On February 4th, Feinstein’s/54 Below will present a 20th anniversary concert production of Bright Lights, Big City. The rock musical is based on the novel by Jay McInerney. It follows the journey of Jamie, a young outstanding writer who loses himself in the chaos of 1980’s New York City. Written by Paul Scott Goodman, the first solo recipient of the Jonathan Larson Foundation Award, the musical originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1999.
The concert will feature Matt Doyle as Jamie and Christy Altomare as Vicky. We spoke with Matt about his history with this musical and advice he would give to aspiring performers.
What made you want to be apart of the Bright Lights, Big City concert?
I first did a song from Bright Lights, Big City in 2010 with Jenn Damiano at a Joe’s Pub concert, that’s when I got to know Paul Scott Goodman, the composer. He let us do the song that night and he wanted come to the concert. I think at the time no one was really doing any songs from the show, especially not publicly and so I was able to meet Paul. I said this was one of my favorite scores, the concept album came out in 2005 and someone handed it to me when it came out and I was obsessed with it, I was like “how is this not a massive hit?” I mean it’s such a smart score and the lyrics are brilliant. I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t a big smash success like RENT was, and so I kind of just stayed in the back of Paul’s mind for years after singing that song with Jenn. About five years ago they did the 15th anniversary concert at 54 Below and Paul asked me to play the role of Michael and Colin Donnell played Jamie then. It was a big night, and again I was just shocked that it didn’t turn into something more. I think the material is so smart and I’m just so thrilled that they asked me to do it this time. I know that Nick Blaemire dropped out because of the Falsettos tour, and as much as I love Nick I find it a blessing that he did because I get to sing one of my favorites now, so it’s thrilling
Jamie seems like a really hard character to portray, do you relate to him at all?
Absolutely. One of the reasons that I relate so strongly to this story, and what drew me to the project is that I have suffered from clinical depression as long as I can remember, and knew what it was and figured that out. I don’t think there is a piece, especially in musical theater that captures depression as much as this piece does. Obviously in Jamie’s situation, it’s really dealing with heartbreak, and I think a turning point in his life is that perspective and everything in his world is kind of crumbling. But depression is depression and I think it handles so beautifully in terms of the struggle and feeling buried by it. What’s so wonderful to see is the lift of that depression, and the escape of it at the end to such a beautiful moment. I’ve always been really moved by the original story and I’ve read the novel. It really captures that turning point that a lot of us experience in our twenties, when we’re going through a transitional phase. I know that I certainly have experienced James’s kind of heartbreak before, after a relationship, and I am very moved by it. I think it’s an important story to tell.
You’re going to be working with Christy Altomare again, are you excited about that?
Yes. I love Christy. Christy and I met during the Spring Awakening national tour in Toronto, and she is somebody that I’ve always really had wonderful chemistry with on stage and just adore spending time with her. Christy and I, we just click, so any time that we get to work together we get really excited because she is the most generous actress I’ve ever been on stage with. She is so present and so giving, that it’s always just a joy to be up there with her.
If this show is revived in any form, would you want to be a part of it?
Absolutely. I’m sure there will be some competition for this role, because it’s such a smart and beautiful role, but yes. I’ve said it for years that this has been one of those shows that I’m like, “how? How is no one doing it? How is no one making it work?” It is so smart and the material is good, the score is just one of the best scores I’ve ever heard, so I’m thrilled to get to sing it.
Yes. Right now as long as we’re permitted to do it, (because it is a lab contract and actors are on strike right now,) we’re supposed to do The Heart of Rock & Roll lab. It is supposed to be our pre Broadway lab. It’s a Huey Lewis jukebox musical which, I’m sure some people will say “oh, not another jukebox musical.” But it’s got this light wonderful kind of John Hughes film feeling about it. It feels like a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and it’s one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on. I think the music is fantastic, and it’s just a joyful night, I’m really hoping that everything gets to move forward with it. I think people will be pleasantly surprised by how endearing and good the piece is. I love Huey Lewis and I hope to get to sing his music on Broadway.
You played Elder Price in the Book of Mormon, what was the best part of that experience?
The cast, for sure. I mean, just coming into that group of people. A lot of the original cast members are still there. I got to work with Nikki M. James.There was such a family backstage at that show. It was a really, really good group of people. It’s a big wonderful smash hit and they treat their actors well there, and they keep them very happy and you felt that there. We were well taken care of and we were getting to do some of the best material ever put on a Broadway stage, and it was just a wonderful place to work. I can’t say enough good things about it, it never was a burden and there never really was drama there, just because there shouldn’t be, not when you get to do something that’s ridiculously fun.
Do you find it harder to create an original role or go on as a replacement?
Replacing, without a doubt. Creating a role is a challenge because it’s exhausting, creating is harder to do just in terms of getting there and actually getting into Broadway. I’ve had a lot of close calls, and not really been able to create that big role yet, and a lot of cancelled projects on the way. There is always an out of town run and the development can be really really slow, but replacing, you’re thrown into it. A lot of times you’re chosen because you’re kind of like the person that played it before you. So you never really get to flush it out in the way that you would if you had originated it. You are always feeling like you’re a bit of an empty shell version of the person that you were replacing. The producer doesn’t necessarily want you to bring your own things to the role. They want you to be like the person that played it before, so that can be hard and I think it’s hard to play this balance. What the fans of the show vs. what you can bring to it, what producers want vs. what the fans want. It gets very complicated and tricky when you’re originating something and you’re creating it. You’re there because they want you, and they want everything that you bring to the table. That usually feels better because you can trust that everything that you’re doing is right, because you were hired to do it.
What was the best advice you can give someone who wants to pursue a career in Broadway?
Stick with it. I mean seriously, I find that every single day. I’ve done a lot of work since Mormon and my goal was to not replace as much and get to do new projects and things that I was really interested. But I remind myself every single day, you just have to keep going. You have to stay with it. There’s always going to be heartbreak and cancelled projects along the way no matter where you are in your career.
Every single time that I’ve thought, “oh I’m comfortable now, this feels good, it’s gonna be easier now,” it never is. It’s all relative and it’s always difficult, so you have to have the really really tough skin to stay in this business and you have to make sure that you love it more than anything else. If that’s true, then yes, I think you can do it, you will succeed. But if you don’t have tough skin, it’s going to be really really rough, because no matter how good and great you are, there are always going to be hard times.
I have friends that win Tony Awards, and the most difficult years they find is usually the year after they win the Tony because they just don’t know what to do next. It’s always tough.
What’s your favorite thing about New York?
I would say the sense of community. I’ve tried L.A. I think that’s the other option for actors if you want to be in one of the major cities. It feels very scattered and you really need to create a client for yourself up there, but as soon as I got to New York and started doing readings and auditions at a very young age (I was about nineteen years old,) I started meeting some of my heroes straight off the bat, very quickly. It’s a small tight family here, the theater community, and we all know one another and care for one another for the most part. I think like any little community it can be a little catty and silly at times, but for the most part, we really have each other’s back. That’s something I really respect about the theater community, is that we stick up for one another, and we all recognize that what we’re doing is not easy and takes a lot of guts to stay around. So there is respect for one another that I always I’ve always really appreciated being here in New York.