2014 Best Music Director Nominee Interview: Matthew Stern for Wheelock Family Theatre's "Hairspray"

Photo by Fresh Focus Photography

Photo by Fresh Focus Photography

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Matthew Stern is known throughout the Greater Boston area for his crisp and educated music direction, coaching actors through some of the toughest musical scores.  His Hairspray cast navigated the non-stop, musically-varied score with ease, thanks to Matthew at the helm. In his Interview, Matthew tells when he first knew he wanted to be a music director, his favorite musicals to direct, and some of his professional goals. 

Hi, Matthew! Thank you for taking the time to interview with us.  Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

Hello!  I’m Matthew Stern, and I’m a Music Director in Boston, where I’ve been involved in over ninety musical theatre productions in the past decade.  I’m currently in the MFA program at Boston University for Theatre Studies, focusing on Musical Theatre, and I’ll be graduating next year.  I did my undergraduate work at Brandeis University, where I received a dual degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and Vocal Performance.

What is your music directing background?  Did you always know that you wanted to be a music director?

The first time I knew I wanted to be a music director was actually when I was a kid seeing Seussical on Broadway.  I don’t have any particular affinity or dislike of Seussical, but I remember sitting in the mezzanine with my mom looking at the conductor and thinking about how I wanted to do that one day.  I didn’t actually fulfill those dreams until college, when I began music directing some student-directed productions at Brandeis University.  I then began pursuing music directing work more seriously and professionally.  I’ve been playing piano since I was about 8 years old, and I’ve been singing seriously since I began participating in the Philadelphia Boys’ Choir as a child.  I feel really lucky to be pursuing this career path.  I love musical theater, and I love making music with wonderful people, so there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Talk to us about the music in Hairspray.  What were some of the challenges?  What was the most exciting and enjoyable?

Hairspray is a really great show to work on as a musical director.  The score is pretty challenging for singers, particularly because of the non-stop back-up singing that goes on throughout the show.  Some musical numbers that don’t sound particularly complicated are actually very difficult for singers to learn (“It’s Hairspray,” for example).  The music is also really fun to play and conduct.  I love the band arrangements, and I was fortunate to be working with some great musicians in the pit at Wheelock.

What have been some of your favorite shows to music direct?

I will always say that my top three shows are Sweeney Todd, Parade, and Ragtime.  I’ve also had a couple of experiences doing shows at BU that I feel like I’ll never get to do again – specifically, Pacific Overtures and The Human Comedy.  It’s always nice to take on those kinds of projects that feel like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

What is one song from the musical theatre canon that you hate to play?  What is one song that you hope that you never hear in an audition room again?

I really hate playing “My Favorite Things.”  I don’t think that I mind the song itself, but I hate playing it for some reason.  The accompaniment just feels so clunky.  As for a song I hope never to hear in an audition again, I’d probably have to go with “Gimme, Gimme.” Again – great song, but I’ve just heard it too many times in audition rooms.

What are some of your guilty pleasures?

Cheesy romantic comedies.

Why do you think that audiences and reviewers reacted positively to Hairspray?

I think Hairspray is a story that really hits everyone.  It has such an overt and positive message about race relations and acceptance, but never becomes preachy.  The characters are really loveable, the music is really catchy, and the story moves.  Most of our performances ended with the audiences up on their feet dancing along to “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”  It’s a show that – if done well – is hard to leave without a smile on your face.  We were also lucky to have a really hard-working and excellent cast, and a great design and creative team.  It was really one of those rare theater experiences where everything just works well, and I think we all felt lucky to be a part of it.

What are some of your professional goals?  Personal goals?

Professionally, I’m really beginning to search for a faculty position at a musical theatre program now that I'm thinking about the completion of my graduate program.  Whenever I land a really exciting job, I always try to think about what the next exciting thing might be and start shooting for that.  This past year was a pretty big year for me professionally, so I’m having a fun time opening up my imagination to what might be next, but I’m also really enjoying all of the opportunities that I have, and I’m thankful for the projects I get to work on and the wonderful collaborators that I get to meet on each new show. 

Personally, I really would love to get to the point in my life where my schedule will allow me to have a dog.

If you were stuck on a desert island, what are three things that you would be sure to bring?

This is tough.  I’d have to bring a piano.  I don’t know how I’d go about doing that, but it would be necessary.  I’d definitely need coffee every day.  And I’d probably bring some sunscreen, because I'm sure that’d be helpful.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I’m finishing up Shrek at Wheelock right now, and then I’ll be heading off to French Woods Festival for my sixth summer, working on lots of exciting shows.  When I get back to Boston, it’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Stoneham Theatre, an unannounced musical at BU in December, and then Violet (one of my favorites!) at Speakeasy Stage in January.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I’m proud to be on this list of nominees with such wonderful and talented people! 

Thanks to the Boston theatre community for being so rich and vibrant!