Matt Sax: Shakespeare Meets Hip Hop at The New York Public Theater

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Matt Sax wants me to know that his musical has gotten louder. I saw Venice (which he wrote with Eric Rosen) at New York’s Public Theater in previews, but like every artist, he’s more excited about where his work is now, and where it’s going, than where it was then. “I think you saw the first preview actually,” he says, “and we’ve made tons and tons of changes. It’s interesting, the process of letting people see and hear it. Feeling the energy in the room has been very, very helpful. We’ve turned the music up, so you can feel it more. One of the things I’ve always loved about the show is that it’s a very visceral experience; you really feel the energy of the story through the energy of the music. Now you actually feel the show a lot more in your chest.”

Sax doesn’t need to worry; I felt the show plenty during the preview, and I wasn’t the only one. Venice has theater critics abuzz about the future of musical theater, with its Shakespearean echoes; eclectic, of-the-moment music; and hi-tech minimalist staging. But it makes sense that Sax would be spearheading such an exciting exploration into the possibilities of the form. He grew up on a steady diet of New York theatre, having been born in the city and raised not far away, in Westchester. “The opportunity to see plays and musicals at a very young age was always there,” he remembers, “and it was always special because it was really expensive. Every year on my birthday, or for special occasions, we would go to see plays or musicals. And even at a very young age I could never sit back and just enjoy and observe. I would imagine myself in the role and figure out how I could play it and do things differently.”

He was also heavily influenced early on by his father’s classic rock collection—The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. But what really made an impact was his introduction to hip hop. “I bought Biggie’s album Ready to Die, and it shook my entire world. I was astounded by both the rhythm of the speech and the way in which he had the ability to bend and twist words. And certainly the beats. All that stuff blew my mind, and I haven’t looked back since. In those early days I listened to The Roots and Outkast and Mos Def and all of these guys were kind of my first entrée into the world of hip hop, and then I went back and listened to what came before them, and it’s been a huge, huge part of my life ever since.”

That hip-hop influence certainly shows in the music for Venice, as many of the characters speak in rap cadences, particularly the Clown, played by Sax himself, who climbs and jumps and slinks and slouches like some bastard child of John Malkovich’s Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liasons and The Cat in the Hat. It’s a bravura performance, and the role is particularly suited to Sax’s intriguing physical and vocal presence. “I think it’s really, really fun,” Sax says, “to dive into it as a performer, to really explore the physicalness of the piece with Chase Brock, our choreographer, and to figure out how he moves around the space, and also, what that voice is. What is the voice of someone who is telling this particular story for this particular time. It’s a very active experience, a really, really fun thing to perform.”

The Clown character also occupies an interesting space thematically, much as Shakespeare’s Fools do in many of the Bard’s plays. “As we started writing it,” he remembers, “we realized that we could really use a narrator presence, somebody inside the frame but also outside the frame. And that felt very tailored to what I do as a performer. Because I am the writer, I can be in the frame and be in the story and with other actors, but then I can also be outside the story and telling the story and shifting the story and making it move. The reason we call him The Clown is not because he has a red nose and not because he has pigs feet. What clowns symbolized, certainly in Shakespeare and in the royal court, is someone that was both within and without. Someone who was both part of high society, in that he was invited to all of those events, but also someone that lived in and amongst the people as well. So what does it mean for this clown character to be both inside this story and also outside the story, to be both able to relate to characters—to our most privileged characters—but to also be able to relate to the have-nots in our show as well. So he has really taken on all of those roles in a really interesting way, and it’s a really fun thing to play because he is simultaneously the narrator. He is also the author of the thing that we are watching.”

That kinship to Shakespeare is daring, but it’s also not accidental. It takes a lot of bravado to attempt a work of Shakespearian aspiration, but it’s what Sax and Rosen discussed from the outset. “I think right from the very beginning we knew we wanted it to be Shakespearean-influenced, and not necessarily because of specific story points but because of the scope. I believe that all theaters should be raised to the level of ghosts and gods, which means it should be raised to a very grand scale. It can be theatrical. It is called the theatre because it is theatrical, because it has the capacity to tell stories in unique ways and also tell unique stories in big ways. And I think those parallels to specific Shakespeare plays, specific Greek tragedies, you know those kind of grand-scale, epic stories, those were something that we were really inspired by, and I think can be really captured in a very, very interesting way in the theater, specifically. That was always an inspiration for us when we were coming up with the world of this show and what it means to be in the world of this show.”

It’s a daring statement, a young man’s statement, a reach-for-the-stars kind of statement. But with Venice, Sax is backing it up.

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