Westchester's Matt Sax knew at age six that he wanted to perform. Fast forward 20 years, and he's starring at the Public Theater in Venice, a musical he co-created (with Eric Rosen) that Time Magazine has called "the next major American musical" and "The year's best musical."
It feels amazing. To be really honest it's a very humbling experience to be working with a company of such incredible artists who inhabit the world that Eric (Rosen) and I have created. They're singing the songs I've written, and invest their entire hearts into this whole thing that we made up. That is the most moving thing. And the support from the Public Theater and the people of New York -- it's been a dream come true.
Matt Sax & the company of Venice (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Sax began working on Venice about five years ago when he received a commission from Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group to write something new after the success of his one man musical, Clay. Like Clay, Venice weaves Shakespeare with hip hop to rousing results. Sax comments:
Hip hop at its core is taking different records to make something new -- so we're taking bits from Greek tragedy, and bits from Othello and bits from the Arab Spring, and even as recently as the Boston bombings and laying it on this music I've written. Something that really captivated me about hip hop was how the lyricists would twist and bend the words, and create new words and these multisyllabic rhymes that sound like a whole new language like Shakespeare did. Some theatre people are very strict about how rhymes need to be grammatical and stick to formal English rules, but I'm imperfect and so are my rhymes (laughs).
Matt Sax on Last Call With Carson Daly:
Though music plays a huge part in Sax's life, he's never had any musical training, and doesn't read music. He adds:
I started beatboxing, then I started making beats on my computer, then rapping. And with Venice, I took a stab at writing anthemic melodies for 13 actors, and a full band. And it's something very new to me. I make the music and record the vocals into my computer -- and the story of the song, and trade lyrical ideas back and forth (with Rosen), and then I'll record it on my computer and hand it to our collaborator, Curtis Moore, who'd notate it for the page so the actors can read it. For the first incarnation of the musical, I'd stay up all night, and sing it to the actors and they'd sing it back to me, and then I'd record it so I'd remember what it was we were actually doing.
Baby Please by Matt Sax's music side project Fellow Rebel (a duo featuring Sax and Venice costar Angela Polk) -- available on iTunes.
The music of Venice spans rock, pop, rap and hip hop punctuated by anthemic ballads. Sax notes:
My Dad was a huge classic rock guy. The Beatles were the bed on which I slept on for a very long time. I know every lyric to every one of their songs. Then at 13, I was listening to Hot 97, and bought my first hip hop album, Biggie's Ready To Die. I'm very inspired by Led Zeppelin, Mos Def, Kanye West, James Taylor, James Blake. My musical palette is all over the map. Artists my age don't see genre lines the same way as previous generations did. We live in all worlds and make it feel like one world.
Matt Sax & Eric Rosen discuss Venice:
In Venice, Sax plays the role of the narrator/the Angel of Death who dwells on the fringes of the story. Sax says:
We're not referencing Venice, Italy per se. The original inspiration for us was Shakespeare's Othello and part of that play takes place in Venice, Italy -- and the Venice Shakespeare wrote about was this idyllic, peaceful, embracing, open city, and so we allude to that a little bit.
Up next for Sax is a musical called Up and Adam for Center Theatre Group about a young kid who finds out about a community of superheroes and turns into a real life superhero himself. The sky's the limit for Sax, but for now into the foreseeable future his life is in theatre.
Why theatre for me? Because the transformational quality of theatre married with the opportunity to tell these epic stories that are raised to the level of ghosts and Gods -- I love that opportunity -- and to be in a theatrical space with a live audience and tell these stories here at the Public Theater means everything to me.
Venice runs til the end of June in its New York premiere at The Public Theatre. Check out publictheater.org for more tickets and more information.