as young as I used to be. I'm not superman anymore. I am vulnerable. It was a great lesson to me, to know what my limit is.

BH:  You've been in two soap operas, right?

MC:  Yes. In "One Life to Live" I played Mark Solomon, a gay Jew. Me, Cavenaugh from Arkansas. I did that for about a year-and-a-half, the summer of '04 through the end of '05. Then I did Adam Munson on "As the World Turns" for about six months.

BH:  You replaced Matthew Morrison, when he left to workshop a musical.

MC:  Yeah, I went in for that right around the time that we were about to gear up for rehearsals for Grey Gardens on Broadway. They said, "We're really interested in getting you to play this role." I said, "Come up with an offer, because my availability is going to be taken. If there is a conflict, we need to know that before we start negotiating." It never happened, and they got Morrison. After he left, they called and offered me the part. It actually worked out for the best. I probably wouldn't have been able to do it during rehearsals, because that's when I was working days. It worked out great, that we tag-teamed that way.

BH:  People say it's an amazing discipline builder, working on a soap opera.

MC:  It is. A friend of mine from Fiddler on the Roof, when Alfred Molina was doing it, had a birthday party. I had never met Alfred Molina. A really humble, regular guy. He asked what I did. When I told him, he said, "That's where an actor's craft really comes into play." He was not speaking about talent but real craft. And it's true. Because you take this script that has been churned out so quickly that there hasn't been time to add a lot of specificity to it, and in a very short time you have to be up in front of a camera and add specificity and motivation and things that make it believable. It's not so much talent - at a certain point, everyone's talented. It's craft, and it also sharpens your memorization skills and just gets you used to being ready to go in a very short period of time.

BH:  You're from Arkansas, and you graduated from Ithaca College.

MC:  I got my bachelor of fine arts there.

BH:  That is a really strong program.

MC:  It started out as a conservatory of music back in the late 1800s, so from the onset it's had a very strong performing arts program. As well as their communications school. The theater department is top notch, and I had a great, great time up there. I was fortunate that I chose to go to Ithaca. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

BH:  You live in lower Manhattan now.

MC:  I do now. In the east village. I lived on the Upper West Side, and in the Heights. Now I live with my girlfriend down in the East Village.

BH:  She's currently in Grease, right?

MC:  Yes. Jenny Powers, she is playing Rizzo.

BH:  Has she had a chance to see you in the show?

MC:  Yes. When they opened that was about the time we were in rehearsals for A Catered Affair at the Old Globe. She came out and saw the invited dress, and she'll be at our opening night next week.

Photo: Jim Cox



A Catered Affair is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. Tickets are currently on sale through October 12. For tickets and additional information, go to telecharge.com.


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