Today we are talking to a Broadway baby with a string of hit shows to his credit - CATS, A CHORUS LINE, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, THE WHO'S TOMMY, CHICAGO and more included - as well as smash solo albums of his own, such as his sensational new release CHANGE BEGINS WITH ME; the one and only triple threat himself, Matt Zarley. In this extensive interview, he shares all about the shoot for the three music videos - previous and upcoming - for the first three singles on his new dance album - "WTF", "Perfect" and "Trust Me" included - as well as all about the songwriting process for the album and how he came to create it in the first place. Additionally, Zarley shares his thoughts on Broadway now versus when he started out in the late-80s, Gillian Lynne versus Michael Bennett, as well as candid opinions on GLEE, his own personal favorite shows and scores, fellow co-stars' careers over the years, his own biggest musical influences, his charity, the Broadway Rocks Anaheim concert, what's next for him - and much, much more!
More information about CHANGE BEGINS WITH ME is available at Matt Zarley's official site here.
A Chance To Dance - And Sing
PC: Did you get to work with Michael Bennett at all when you went into A CHORUS LINE, your Broadway debut?
MZ: I didn't, honestly. He passed away like a year a half before I went into the show. But, Bob Avian hired me and put me into the show.
PC: He is such a nice guy. What was it like working with him?
MZ: Yeah, he was really sweet. I was like 19 when I did it. I was really young and it was just an amazing experience. I still physically remember my opening night - just turning around and facing out and all the history; you could just feel it.
PC: Was performing that opening combination just thrilling?
MZ: Oh, that was amazing! You know, the first away from the mirror when you're out on stage in the Shubert Theater - it was just unbelievable.
PC: What did you think about the modernizing of the show at a certain point?
MZ: Well, they had gone back to the original designs when I did it. I think they realized that it was better as a period piece. It was definitely back in the period by the time I did the show and it had been for a while. I think they only kept it current for the first few years from what I know.
PC: What was the tour of CATS like - that being your show going into CHORUS LINE? Gillian Lynne's choreography versus Michael Bennett's?
MZ: Well, again, I was just so young at the time - I was living a fantasy and it was crazy. And, it was amazing. [Pause.] You know, CATS is tough - and I'm glad I did it when I did it because doing that show eight times a week is so difficult. I think the rake makes it even more difficult, especially given how the choreography is and how steep the rake is. You know, Michael Bennett's work is much more suited to the way I like to dance - and more into the ground. I mean, his stuff is very guy-oriented, I think - specifically, short-guy-oriented.
PC: Just like he was. How interesting.
MZ: Yeah, I'm only 5'9, so it suited my body type better than CATS. It was really thrilling for me to be able do both, though.
PC: Michael Bennett choreographed his dances for himself, too - even DREAMGIRLS. He always did them best.
MZ: It's so funny you say that because the guys backstage - all the short, athletic jazz dancers - would always do Cassie's dance with her when she did it. [Laughs.]
PC: Who was Grizabella in that tour of CATS?
MZ: Leslie Ellis. She is a big songwriter in Nashville now.
PC: How has Broadway changed in the 20 years or so since you did CHORUS LINE, in your opinion?
MZ: [Sighs.] It's very different. You know, it's just a very different mentality in general. I think that the bar has been raised as far as people's technical ability - and I think there are amazing things some of the dancers can do that I don't know if we could do back in the day. But, to me - and I've talked to several people of my generation about this; fellow dancers - and we are all sort of in agreement that there is a certain disconnect about it, though, too. We had a much deeper connection to what the piece was in some ways and the story that was being told and I feel that is sometimes that is missing - it's almost like a shortcut way to get to things.
PC: A certain affectation.
MZ: Yeah, I think there is a sort of disconnect between what the song is actually communicating and saving all the embellishments for when it's organic and appropriate... does that make sense?
MZ: Yeah, I mean, dancers now are so incredible - you watch SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE? and they are like athletes! It's just incredible. It might just be a generational thing for me to feel how I do about it.
PC: Do you feel there is a whole new generation of theatre fans thanks to GLEE and the reality competition shows?
MZ: Oh, yeah, definitely - and I actually just did something for SMASH.
PC: That pilot was simply awesome. What are you doing on SMASH?
MZ: Yeah, it's totally by coincidence, but, my producer - who has been my producer for all my albums; Andy - is producing the pop stuff for the show.
PC: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs for it are sublime - especially the last one in the pilot.
MZ: Yeah, they are. I think Andy produced some of the songs for the pilot. But, yeah - Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee's duet is really great.
PC: What did you do on the show?
MZ: I did some studio stuff out here in LA. I worked on some of the pop stuff - I did "Call Me".
PC: Blondie and Giorgio Moroder - how utterly apt! It's going to be so phenomenal.
MZ: Yeah, I am doing it as a duet, actually - just session vocals, but I sing the male part. In general, I am really very excited about the show.
PC: How great that you are involved! What do you think of GLEE?
MZ: Oh, I have a song suggestion for GLEE - the title track from my album, "Change Begins With Me"! [Laughs.]
PC: It would be a very good choice. Who did you write that song with?
MZ: It's a guy named Chris Curtis - he wrote the Charlie Chaplin musical that they did at La Jolla last year. It was really amazing, actually. So, Chris and I wrote the song and we have been trying to get it to Ryan Murphy. I think he is on my music page, but I don't personally know him really.
PC: He's such a visionary. It would be great for Lea Michele or Chris Colfer to do that song.
MZ: Oh, yeah - definitely. Or both! I'd love the whole cast to come in at the end. I tbhink it would be great.
PC: I'm curious: living in LA, what do you think of the whole theatre scene out there? It seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.
MZ: It's such an odd thing out here - I think that some things are actually happening, too. It's interesting - I mean, I haven't been super-active in the LA theatre community, really, but I have done a couple of shows. It just feels a little inconsistent because you can't make a living doing theatre in LA like you can in New York. But, I think there is a huge desire for it to get better, though, because there are a lot of people here with a lot of talent.
PC: What do you think of the current state of the recording industry and how the business has changed in the decade you have had your solo music career?
MZ: Well, my first album was when I was signed to Universal and, now, financially, I make so much more headway on my own. And, the internet sort of puts everyone on a level playing field, too, I think. I have also been making a little money licensing my songs, which has been fun, and I have been started to be covered by artists overseas.
PC: How interesting.
MZ: Yeah, actually, one of my songs became a main theme in a film in Korea - the English translation of the movie's title is I DON'T NEED LOVE. But, it's weird, because music licensing is completely different in Asia - it's hard to regulate.
PC: What is the next step for your songwriting?
MZ: Well, the next step for me is, definitely, to write a musical.
PC: What style would you write it in, do you think?
MZ: Well, I really have wanted to do a musical of LOVE, ACTUALLY. I'd really love to do a small, 7-person NEXT TO NORMAL-ish type thing.
PC: Tom Kitt has actually done this column.
MZ: Oh, really? He is just the greatest guy ever.
PC: BRING IT ON! is coming, you know.
MZ: Yeah, it is opening here soon and I am going to see it in a couple of weeks. But, you know, he's just one of those people that you want to succeed just because he is the nicest, sweetest guy ever. He deserves all of his success - he really does.
PC: Are you a NEXT TO NORMAL fan?
MZ: I thought NEXT TO NORMAL was perfect. I think they really did an incredible job. Alice - we did TOMMY together - and she was just amazing. She always is.
PC: What do you think about it being RENT for a new generation in a way?
MZ: Oh, I actually like it more than RENT - and I think it's a much more adult show. Alice was just so amazing in it, though. To me, NEXT TO NORMAL is a musical theatre actor's dream show because you sing a great score and tell a great story. It would just be a dream show to be in.
PC: When was the first time you saw it?
MZ: I saw it on Broadway - and, then, I saw the tour.
PC: It must be awesome to see Alice's career from TOMMY until now for you.
MZ: Oh, yeah. Just unreal.
PC: Was that show a case of a cast being a across-the-board perfect; A to Z - literally?
MZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, I remember a group of us went to see it - I was in JOSEPH when it opened and I remember I went and saw it. I remember feeling like, "I just want to be a part of this experience in any way I possibly can." It was just so thrilling to me. Then, to get cast in it and get to do it for a year? I mean, that experience was really never equaled for me. I mean, I got to do "Pinball Wizard" and I got to play Tommy sometimes! It was just amazing.
MZ: Yeah, it was just an amazing experience.
PC: What was working with Pete Townshend like? He is known for being a bit moody.
MZ: Yeah, but he really wasn't. I think since the show had been running a while, he had become really lovely and nurturing by then. He was really sweet to me, actually. You know, I had also heard stories about Des being difficult and he was so great, too. It was an unusual experience in the fact that the cast that was assembled was so talented it was like every actor was a principal. Alice and Norm Lewis and Michael McElroy and on and on. I was really just so proud to be a part of it. I think I could have done it for another year if it ran - I was just so, so happy doing that show.
PC: Why did it close so soon? It could have run much longer, it seems.
MZ: I think, as a cast - for the most part - we felt like there should have been more commercial tie-ins; you know, with MTV and VH1.
PC: I agree.
MZ: We didn't understand why there wasn't more of that sort of thing happening to keep it going. Truth be told, that show should have run as long as RENT ran - and, I feel it's a far better show.
PC: The advertising was very odd - unique, but ineffective, ultimately.
MZ: Yeah, I don't know - it was right before the internet took off and maybe they could have used more of that type of an advertising platform. We all felt like they should have cast some celebrities - like a revolving door - I mean, the Acid Queen is only a 10-minute scene and out.
PC: That's so very true.
MZ: Get some commercials on MTV! You know, there are a lot of things they could have done to keep that show running. It didn't really ever have a life anywhere - it didn't run in London long and a lot of the Broadway cast was in talks to do it in Sydney, Australia, and then that just disappeared. It was really weird - one of those strange things that happens to shows sometimes.
PC: The subject matter is tough, though - especially the pedophilia and drugs.
MZ: Yeah, I have done it regionally a few times since then, too - I played Cousin Kevin out here.
PC: Another racy character!
MZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, Cousin Kevin I just loved playing. It was so much fun. He's so awful - he's so terrible. I think you are right, though - I think the subject matter turned off a lot of people. Maybe it's also that that was the first time that tone had been taken in a Broadway musical. RENT is pretty racy, too - but that had the Jonathan Larson story that caught on with the press and public and everything so maybe that made it easier to advertise.
PC: There was some anti-TOMMY press among rock critics at the time, too, which hurt the crossover appeal.
MZ: Yeah, and, what was interesting to me as a theatre person was that they seemed offended that it actually got better on Broadway - the more traditional storytelling really just simply improved the storyline and clarified it. I mean, I remember the first time I saw the movie I had no idea what was going on! [Laughs.]
PC: It was truly bizarre and of its time - but great, too. The Broadway show was its own thing and classic in its own way, though.
MZ: Definitely. Definitely. I had such a great experience doing it.
PC: So, what was shooting the glamorous "WTF" music video like for the first single?
MZ: That, too, was one of those great experiences for me. We shot it at my house and most of the people in it are not actors. The guy who plays my horrible boyfriend in the video is not an actor - he is a friend of mine and I knew he would photograph really well because he does a lot of fitness modeling and stuff; and, he is really silly and I knew the video had to be sort of stupid because of what it is about. It is all sort of a comment on the gay community and how body-obsessed it is and the younger/older guy thing - it's all a tongue-in-cheek play on that mentality. So, I needed people who would go with that mentality and not take it too seriously. It's sort of how Katy Perry and Pink do stuff - it's not meant to be taken too seriously. It was a really easy shoot and the guy who directed it directed my next video, too.
PC: Sounds great. What's the next single?
PC: Oh, really? "Forgive Me" screams single to me.
MZ: You know, you are the only person who has ever said that - and I have always thought that, too. I mean, "WTF" is not the best song on the album, but that is the song we always knew would get the attention. So, that was the strategy - do something fun that we haven't really done before and then go after the material with more meat. So, I really wanted it to be something sweet and simple after "WTF" - so, "Perfect" was just right.
PC: Tell me about the new music video for it.
MZ: Well, it's in black and white and the whole setting is basically my birthday barbeque - and it's all couples; there is a lesbian couple there and my partner and I and a couple friends and my brother and his wife and their kids. It's about how we are all different but we are united and we are the same when we come together for a common reason. It's really sweet and simple - and that's what the song is about, too.
PC: What is the third single?
MZ: "Trust Me" is the third single.
PC: So you are not releasing "Change Begins With Me" at all?
MZ: Well, here's the thing - it's because I am thinking more about the video and the crossover. If it was up to me, I would release "Apology", "Forgive Me" and "Change Begins With Me".
PC: Those are my favorite tracks, as well.
MZ: Yeah, but, "WTF" just placed at #36 on the dance charts in the UK, so I really feel like crossing over into other markets and getting the most bang for my buck that I can as an indie artist.
PC: What will the third video be like?
MZ: I think I want to do something really simple and elegant for "Trust Me" - maybe just me at a piano.
PC: What is your songwriting process, then? Do you write at a piano?
MZ: It's been different methods over the years - but, for this particular album I wrote some songs in Chicago and some songs I've been working on for years. I knew "Trust Me" would have the biggest chance of being a dance hit. When I was going to work on that with a guy in Chicago that I have known for years, I actually got inspired and wrote "WTF" on the plane on the way there.
PC: So, it was a relatively quick process to create the album, then?
MZ: Yeah - we did those two songs in like five days. I worked with Andy - my main producer - on the rest of the album and we finished it up in a few months. "Forgive Me" was next and I had some lyrics worked out. I don't really play well, so I usually sing it acapella when I work with someone. But, with this, in almost every case, I would have the lyrics worked out ahead of time and then Andy worked out the chords and then I would work out the verses and melisma and stuff based on those chords.
PC: The conversational discourse reminiscent of Pink is amply evident throughout - at least to my ears.
MZ: Yeah, there's a lot of Pink, and, also, Daughtry. I mean, there's always sort of the smooth vocal stuff - I don't have a scream-y voice; I have a lighter sound - but, I wanted the instrumentation to be harder, like Daughtry, to complement my smoother sounding voice. That's true on "Trust Me", especially. But, yeah - Pink is always an influence and Katy Perry has done some great stuff. Babyface, too.
PC: I hear Trey Songz, too.
MZ: Oh, yeah - I definitely have those influences. Stevie Wonder. But, also, I have another side - David Foster, especially. But, for me, a good melody is a good melody and whatever it is it will stand the test of time. If you can sit and play it just at a piano or with a guitar, then it will be as good in twenty years as it is today. Like Kelly Clarkson's new album - great songs; great singing; solid production. I'm not a fan of the whole Britney thing, really - you know, where the producer is more of the star.
PC: Speaking of great songwriting and production - tell me about doing CHESS, by the ABBA guys - Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus - and Sir Tim Rice.
MZ: Yeah, it's still weird for me to think about being in a chorus because I started out as a dancer. Even as a kid, I definitely always knew I wanted to sing and I wanted to record, but - I am sure you have heard this before - when you are cast as a dancer, it is very hard for people to take you seriously as a singer. So, it took some time for that to happen. I was so young - I was 17 when I got my first show - that I was always considered too young for most stuff. When I left New York when I was in my mid-20s, if I had stayed I probably would have gotten more singing roles and more would have happened. But, I left to do my music career and it took my life on a different course - but, there is a part of me that wonders what would have happened had I stayed in New York. I don't regret it - but, I wonder.
PC: You got to do a lot of great shows while you were there.
MZ: Oh, yeah - it was so, so great and I really got to do a lot of wonderful shows. I am very, very lucky.
PC: What was working with Rob Marshall on ANNIE like?
MZ: Oh, he is so dreamy - he is just the nicest person. I have done a couple things with him and he is the nicest guy.
PC: You did CINDERELLA with him, as well.
MZ: Yes, I did!
PC: Are you a fan of his film version of CHICAGO?
MZ: Oh, yeah. Actually, after my deal with Universal I got burned out and left the business for a minute - I moved back to California and I got my real estate license and everything. I just had been doing it since I was a kid and I needed some time away. I'm sure you've heard this before, but, as an actor, everything you just tend to take so personally. When you are at a transitional point in your career and things aren't maybe quite living up to your expectations or what you thought it would be like, you begin doubting yourself. I know Alice went through it, too - and I definitely went through it. You sort of have to check-out for a minute and then regroup. But, then, I got CHICAGO within a year from when I moved back to LA.
PC: What was your experience like doing CHICAGO live on tour?
MZ: Oh, it was the greatest experience - and, I just appreciated it so much. The show itself is so great. I did it with Bianca - who was just unreal. Gregory Harrison. Carol Woods. It was awesome.
PC: Great cast.
MZ: Yeah, it was only a 3-month contract - it was for the tour. They actually offered me the Broadway company, too, the week I got back to LA. You know, I had been up for the show many times prior to that when I lived in New York and they never cast me in the show. But, I turned it down to stay out here. You know, that three month experience on the tour was perfect to me.
PC: What stage role is next for you?
MZ: Oh, well, I wish I was a little younger so I could go and do BOOK OF MORMON! [Laughs.]
PC: Are you a fan of that show?
MZ: Oh, yeah. I loved it. I think I could do the father in PRISCILLA, too. But, honestly, I think I have a very weird perception of myself and I think people see me younger than I really am. I am not 6'1, either - so, I guess I am more sort of the Adam Pacal genre of casting, I think.
PC: Would you consider doing MEMPHIS, then? He just replaced Chad Kimball in it.
MZ: Oh, yeah - absolutely!
PC: What do you think of Lance Horne?
MZ: Oh, I love Lance's stuff - his partner and I have been friends for like 25 years. I don't know if we have ever met, but I went to Alan Cumming's show when he did it at the Geffen and Lance was there as his music director. It was just an incredible night and they were so great together.
PC: Cheyenne Jackson's song on the album is fantastic - "Strange Bird".
MZ: Oh, yeah - Cheyenne is so great.
PC: Don't you have a particular connection to him?
MZ: Yes, I do - I lost a job to him! [Laughs.] It was for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE - to cover both the guys; Marc Kudisch and Gavin Creel. And, Cheyenne got it - but, I really do think he's awesome. He's having a great career and I really applaud him and respect him - and he is so good and so talented. He's a really good, nice guy, too. I love seeing good, nice people succeeding.
PC: What's next?
MZ: Well, I am doing a big benefit out here in LA - BROADWAY ROCKS ANAHEIM.
PC: What will you be performing?
MZ: I will be closing the show and doing "We Belong" with a big choir and the cast and everything. Then, I am hosting a listening party for my album that is also acting as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares - which is an organization that means so much to me. So, at that event, we are showing the "WTF" video first and then I am singing a few songs and things. You know, I started a foundation with my brother a few years ago and we co-sponsored BROADWAY BARES the last two years. You know, for me, Broadway is my family. We wanted to give back to this community that gave me so much. We also donated a bunch of money to the Trevor Project, as well. But, I have a close, real connection with Broadway Cares - Tom Viola and everyone there is like a family to me. I wanted this event to be about more than just me and singing - I wanted to be able to give back and do something good. So, that's when we decided it had to be for Broadway Cares. They have always been so supportive to me and now I want to give back to them. We have a good amount of money already raised for them, actually.
PC: Tom Viola did this column for the Tony Awards when he received a special award. What a great guy he is - and what amazing work he has done.
MZ: He is so incredible - what he does is so impressive over there. I did this event with Jerry [Mitchell] over the Summer in Fire Island and it was just so great. I would do anything I could to help support them in any way. They are the real pioneers for AIDS research and the work that they do is just incomparable. Everything they do is so great and anything I can do I am happy to do.
PC: Do you remember losing a lot of members of the CHORUS LINE company and Broadway community to AIDS in your time?
MZ: Well, that was actually a little bit before my time. Tom Reed, who was Michael's protégé, was the supervisor for A CHORUS LINE for many years and he left to do CATS. I was very connected to him through CATS and he was the first person I knew to pass away from the disease. Michael - who was like best friends with him - passed away a few months later. But, absolutely, over the years we have all been so devastated by it. It's such a mystery why we don't have a cure for it yet, too.
PC: We are one step closer thanks to benefits like yours and the awareness you raise! Last question: first Broadway show?
MZ: Well, actually, you'll appreciate this as a real Michael Bennett aficionado - it was DREAMGIRLS and I absolutely loved every single thing about it. [Laughs.] It was perfect in every way!
PC: Fantastic! This was so, so great, Matt. Thank you so much.
MZ: This was absolutely fabulous. Thank you very, very much, Pat. Bye bye.