Entertainment » Theatre

Out of Uganda :: A New Musical Finds Voice in Activism

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Feb 10, 2014

Back in 2008, actor/activist Griffin Matthews was in a professional funk. Funding for his non-profit Uganda Project had largely dried up due to the financial crisis, and he didn't know what to do. He bitched to his friend, composer Matt Gould, who casually suggested, "why don't we write a musical about aid work?"

"That's the worst idea I ever heard," was Matthews response.

But Gould felt differently. He covertly taped Matthews' rant, then that night put it to music. The next day he played what he heard to his friend. The result was a "life-changing" moment for Matthews and the first step towards what became "Witness Uganda," the new musical that officially opens this week at Cambridge American Repertory Theater where it runs through March 16, 2014 at the LOEB Drama Center.

At first it wasn't a musical at all - rather a concert presentation based on Matthews' experiences in Uganda where he went in 2005 to volunteer at an orphanage that was a fundraiser for The Uganda Project. What happened next, though, was something neither expected: the audience gave their presentation an enthusiastic response, telling them that Griffin's story resonated in their own social and political activism.

Bolstered by this, they decided to write a musical. Then the pair was invited to the Disney ASCAP to present two versions of the show - a 25-minute and 50-minute version - in Los Angeles. After they presented the 25-minute version, renowned composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Pippin") told them they had something special. They padded out their shorter version for their longer presentation, and began the thorny process of bringing Matthews’ story to the musical stage.

Their work paid off: they entered their script to "Witness Uganda" to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for consideration for the 2012 Richard Rodgers Award, a $50,000 grant for workshops of musical. Some eight months later they received a letter - signed by the illustrious Stephen Sondheim - that they had won. Their agent then sent the script to American Repertory Theater’s artistic director Diane Paulus, who immediately responded to how unique the show was. "So it was really a combination of the music and the subject of the story that hooked me," she writes in an interview in the show’s program. "Then I remembered that when I had met with Stephen Schwartz to discuss ’Pippin’ he told me there was a musical about Uganda on the horizon that he thought would really interest me. Needless to say, it felt like fate."

For the musical, the pair tells the story of Griffin, a disillusioned 20-something New York actor, who heads to Uganda to be a volunteer. In actuality, Griffin spent 8 years there; for the show, the experience is compressed to 2 years. Through out, he was wrestling with issues of being gay, having been thrown out of a church choir before leaving the States. This is exacerbated when he arrives in Uganda where anti-gay legislation has been a political meme in that country over the past few years.

Initially, though, Griffin’s sexuality was not addressed in earlier versions of the show. "There are a lot of things in the script now that I didn’t want to talk about at first," the actor, who plays his alter-ego in the show, said in an interview published in the show’s program. "... I felt a kind of a responsibility," he continued, "because we see a lot of white actors coming out of the closet and not many black ones. And as a writer, I also felt I wasn’t ever seeing myself on stage. Create something that you want to see! Otherwise, stop complaining!"

EDGE caught up with Gould and Matthews recently after a day’s rehearsal in New York. It was early in the evening and the pair was getting a bite to eat before they started doing rewrites.

Activism on stage

EDGE: Could you talk about how ’Witness Uganda’ came about?

Matt Gould: We wanted to create a piece about the complexities of trying to help people -- what our generation is going through trying to figure out our possibilities in the world. At that time, the U.S. economy had just tanked - it was 2008 - and donors to the Uganda Project were drying up. He was in a really rough spot. People were just not giving. Griffin was ranting and raving one day about how difficult things were - how people didn’t care, and I started recording him, but didn’t tell him. That night I set music to his rant and played it back to him the next day. And we saw something clicked. We worked on the music together and cleaned it up.

Griffin Matthews: That I heard my words being played back was really an eye-opening moment because I thought I was so far from what the answer could be; but I realized I was working it out. I was working out all the details and was closer than I ever thought I was to uncovering the answers to what I was seeking. It was really powerful moment for me. Then we started recording conversations between the two of us and the Uganda students and reviewing them, then the volunteers and reviewing them. And that’s how ’Witness Uganda’ was born. It was supposed to be a one-night event - a concert to benefit the organization. When we played the concert in New York, people came up to us after the show saying things like, ’This is my story,’ or ’This is something I can relate to.’ I think people from our generation want to go out and change the world, but we don’t know if we actually are making an impact. I think these questions are resonating with a lot of people.

Something really powerful

EDGE: How did you go from a benefit concert to a full-scale musical?

Matt Gould: It started as a half-hour. We then started to doing readings - at the Rattlesnake Theatre in New York. Then we got invited to do the Disney ASCAP festival in LA. We had to present the first 25-minutes of the show, then a week later had to present the first 50-minutes of the show. So at the time we had to present the first 25-minutes, we were like, ’awesome.’ But then we had to figure out the first 50-minutes. We wrote more just to fill the time. It was really an inspired mess at that time. We weren’t quite sure what it was or how it worked; but I think the spark of what we wanted to do was there.

Then Stephen Schwartz sat us down after our 15-minute presentation and said, ’Boys, if you can figure out how to make this work, you’ll have something really special and powerful.’ That gave us the motivation to do this. It feels like we found our language, so we set out to write a full-length musical, and over a period of small workshops and readings eventually came up to something. Winning the Richard Rodgers Award also brought us to the attention of Diane Paulus and the ART. After Diane became interested about a year ago, we really got into the nitty-gritty of shaping the story and getting to the heart of the project. We have chiseled it down to pretty much what we’re presenting now. We definitely dramatized elements of the story to make it theatrical and to capture the themes we wanted to capture. But Griffin is the protagonist and we follow his story.

EDGE: Will your show invite comparisons to ’The Book of Mormon’ since that has a similar narrative?

Griffin Matthews: Neither of us have seen ’The Book of Mormon’ so I can’t say what the link is. But I think that from the success of that show, it has certainly put Uganda in the spotlight. And Uganda has been in the spotlight from a number of recent documentaries and from its anti-gay agenda, which comes to us in real-time from the Internet. And it makes us want to write something about being an American traveling abroad.

Uganda’s anti-gay policies

EDGE: Do you address the anti-gay legislation being passed in Uganda?

Matt Gould: Absolutely. The story is partly wrapped up around Griffin’s sexuality. Issues with sexuality in the United States, which are part of the reason he goes to Uganda and finds himself in a dangerous place to be gay.

Griffin Matthews: I think in a larger sense the show’s about - it really is about being an outsider and not being in a place where you fit in. Finding a place where you belong.

EDGE: Do you attempt to give the score an authentic sound? If so, how do you make it accessible to American audiences?

Matt Gould: I think that when we talk about authentic Uganda music, it only made us laugh because in Uganda we found people listening to Dolly Parton and Beyonce and Rihanna. They are listening to a lot of the same things we listen to. We weren’t interested in writing a score that was traditional African music because that wasn’t the music that our students were listening to or our experience there. There are elements of African music and music we heard in Uganda. We flavor the score with those authentic elements, but think we created a piece for American audiences by American writers. It is meant to feel accessible.

ART involvement?

EDGE: How did Diane Paulus and the ART get involved?

Matt Gould: I actually worked with Diane on my first one-man show. She directed me in that. Then some years went by and Stephen mentioned to her that he had seen this musical about Uganda and she should see it. Then we won the Richard Rodgers award and our agent sent her the script. I didn’t call her because I wanted to see if she would respond to it. Then we got a call and she said, ’Is this Griffin Matthews?’ and we connected the dots. We met in New York and had a great meeting. The rest is history.

EDGE: You mentioned that you’re doing some rewrites tonight. What is that process like?

Matt Gould: It never ends. What is interesting about this story is that it is based on my life experiences, so as my life continues, the show continues. Every time I live a new experience, I feel like I should put it in the show. Working with the dramaturgy team at the ART has been incredible because new musicals need a lot of elements to come together - music and dance and book - so many moving parts. So what we’ve discovered are things like, ’Oh, we need more music for that set piece to come in.’ So we have to go out and compose 45-seconds of music for that. It is that kind of thing we are learning.

EDGE: This project sounds it would be better suited for a documentary film. Why a musical?

Matt Gould: It could be a documentary eventually, it could be a number of things. But I’ll speak for myself. I think that musical theater is one of the most powerful forms of media in the world. Music is, at once, abstract, but also a very direct line into peoples’ hearts and souls. I think that when we sing, we cry; when we sing, we laugh. And stories about our generation and what we are trying to figure out about ourselves are some of the great questions of our lifetimes. And that demands great, great storytelling, and great emotions and epic movement and song. We wanted to write about in the same tradition as the composers and lyricists we look to, like Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote about racism, or Stephen Sondheim who wrote about war and all kinds of serious things. We wanted to write something that felt as epic and as emotional and brooding and frustrating as we are and what we are trying to figure out. So musical theater just seemed the most obvious choice.

Griffin Matthews: Not to mention that we are not filmmakers...

Matt Gould: No, we’re not filmmakers, but we realized that it might be a film at some point; maybe it could be a television series. I have always felt it shouldn’t be contained to the four walls of the theater. Someday maybe it will be these other things.

Social change through art?

EDGE: What makes the two of you want to make social and political change through art?

Griffin Matthews: I don’t think it is difficult to convey wanting to make change to other people. I think it is difficult to push people into action, including myself. It was never meant to be preachy; it is was meant to tackle the things we are going through as people trying to make change, but often failing, but sometimes succeeding. The ups-and-the-downs of it. We wanted to make something to inspire people just because they heard someone else talking about the complexities of helping, because it is complex. And we don’t have all the answers, but we think it our job to seek out the answers. So we wanted to start that conversation and hopefully people will leave the theater and keep that conversation alive.

EDGE: Will any of your students see the show?

Griffin Matthews: Not at the ART because they’re in school, either in college or high school. But eventually we would like to get them on planes and get them to see the show. They’re very aware - they’ve been on Facebook talking to members of the cast. It’s been incredible because it such a collaborative experience and they mean so much to us.

EDGE: What was it like winning the Richard Rodgers Award? I understand at first you were perplexed by it.

Matt Gould: The funny story about that is that it was such a small envelope, we thought it was a rejection letter. We had applied to the award seven months before, but when the envelope came I wondered, ’what is the Academy of Arts and Letters?’ Then when I read, ’congratulations...’ and it was signed by Stephen Sondheim,’ I still wondered ’what is this?’ None of it felt real. Because when you think you win an award like this with a $50,000 grant towards a workshop, someone might call you. But all we got was this letter. Once we realized what it was and what it meant, it really meant a lot.... I think that for so long we heard ’no’ so often in building this production. I think the initial response from a lot of people to a musical about aid workers in Uganda is ’that’s never going to happen.’ So when we got this big ’yes’ it was very meaningful and powerful. I cried. Griffin doesn’t cry. It was amazing and changed everything. Then we thought, we have a lot of work to do... get ready.

"Witness Uganda" continues through March 16, 2014 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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