Actor Matt Rawle tells Terry Grimley about his journey from Northfield to the West End.
You might have seen Matt Rawle, Birmingham-born star of the European premiere of award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza, on television at the start of the year.
He was a contestant in a version of The Weakest Link devoted exclusively to stars of then-current West End shows.
“It’s amazing how many people watched that,” he says. “It went out on New Year’s Eve between 7pm and 8pm. I thought no one would notice it but people are always mentioning they saw me on it.”
Matt’s passport to this specialised group of competitors was the fact that he was then playing the title role in a new musical, Zorro, at the Garrick Theatre – a performance which earned him an Olivier Award nomination.
“It’s just finished, only about a month ago,” he says. “It was a big learning curve for me. We opened it at the beginning of last year and I started rehearsals learning sword-fighting, rope-swinging, flamenco-dancing. It required me to be multi-faceted.
“The show toured for about six weeks out of town, then it moved into London and ran for eight months.”
How does an eight-month run register on the scale of success these days?
“I think it’s very good considering the current financial climate. A lot of people were expecting it to be a flop, but it opened to some fantastic reviews and it was a very successful production.
“It’s opening in Paris at the end of the year, then some other European cities and New York at the end of next year.”
Apart from Zorro, Rawle has an impressive list of West End credits including Che in Michael Grandage’s revival of Evita, the title role in Martin Guerre at the Prince Edward Theatre, and Chris in Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Now aged 35, he grew up in Northfield, the son of a builder and a florist.
“I went to Northfield Manor School and Bournville School, and then Joseph Chamberlain Sixth-Form College, which had a performing arts course,” he recalls.
“I started performing at a very young age. My uncle was quite a successful organ-player. In the late 70s and early 80s electric organs were very popular and a lot of people had them in their homes.
“I started to learn the piano at the age of four. I performed at the Alex, the Hippodrome and the Crescent. All the cubs and scouts used to put on a gang show for a week at Christmas at the Hippodrome, and it would sell out for the whole week.
“That’s how I started and got involved in theatre. I did The Sound of Music and Oliver!, and things at the Rep like Our Day Out and Alice in Wonderland.”
After that extensive childhood experience, Matt trained professionally at the Mountview Stage School in London.
“I auditioned at a few places. Thinking about it how it would probably have been better to take a year out and roam the Earth and discover a bit about myself. As it was I went straight there and did a three-year course.
“I was on the acting course and moved over to music theatre in the last year, and that’s mainly where people have asked me to work, although I’ve done a couple of Shakespeare things and did a play more recently at the Soho Theatre.”
The Light in the Piazza, which was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and collected six when it was staged at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2005, makes its European debut at Leicester’s new theatre, Curve, tomorrow night.
Based on the 1960 novella by American writer Elizabeth Spencer, which was filmed in 1962, it’s a romantic story with a tragic underside about an American girl on holiday in Florence in 1953 who falls in love with a mysterious young Italian. Rawle stars opposite Caroline Sheen.
“He’s a young Italian boy, really, in his mid-20s,” says Matt when I ask him to describe his character.
“He’s a good Catholic boy, probably a virgin. He has had very few sexual encounters. They have a romantic love affair, but I can’t tell you any more than that, really.”
The show is said to have unusually sophisticated music, with unexpected harmonic shifts, extended structures and heavier orchestration than is usual in stage musicals. The composer and lyricist, Adam Guettel, has been described as the new Stephen Sondheim, and Matt Rawle should be well qualified to judge on that score, having appeared in Sondheim’s Assassins at the Crucible, Sheffield, for which he was nominated for a TMA award.
“There’s a lot of similarities with Sondheim,” he agrees. “But the big thing for Adam Guettel is that he is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, so he has got all that heritage, all that has passed down into his writing and he has a real sense of melody. There’s really beautiful music and a very romantic story.”
The Light in the Piazza is the first production directed on Curve’s main stage by Paul Kerryson, its artistic director and a noted musicals specialist, who began in the studio with a revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman.
What has the new theatre been like to work in?
“It’s exciting to be getting the opportunity to work in a new space here and be part of the first season,” says Matt.
“I think it’s an extraordinary space. It’s taking time for people to get used to it and how it works – it’s like having a baby, it takes a while to know how to bring it up – but it seems to be functioning really well.
“The space itself is massive. I’ve been working at the Garrick Theatre in the West End, which is tiny, and this is like an opera space. A lot of rehearsal spaces in the West End are old churches that don’t have toilets or hot water.”
But it could be that Matt will be heading back to the West End before long.
“I think they plan to take The Light in the Piazza into London. They have a few people coming to look at it. In the current financial climate people want to look at what they are investing in.”
* The Light in the Piazza is at Curve, Leicester, from tomorrow until May 23 (Box office: 0116 242 3595).