We make friends in our youth, sometimes not knowing what will become of each other once the tassel has been flipped and the cap has been thrown into the air. Then, years later, the opportunity to snag a long overdue hug arises. Two friends find themselves thrown back into the past for a brief moment before gaining a new sense of pride and perspective for what the other has gone through over the years.
Disclaimer: The following interview was extremely mesmerizing and very challenging to edit as I found myself not wanting to leave anything out. So, I encourage you to grab your favorite cup of coffee or tea, nestle into a comfy chair and prepare to be inspired.
Woven into the artistic tapestry of talent that makes up Disney’s The Lion King The Musical is a very dear friend of mine, Matthew S. Morgan (Matt). When I heard that he would be performing nearby in the national tour of the musical production, I made every effort to find a way to see him and catch up on his “charmed” life.
My oldest son and I arrived at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, just before the first show of the day was concluding on March 5th , and, oh, my gosh ~ we were freezing! The warm spring tease had just ended and Mother Nature was starting to show us her wild mood swings once again. Matt had texted me when the matinee performance was over and invited us to step in through the Stage Door to stay warm while he changed out of his costume. I’ll tell you ~ it was its own experience to simply stand beyond the door, staring at the walls of the PPAC adorned with paintings of various shows that performed there, each design decorated with the signatures of cast members who had participated in each of their respective productions.
When my dear friend popped out from around the corner, we wasted no time in giving each other that huge hug! Matt is a sweetheart and has a love for his friends old and new that is unconditional and incomparable to others. He has an immense appreciation for those that come into his life at various times and believes that everyone he meets becomes a part of his life’s journey.
Once the embraces were checked off the to-do list, Matt guided us to the stage where the magic takes place once or twice a day. All the way, Braedon and I were peeking into rooms to get a sense of what it was like backstage in a real theater. Rafiki, Scar and Pumbaa were still in costume, so it was mesmerizing to glance as they passed us in the hall. Matt took a few minutes to explain the set and how the tour differs from the Broadway Company in that the tour’s stage floor itself has to be transported everywhere they go (versus being a permanent fixture at Minskoff Theater on Broadway). The floor they transport has guided lines and designs on it unique to this particular show. To see how small the area that houses the entire set is was shocking and yet everything has its place, a number and a location where it lives unless it is being used during the performance. Matt then praised the small city that travels with them for taking such great care and paying such close attention to the precision required in pulling off a production like this. There are approximately 115 to 120 cast and crew members working this show at all times, both permanent tour members and local hires. My oldest was glaring up, down, inside and out. He was enthralled.
TRAVELING BACK IN TIME…
Matt and I go way back – and I mean WAYYY back into our single digits. The earliest memories we have were of attending a local Sunday School or even a summer camp together for at least a year or two. We also participated in a gifted and talented program that offered a theater track. Matt feels this is where the nurturing began, where his love for the stage was born. As we reached high school, we saw each other nearly every day in the music department, where so many of us lived and breathed music and drama as if it was our life source. Those were good days…good days. But that wasn’t the end for Matt. High school performing arts was nearly a stepping stone to where he would go next.
We took a quick selfie while on the stage and then walked down into the audience, where we found a spot third row center, directly in front of the orchestra pit. We nestled in, I started the recorder and we began to reminisce some more.
From my big black bag, I pulled out my senior yearbook from 1991. In between those pages, there were two very special memories captured of the two of us. One of them was of the Thanksgiving Day football game where I was Drum Major for the marching band during the halftime show and Matt was donning the mascot attire, dancing and prancing around as the Platt Panther. The picture freezes a moment in time between us where Matt had me in near hysterics as he danced around me while the band played.
Our history together also includes a handful of theatrical productions, including Leader of the Pack, South Pacific and Sorry Wrong Number. As we reconnected over these memories, Matt quickly brought up a moment during the Leader of the Pack performance where he and I were in a “make-out scene” together and he had to push our “rollaway car” off the stage. In the process of doing so, we created a beautifully timed blooper where my backend hit the floor – on the beat, mind you – after having “fallen out of the car!” Ahh – such fantastic memories!
We have one other unique opportunity we shared together as teenagers ~ a student-organized group called Outcasts where a crew of 15 to 20 high school students managed everything from choreography to writing to directing to publicity. We performed peer pressure plays and traveled around to various schools in our area. It was a tremendous team effort and really offered us the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, friendship, creativity and support, not to mention forgiveness and grace! It was heartwarming to hear Matt call it a “great experience in life” and that he still connects with a lot of the members who had been involved.
INTEREST AND INFLUENCE
Even though I had my questions were out and ready, I really didn’t need them. It was as if Matt had done this before (silly me!) or knew exactly what I wanted to know. One of the first things I wanted to explore was who Matt considered to be some of the strongest influences in his life and it was no surprise that he rattled off two very familiar names, our two music teachers from high school.
“Definitely Mr. (Bill) Peters and Mr. (Tom) Maloney. They were just wonderful people who, the first time they met me, which was in eighth grade, basically took me under their wing and introduced me to a lot of music and a lot of…singing and band and the whole world that has led to me being here. It was one of those things where I was very much looking for that outlet.”
NOTE: Mr. Maloney, now retired, still keeps in contact with several of his music department students and still has his witty sense of humor about him. We sadly and unexpectedly lost our dear Mr. Peters in the mid 1990s and he is tremendously missed by all those influenced by his uniquely sarcastic and endearing commitment to his students and band music.
Matt also had family support from a very early age. Anytime he needed to be at an audition or rehearsal, his family drove him without question. He shared with me this cherished memory from between his junior and senior year of high school where he had an opportunity to audition for a nearby theater company.
“This director…came from Plainville High and he was going to be doing A Chorus Line that summer at Plainville Summer Stock. He saw me do ‘Billis’ (in South Pacific) and he…asked me if I wanted to come and audition for them. It was like my first semi-professional thing and, so…I had head-shots done and all this stuff. My father drove me…and we had been talking, listening to Billy Holliday. He drove the wrong way and then we got lost and, you know, we ended up getting there. I was really nervous. I was extremely nervous and I didn’t want to get out of the car. It was very crazy and my father looked at me and said…, ‘I did not drive all this way for you to sit in the car.’ He was like, ‘Get out. Even if you go in and fail and you don’t get it, it’s okay. You have to try.’ He was like, ‘It’s worth it.’ So I got out and I tried and I booked it.”
Matt then continued on, talking about how, along the path in life, you meet these amazing folks who will bolster you up to where you need to be.
“I was surrounded by amazing and talented folks who were doing this art as a career. They showed me it could be done. If you really love theater and you want to do it, then find a way to do it. This road does not always lead to huge, massive productions such as The Lion King, Hairspray or Rent (three of the major productions in which Matt has been involved), but…you can find your joy in community theaters, as well.”
REACHING NEW YORK CITY
From there, Matt went on to do more summer stock programs and theatrical productions in college, as well as local community theater. He kept up his skills as he knew that this was what he wanted for his life.
It was while living near the coastline of Connecticut in the winter of 1998 when a friend encouraged him to try out for RENT, thinking he would be a perfect fit for the cast. He began to research the show and how to audition for such a large production. He purchased the CD and listened to the soundtrack over and over and over again – and that was all before iPhones and YouTube. He found out when and where auditions were being held and he went down to NYC, feeling like a big fish in a small pond; however, this experience changed his entire perspective as he realized that the scenario was more like being a “big fish in a huge pond with a lot of (other) big fish.” Only the pond got smaller and the fish got bigger.
His first audition, as he remembers it, was on a very cold day and he wasn’t quite sure where the auditions were being held specifically. When he arrived at the doorway and asked if he was in the right place, he was then instructed that the line for auditions ended around an entire NYC block. He stuck with it, however, and finally made his way in for an audition.
“If you don’t have stability, the mindset to comprehend that, it could be a little overwhelming.”
He was allowed eight bars of music to sing and was immediately corrected on the lyrics. He held his confidence, accepted the criticism and was then asked to return for a callback at 3:30 PM. That was the beginning of perhaps a yearlong string of callbacks, much different than Community Theater where you find out pretty much within a day or two whether you have the part. Nonetheless, his patience and his move to the East side paid off and ultimately led to Matt’s booking his first major production in the national tour of the rock musical, RENT, in 2001.
Matt went on to tour with RENT for two years before heading “off to the races.” He returned and, two months later, booked Hairspray in Toronto. Originally cast in the ensemble and as the understudy to “Seaweed Stubbs,” Matt was offered a tremendous opportunity when a complication arose for the individual who had been cast in the primary role. When the actor was no longer able to perform with the show (something about a callback for a role in a little play called, Wicked), Matt was able to take on the role of Seaweed Stubbs full-time.
FINDING HIS WAY INTO THE SAVANNA
Prior to Hairspray closing in 2009, Matt had been seen by John Stefaniuk, the associate director of The Lion King production. John knew of Matt’s talent and called him in to audition for the role of Banzai in Disney’s musical production of The Lion King. This audition renewed the whole cycle Matt experienced with RENT and he went through a series of callbacks that strung out over the years. Fortunately, he was still doing Hairspray and had a job. He also came from a mindset of “as long as you are trying and auditioning and really keeping your head in the game, you will make it.” That’s what he did. When he wasn’t on stage performing, he wasn’t afraid to wait tables or work as a maître d, which ultimately helped make some great connections and taught him to be humble and appreciative of the things that were happening in his life. “It’s all blessings,” Matt says. It took approximately three years of callbacks until he heard something definitive.
Matt was able to book The Lion King before Hairspray closed and he was headed to the Vegas Company for two years (2009-20111). After his run in Vegas, he returned home to New York City, where he was immediately contacted by the Powers That Be and asked to go on the National Tour with the production. He filled in for a few weeks there and returned home once again. While back in the City, Matt found himself landing a cast member position in the Broadway Company of The Lion King and this has been his journey since his return in 2009..bouncing back and forth between the National Tour and the Broadway Company.
THE LIFE ON TOUR
For Matt, touring is very easy. The Disney Theatrical Group takes great care of its cast members. I then asked Matt where the tour has taken him, as well as to share his favorite and least favorite places he has been. He has actually been in every state except one (Wyoming, in the absence of a strong theatrical community there) and shared stories of being in various towns. His favorite place was clear and without question, a 10 to 12 week tour performing in Hawaii (Oahu). During that stay, he and several friends took opportunity to go on one of the “forbidden hikes” up the staircase (approximately 4,998 stairs of varying degrees of steepness) built by the Army Corps of Engineers. The hike was not without its obstacles and treacherous moments, but, once at the top, the view of the sun and the entire island was spectacular and breathtaking. It is a memory he will hold in his heart forever…particularly now that the “hike” has been decimated by rains and hurricanes that have ransacked Hawaii over the last few years.
When asked where he would label his least favorite stop on his tour, Matt had a difficult time at first coming up with an answer. In fear of sounding cliché, he genuinely talked about how he really loves this country and feels there are so many beautiful things to see and so many small towns to explore. When pressed just a bit, however, he noted his least favorite stay was likely in Dayton, Ohio….not because it was a terrible place to stay, but more because it was older and more industrial and had little to offer in the way of exploration. He also only spent two of the five weeks there with the show.
HIS TIME ON THE SAVANNA
I then asked my dear friend about the roles he has been able to undertake in his current production. Matt has understudied for Simba and Banzai and is a regular in the ensemble. He also plays “swing,” which is typically an individual who stays off stage, but is ready to jump in at a moment’s notice should an actor in any track (or role) fall ill, get hurt and become unable to perform. He knows approximately 14 ensemble tracks in the production between the Broadway Company and National Tour. He also knows how to manipulate various puppets and can take on such roles as the wildebeest, rhino, antelope and elephant. At the time of our interview, he was working in the elephant track, a costume that weighs approximately 107 lbs.
TIDBIT: The heaviest individual costume is that worn by Pumba, whose costume is approximately 148 lbs and designed like a backpack. One of the more intricate individual costumes is worn by Scar, approximately 45 lbs and made out of leather. It also has mechanics (motors) as a part of its design. (Correction, 04/19/17: “Pumbaa’s” costume weighs 48 lbs, not 148 lbs. That makes quite a bit of difference! Yikes!)
As noted above, Matt has been understudy to Simba in certain performances and has actually had the fortunate privilege of taking on the role, donning the warrior style headgear, in all three locations – in Vegas, on tour and on Broadway. Simba is a tough role in that, once he hits the stage in the second act, he is there for its entirety – no bathroom breaks! One needs to plan accordingly in that situation!
THE PRODUCTION ITSELF
When asked about a typical day for a cast member, Matt said it was nothing out of the ordinary. He is an early riser by nature. He eats breakfast, likely does some kind of activity to maintain his health and stamina and then “chills” until performance time. He begins to prep at home a few hours before the show and is required to be at the theater a half hour before the curtain goes up. Most of the roles he plays do not require extensive make-up, so he does not have to show up an hour or more before the show. Those in roles that require more make-up and wear more intricate costumes are required to be there much earlier (some never leaving between performances).
One of Matt’s favorite parts of being in this production is watching the audience as the cast members fill the aisles during a performance. Even fathers are found with tears streaming down their cheeks, in awe at what they see. Matt says moments like these inspire the cast, giving them energy to perform.
Our time was beginning to wind down and activity was beginning to pick up in the theater. Sound checks, set prep and theater maintenance were all beginning to happen and we needed to begin moving ourselves toward the stage door again. It was then that Matt began to share how much of a family the cast and crew really are – how they have days where they don’t want to talk to each other and days where they are each other’s best friends. There are children around and families that travel together. It gives each of the cast members a perspective of being a part of something bigger. Matt described it like traveling with a small city.
When asked if he had a preference with regard to being on the road or at home, he was quick to state,
“I like to be home. I like to be in New York… I mean, I’m happy being out here. I love these people, but I love the people on Broadway, too. “
We made our way backstage and Matt explained to us in greater detail how everything has a place and nothing is ever rearranged. Each cast member has a specific prop and never diverts. Everything is organized and, once used, it goes immediately back to where it belongs so that, after they finish the show and bow, they should be able to literally start the show from the beginning.
ADVICE FROM THE SAVANNA
I wanted to leave on a specific note. I wanted to hear what Matt holds in his heart as the best advice he has ever received and then what advice would he want to leave with someone like my son.
Best advice given:
“Never give up” – something that has been told to him multiple times throughout the years. “If you want it, go get it.”
He was quick to add another piece of advice from another friend.
“Do not have a backup plan, a fallback plan. If I have something to fall back on, I’ll fall back on it.”
This is the only thing Matt has wanted….do to theater, to perform. He has never had anything else he has wanted to do other than this.
Best advice to give: He was quick to repeat the advice from above.
“If you want it, go for it. If you want it, go for it.” Yes, he emphatically repeated this twice. “No matter what it is that you want…whether it is a job, whether it is something that you want to do. Whatever it is, if you want it, really want it, go for it because the only regret you will have is not trying.”
He went on to say that, if you love theater and have no access to opportunities such as New York City or if it’s not in your community, then do it yourself. I immediately took that to heart as that is why and how Outcasts came to be during our high school years. Talk about coming full circle!!
As we reached the Stage Door, he left us with this (and some great pictures I will cherish forever).
“The experience is worth it only if you remember those who lift you and those who hold you down. You don’t ever do anything on your own…There are no little people. You all go with me wherever I go.”
The people Matt has met throughout his life have taught him how to persevere, to be a gentleman, to pick his battles, to stay the course and to love like there is no other feeling in the world.
A small town boy making it big on Broadway ~ a path paved by determination, passion, persistence and blessing. I could not be more proud of my friend, Matt, for pursuing his dreams and making them become a reality. Even during this small time with him, he inspired me and reminded me of some very precious memories and dreams.
I cannot thank Matt enough for taking the time in between performances to share such amazing memories, stories and advice with me and my son. Huge thanks to the Providence Performing Arts Center and the Powers That Be with Disney’s The Lion King Production National Tour for allowing me the opportunity to sit with my friend and learn about his spectacular experiences.
Now ~ on with the show! Stay tuned for my review of Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway in the coming weeks and be sure to follow our adventure on Footprints in Pixie Dust on Facebook as we explore New York City later this month!
Until the next footprint is made…. ~ T
PS – I was in no way compensated for my time spent with Matt and I received absolutely no benefits except that of spending time with a friend during this interview.
For tickets to see Disney’s The Lion King The Musical: