Playing prince Pippin for a year on Broadway in the contorting, spinning, death-defying world of the circus took its toll on young Matthew James Thomas. When it was over, he needed time to regain his physical and mental strength.
Four months later, Thomas arrived on the Island of Malta 50 miles south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. His parents have a modest farmhouse there. Thomas, 26, was poised for a few days of relaxation, jet-skiing and writing music.
Then, his phone rang. It was Barry Weissler, who had hired Thomas to star in what turned out to be the 2013 Tony-winning Best Musical Revival: Pippin The Musical. It was eight days before the national touring production was to launch in Denver, and Kyle Selig, the actor hired to play Pippin, had just been put on vocal rest.
Thomas hails from Buckinghamshire in the southeast of England, so he’s not familiar with the American cartoon character Mighty Mouse. But like that iconic animated rodent whose theme song was, “Here he comes to save the day!" ... here came Thomas to save the day. All the way from Malta - 6,000 miles from the Mile High City.
“That is very kind of you, but I don't see it that way at all,” Thomas said last week, after joining – and opening – the first national tour of Pippin to enthusiastic standing ovations in Denver. “I think it's more that I probably relieved some stress for the production in some way. All I could think about was how lucky I was to play the show in a new environment.”
Thomas moved to the United States four years ago to split the role of Peter Parker in one of the most infamous productions in Broadway history: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which was cursed by multiple accidents and scathing reviews but was hugely popular with audiences, running for more than three years in the largest theatre in Broadway history.
He’s now developing a concept for a British TV series while working on his first CD of original music. He spent Tuesday at a Denver studio laying down piano and vocal tracks for a song he’s since shipped off to an engineer in New York.
“I have gone through some tough moments in my personal life in the last couple of months, and I have been very inspired to write some new music,” said Thomas, who begins work on his next musical theatre project in November.
We got a chance to sit down for an extended conversation with Thomas, who was starring in a West End production of Oliver by age 8, appeared in the hit film Billy Elliot at 11, and has been so much on the move throughout his life, he feels like he’s run off with the circus. Kind of like Pippin.
“Somebody recently asked me, ‘Where do you live?’ and I said, ‘Hah, I have no idea. I am a gypsy,' " Thomas said.
Here are excerpts from our illuminating, in-depth conversation:
John Moore: So, hey: You were in Billy Elliot.
Matthew James Thomas: The movie? Yes, I was.
John Moore: You've probably grown an inch or two since that movie came out in 2000 … but what did I miss?
Matthew James Thomas: You missed me get punched in the face!
John Moore: That was you?
Matthew James Thomas: Yes, but I was quite smaller then. I was 11.
John Moore: Well, it’ll be worth re-Netflixing just to see that again.
Matthew James Thomas: I think you should. If you want to giggle at me, I mean.
John Moore: How would you describe the last two weeks of your life?
Matthew James Thomas: Well, being shot out of a cannon is one way to describe it. It really does kind of feel like that. It just feels nuts. But it's great. It's wonderful.
John Moore: The differences between your Broadway opening and your tour opening could not be starker. You were with the Broadway production from the beginning. You were called in to join the national touring production just eight days before you opened. What’s that like?
Matthew James Thomas: It was such a whirlwind for me mentally because when I set foot on the soil here, I wasn’t prepared for it. I had been in a completely different mindset. I had been working on other projects, and I had been really detached from Pippin for such a long time. And so it was really confusing. I am being completely honest here. I have lived in America for four years now, but it's still a new surrounding. And on top of that, I knew I'd be stepping into a company for somebody else they have been rehearsing with for a very long period of time. That was daunting because I have to walk into this family, and I'm the new guy who nobody knows really. I did know a couple of the cast members from Broadway company, which was … softening. But still, I knew I had a lot to live up to with the Broadway production being such a huge success, and me being the lead. So yes, it was quite daunting.
Matthew James Thomas in the national touring production of 'Pippin' that launched in Denver. Photo by Terry Shapiro.
John Moore: It just seems strange to think of you as ‘the new kid’ when you’re the guy who originated the role.
Matthew James Thomas: And yet, that's very much what it is. I do know the show back to front, upside down. We've done it every single way we possibly could. And yet here I am actually going into a new show with new people and new scenery and a whole new environment. There are a couple of moments on stage where I just feel my feet go a little wonky and I am like, 'Where am I? Oh, wow. OK, great. OK, no, yes. Now … Go!’ It’s scary … but that's also lovely for the character of Pippin.
John Moore: No one expected to see you – or need you – on this tour. So do you feel a bit like the knight in shining armor?
Matthew James Thomas: You know, I am very thankful for you to say that, but I think it's more that my being here probably relieved some stress for the production team in some way.
John Moore: Take me through getting the call.
Matthew James Thomas: I was in New York about two weeks before I left for Malta. My parents got a modest farmhouse out there a couple of years ago. It's a very old house that dates back to the 1400s, and I have since wanted to go but I've always been preoccupied with work. So I found a little window in my schedule and thought, 'Well, I'm starting work on another show in November, so why not take this opportunity to get away?' So I jump on a plane. I get with my parents. We do a bit of jet-skiing and a bit of pasta-eating. We do some catching up and some discussing of the future and the past … and my phone rings. And it's (Pippin producer) Barry Weissler, whom I have not spoken to since I left the production in March. I thought, 'Why is Barry phoning me?' But in this industry, you get used to being surprised every single day by quite bizarre, profound things. So he says, 'What are you up to?' and I say, 'I'm in Malta.' And it was quiet. I guess he was hoping I was in New York.
John Moore: Your plane ticket to Denver just got a lot more expensive.
Matthew James Thomas: Right? He was probably like, ('Bleep!'). (Laughing.) And so he went on to say he was wondering if I would be available to come to Denver and step into the role of Pippin for a while. And I said, ‘Sure, I'll come.’ I thought it sounded like a great opportunity to give Pippin one last go, because the role is so great.
John Moore: After your final preview performance in Denver, I saw you come out for the talkback wearing shorts, and you had a few fresh, gnarly scabs on your legs. It made me wonder about the physical toll this show has taken on your body.
Matthew James Thomas: It's hard to explain, really ... but I actually like it. Back when I was taking my stage-fighting exam in the U.K., my friend Rob and I were so passionate about getting it right and getting it real that we ended up just beating the crap out of each other. I came away from that with a bloody nose. But I'm all for realism and authenticity. This might sound crazy or stupid but after doing Pippin again and again and again, the proof is in the pudding. And the proof is the audience. If you do something properly, then the audience responds properly. I always want to pull off the fall or the trip or whatever as realistically as possible, without hurting myself too much. The fact is, I really enjoy it if John (Rubinstein, who plays Pippin’s father Charlemagne) trips me and I really fall. I think it’s just funnier. So I end up getting cuts and bruises and snags and whatever else. Thank God I have those breaks in between shows to recover. So that’s the way I see it. If I'm here, I might as well give it everything I've got.
John Moore: When the time came for you to leave the Broadway production in March, did your body need some recovery time?
Matthew James Thomas: Oh my goodness, yes. And my mind, too. You know, eight shows a week for any show is an impossible task. It really is something that shouldn't be humanly achievable. It's hard vocally, physically, mentally. But on a show like this, you're working out more than a pro athlete. Take soccer, for example. They train every day for a good two hours, and then they have one big match a week. It’s very physical, but … I wake up. I go to the gym for an hour and a half. I go for a run for 20 minutes. I warm my vocals up for one hour. And then we do the show eight times a week. You know, it’s almost more work … and you only get one day off a week.
John Moore: That's nice of you to call it "soccer" for my benefit.
Matthew James Thomas: Yeah, of course. I'm getting more used to it now.
John Moore: And now, a very hard-hitting question:
Matthew James Thomas: Mmmm … OK.
John Moore: I saw you play Pippin on Broadway, and I would swear that you had black hair.
Matthew James Thomas: Oh yes, "The Hair Question." At first I mentioned it to my press team and they were like, 'Well, people aren't going to recognize you.' And I was like, 'Well, I think that's kind of a great thing.' Actually, when I changed my hair color, I was still in the Broadway production of Pippin, and I didn't tell the cast. So when I jumped through the hoop, everybody looked at me like, 'Who the (bleep) is that?'
John Moore: I have a feeling that if anyone other than the star of the show had changed his hair color without telling anyone, there might have been a problem.
Matthew James Thomas: Well, I ran it by the director and the producers. But I asked them not to tell anyone in the cast, because I thought it would be interesting for that one night just to have a very different Pippin show up on the stage. I'm actually just starting to get my real hair color back, which is an ashen blond. But it's hard to get that color back when I've had so much black and blue put through it. I went black for Spider-Man previous to Pippin, and I just didn't have time between the two shows to change it back. But eventually I had to, because my hair started to fall out.
John Moore: So you’re saying the reason Pippin had black hair on Broadway is because Peter Parker had black hair in Spider-Man?
Matthew James Thomas: Yeah.
John Moore: OK, so I had no intention of talking about your hair this much, but now I am remembering your entrance in the first scene in Pippin. You're saying no one in the cast found out you changed your hair color until you jumped through the hoop in the opening song?
Matthew James Thomas: It's how all of them found out, yes. Specifically, Patina Miller (The Leading Player) looked at me with very wide eyes because she was in the middle of her line, and she was like, ‘... Who are you?’ It was great. But I'm a little bit of a trickster. I take any opportunity I get to play a prank on the cast.
John Moore: So when you left the show, you said your body and your mind needed to recover. But did you also then go through any withdrawal? When the show goes on but without you … that had to be a little weird.
Matthew James Thomas: Yeah, for sure. You always do. Leaving a company is like leaving a long-term relationship. It’s something maybe you need to do for yourself, but you probably could stay there and be very happy and content for the rest of your life. But you have to keep moving. I left some great friends behind, but in the same sentence, you never really leave them. It is hard to say goodbye to all of that hard work. You leave it for somebody else to take over, and they will take over your track, but the core of your work is being left behind. It is very traumatic. But as actors, we live within a business within a business within a business. Change is continuing, and it is very important for us to grow.
John Moore: So all you have to do is look at John Rubinstein to see that the original actor who played Pippin is now white-haired and playing your father. I mean, the show is old. Even with the new circus aspect, why should a 40-year-old show like Pippin matter to your friends in 2014?
Matthew James Thomas: That's an interesting way to put it, actually. What people have to understand is the original Pippin is incredibly different from this version of the show. Of course the people who saw the original version of the show will deeply appreciate this version of the show as well because the fundamental structure that was so impressive and daring and innovative and sharp is still intact. (Director Diane Paulus) has done nothing but clarify everything that needed clarifying with the old production. That said, a lot of my friends aren't involved in musical theatre at all. A lot of my friends will never see me in shows because they are being a ferrier in Buckinghamshire or working as a DJ in London. But when a friend of mine has come and seen they show, they really are entering into it with a fresh mind. I, in my own life, have desperately tried to get rid of my opinion about things – and my generation of friends have become less and less opinionated with me as we have grown up. I spoke to a lovely young chap the other day who had seen the show in Denver. He described himself as a young American who generally thinks of things in terms of, 'I know this,’ or, ‘I like that,’ or, ‘My favorite color is blue.' But he came and saw the show and was like, 'Oh my God, my whole opinion of everything has just shifted because of the profundity of what I just saw. I was wrong. Now I have to re-think everything.’ That’s why I think this show is so clever, because he came out knowing something greater about his deeper self.
John Rubinstein, left, played the first Pippin on Broadway in 1972. He now plays father to Matthew James Thomas' Pippin. Photo by Terry Shapiro.
John Moore: So what was it like when you first had that moment on stage with John Rubinstein, when Pippin says, 'Time has passed you by, father,' and Charlemagne's line back is, 'And YOUR time has come, my son?'
Matthew James Thomas: There’s a very real thing happening on the stage between us that goes beyond the acting and the music and the dancing. That is two actors on stage who have probably experienced a very similar transformative and probably very painful journey with the same production. Because I know any show of this depth and greatness is painful to create. My journey with it from Boston, as fantastic and as brilliant and as wonderful as it ended up being for everybody, was incredibly painful and hard. And I know from all of the wonderful stories John has that it was hard for him, too. There is an unspoken bond there between John and me because we are the only two people who really have created the role from a fresh palate.
John Moore: Can I ask you about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?
Matthew James Thomas: Yeah, sure.
John Moore: I was writing for The Denver Post at the time, and I got to see it when it was in previews for its re-opening. Meaning after it had been ostensibly fixed. My take was that this was a musical that was like its anti-hero: Caught between two worlds. But it had an energy that was unmatched by any other show on Broadway. The crowd ate it up. The crowd's response was more genuine than anything else I’ve ever seen on Broadway. And if the idea of live theatre is to make a connection with an audience, well, this show did that.
Matthew James Thomas: I don't know how to say how lucky I feel I am that I got to work with that creative team on Spider-Man. Oftentimes, in interviews, people just want the dirt, and yeah, there's plenty of it. However, Spider-Man was actually tragic. The show itself -- even the original show -- I thought was just so special, because you didn't just have a bunch of brilliant creatives waltzing around pretending they knew everything. Everybody on that creative team wanted to do something impossible. I alternated in the lead role, which meant that I did the show four days a week, and I would watch the rest of the time. So I used to go up to the fly booth and watch down and see the show from there. I would watch how all of these things had to happen for that little 5-year-old's excitement, or that 80-year-old's bewilderment. All those things were invented by a crew of people ... It was God's work, really. I was thinking, 'How the hell did somebody make all of these things work together? Things happen on shows that are trying to test extraordinary boundaries. Spider-Man was certainly trying to do that. That was very, very, hard for all of us. People got injured. But let me tell you: People get injured on every show. And Pippin is far more dangerous than Spider-Man will have ever been.
John Moore: Pippin does seem far more dangerous. I mean, in Spider-Man, you were tied to cables. There are no cables, no nets, no safety hooks in Pippin.
Matthew James Thomas: Yeah, and you know what? I like wire. I like an 8,000-pound tension wire between me and the 30 feet to the floor. As much as I would happily jump out of a plane -- and intend to, at some point in my life -- I like having a parachute. I trusted those people on that team more than I have ever trusted anyone, and boy, did they care about our safety. The more people who are involved, the more the politics just go askew and everybody scrambles like a dog to try and fix it, and they are never going to, and it’s just a tragic situation when it starts to happen that way because once the ball goes in that direction, you know it’s lost. People said things they shouldn't have said. So the show fell apart.
John Moore: So can you see yourself playing Charlemagne in 40 years?
Matthew James Thomas: Oh, sure. Of course. I hope so, anyway. I always, always want to be that guy with the white beard and the wisdom behind his eyes.
John Moore: Well, you’re 26. You've got a ways to go there.
Matthew James Thomas: That's true. I can't even really grow a beard yet. So we'll see.
John Moore: Do we know how long you will be with this national touring production?
Matthew James Thomas: It's been confirmed that I will be going through to San Francisco next. Then it’s on to Los Angeles, but that hasn’t been decided.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
'The Pippin Profiles' interview series:
Pippin: Ticket information
Sep 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
Online • www.DenverCenter.Org
Our previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:
Photos, video: Opening-night festivities in Denver
Video: 5 questions for Composer Stephen Schwartz
9News anchor Cheryl Preheim has a walk-on cameo on Sept. 16
Video: Audience testimonials reacting to seeing the show
Video series: The 'Pippin' Personalities: Five questions with creatives
'Pippin' meets Denver: Media Day photos
Broadway's Matthew James Thomas to play Pippin in Denver
Hello, Denver! 'Pippin' cast and crew arrive
Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York
My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe
From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!