Native Angelino Matt Wolpe has been busy this past year touring the country with Once, the Tony-winning Best Musical Of 2012, now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts. Not only did this reviewer get to see and write about Matt’s Opening Night performance as Billy, his latest tour shop allowed me to catch up with Matt. Here’s our conversation.
Hi Matt. One of my first interview questions is usually something about how my interviewee got bit by the show biz bug, but rarely do I interview someone who quite literally grew up “in the biz.” Did having a dad [Lenny Wolpe] starring on Broadway and making multiple TV appearances influence your decision to pursue a career in theater and music?
I get this question a lot. In fact both of my parents were in the business for many years. My mother now is a teacher in NYC and my father is still doing his thing on Broadway and beyond. It’s sort of “the family business” if you will.
Did you ever consider following a different path?
I actually originally wanted to be a jazz drummer and my parents were very supportive of all the crazy paths I have taken. My father is a role model for me in the business. He is one of the classiest, most professional and talented guys out there. So at this point I’m just trying to follow in his wonderful footsteps. I couldn’t escape “the family business.” Luckily I love it too.
Like a lot of talented Angelinos, you attended the Hamilton Academy of Music, one of the city’s top arts high schools, then went on to attend both The Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music for Musical Theatre and Songwriting respectively. Have you been more passionate about one of these goals than the other?
The only challenge is trying to juggle both careers. Being successful in music or acting is like winning the lotto. So, to try and do both has always been a challenge. With this show, and more like it coming every day, I get to do both. I’ll always be able to write music, whether I’m on the road with a musical or a band, so that’s a huge plus to writing your own material on the side. You always have something to work on and play.
You’d already built up quite a Southern California résumé before landing the Once tour. Was landing a major Broadway National Tour something you’d been dreaming of?
This has been a fabulous adventure indeed! As soon as I saw the show in New York, I said to myself “I’ve gotta be in this.” It’s just such a beautiful piece of theater, and the instruments and music… So the tour was something I had always hoped would happen for me, and luckily all the pieces fell into place.
How have you enjoyed the experience so far?
I love the road, and more importantly I love the people on this tour. We’ve done everything from brewery tours to renting boats.
Since each and every cast member plays one or more musical instruments throughout Once, I’d imagine that your Berklee training came in handy. Is this the first time you’ve done anything quite like Once?
I’ve actually done Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and other musicals in this vein before.
Which I saw you in at the La Mirada Theatre a few years ago!
Obviously nothing is quite like Once, but I’ve had my fair share over the years of playing instruments in shows. Believe it or not, I really only played guitar and piano at Berklee. It’s been my fascination with new instruments over the last few years that has helped me. Every year I try to pick up another instrument, just for fun. In this case it worked out very nicely.
Once The Musical may share the same storyline and songs as the movie Once, but its execution couldn’t be more different. How would you compare the two Onces?
The big difference to me is the additional characters. In the movie there’s really only the Guy and Girl. In the musical you have a real expanded catalog of characters. And that’s a big plus. It really adds a lot of dimension and heart.
The Once cast is not only onstage throughout both acts but also before the show performing alongside audience members up there to purchase pre-show drinks. What is it like to be onstage throughout Once?
Well we do get intermission off. But other than that, yes, we are basically on stage the entire show. It’s wonderful because you have to be fully connected the entire performance. The only down side is if you had too much water before hand. Pee breaks are few and far between…
You’ve got a unique gig in Once. You’re understudying five different roles though your job is more like that of a standby since you only go onstage when one of those five actors is out. I’d imagine that this has involved a lot of waiting in the wings, but at the same time has offered you the chance to play a variety of characters (and instruments) in a single show. What has the understudy experience been like for you?
This is my first understudy gig so far. And yes it is more of a standby gig because we aren’t onstage when we aren’t on. I like to think of the six of us as musical Elphaba standbys, hah! Our pre-show songs (the jam session before the show) change every night, and we keep adding new ones. So, we always have stuff to be working on backstage. Keeping sharp and busy playing music and watching the show also consumes a lot of our “down time.”
Do you have a favorite among the roles you’ve gone on as so far?
My favorite role to play is the part I got to open here in Costa Mesa, Billy. He’s a got a lot to do and say, and brings a lot of laughs and smiles to audience.
I discovered you back in 2010 and awarded you a Best Lead Actor Scenie for your sensational performance as Freddy in an L.A. production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, then went on to see you in other local productions. How do you react when someone refers to the L.A. theater scene as an “afterthought?” (That’s the word Rob Lowe uses to describe it in his memoir.)
The great part about L.A. theater is that everyone doing it really really wants to do it. There’s not enough money out there to make a theater career in L.A. It’s all about genuine interest and doing good work. That’s what makes the theater scene in L.A. so special. It’s way more about passion than business. I will miss that when I move to New York.
Can you talk a bit about your music? You’ve got a couple of albums available for download, have been nominated and won awards for your songwriting, and have performed your own live show in L.A. How do you describe your music and where would you like to see this aspect of your career take you?
My music is pop-rock with some American indie folk mixed in. Each album has a voice and vibe of its own. My band Matt Wolpe and The Bedside Romeos will actually be making a brand new album in November in L.A. and we will probably do another show at Molly Malones as well. Our live shows really rock the house. We’ve even got a great sax player now and are being compared to new version of the E Street Band.
Where can fans find out about the latest from Matt Wolpe and The Bedside Romeos?
All new band and other info can be found on MattWolpe.com.
Are there any other forms of writing on the horizon for you?
I’m also starting to get into writing for theater which I am very excited about. Creating your own work is always the most thrilling to me, so keep your ears open for more, always.
You’ve been able to spend a lot of the summer in Southern California with Once, finishing out with the two-week Costa Mesa run. How has it been being back home?
When I found out we were playing L.A. for a month I jumped for joy! Literally! I wrote a list for the cast of my favorite things here: Malibu, Larchmont, California Chicken Café, etc. It was also really great to have a couple weeks that I knew I got to go on here due to vacations. All my old friends, family, and teachers from Hamilton could come see me, and that was really special.
Matt, having seen and admired your work over the past several years, I couldn’t be happier that you’ve gotten this gig! And it was a real thrill to get to see you play Billy and write about your performance on Opening Night! Once again, congratulations, and best wishes for the future!
Matt’s Once bio:
MATT WOLPE U/S ANDREJ, ŠVEC, EAMON, EMCEE, BILLY
Regional: Ensemble Theatre, Kirk Douglas, Pasadena Playhouse, Sacramento Music Circus, La Mirada. Matt attended The Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. He’s also an accomplished songwriter. Love and thanks to Mom, Pops, Saunders/Wolpe crew and Gage. Info and music: MattWolpe.com.
Click here to purchase tickets to Jersey Boys, playing through August 31 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, Costa Mesa.