Gaten Matarazzo and Manoel Felciano Trade Notes on Playing Toby in Sweeney Todd | Playbill

Special Features Gaten Matarazzo and Manoel Felciano Trade Notes on Playing Toby in Sweeney Todd

The mentee-mentor pair have also worked together on Parade and Dear Evan Hansen.

Manoel Felciano and Gaten Matarazzo Heather Gershonowitz

In Dear Evan Hansen, Jared’s father is never onstage. But Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo, who played Jared in the Broadway musical last summer, came up with a backstory—and it became a running joke with his castmate Manoel Felciano. Matarazzo’s theory? Larry Murphy is really Jared’s dad. Felciano played Larry (Evan Hansen’s father figure) at the time, and recalls hearing about this “dramaturgical backstory that’s not entirely unsupported by the script.” He prefaces the rest of the story with a joke. “Now I’m gonna get fired. No one is going to hire me again after this.” Felciano’s thought process for integrating Matarazzo’s dramaturgy into his performance was this: “He comes into my house. My wife cannot know my illegitimate son is here. So, I would just glare at him, like, ‘Don’t reveal our secret.’” Speaking more sincerely, Felciano shared his first impressions of Matarazzo, “It was so clear from the beginning that you just wanted to be one of the fellas, and your appetite for mischief and fucking around was as high as ours.”

Matarazzo laughs in response, “That’s true.”

The duo starred together last summer in Dear Evan Hansen, and were reunited shortly after the show closed for the Off-Broadway run of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s musical Parade at New York City Center last November. In that run, Matarazzo played Frankie Epps while Felciano starred as Tom Watson, a role he is currently reprising for the show’s Broadway bow at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Meanwhile, Matarazzo currently stars in Sweeney Todd as Tobias at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre—a role Manoel Felciano played in the last Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical, which ran at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre 2005-2006. 

With so many experiences shared over the past several months, the two have a connection that hasn’t faded since going on to star in different Broadway theatres this spring. They play around during the photoshoot, excitedly catching up and tripping over each other in conversation. Felciano razzes on and bolsters Matarazzo equally throughout. Every moment appears to hit home from the sheepishly pleased and grateful looks that cross Matarazzo’s face.

The pair first bonded when Matarazzo stepped into Dear Evan Hansen in his first return to the Broadway stage since becoming a screen success in Netflix’s Stranger Things. Matarazzo had previously been a child actor on the Main Stem and Dear Evan Hansen was his first time doing an eight-show week as an adult. “It was the most terrifying thing in the world,” he says, staring down at the table as he remembers that fear. But his gaze picks up as he remembers the joy that followed. “I was really glad I got to be Jared, because it's a great part, a bit of a saving grace for people at times. Things reach a point where you're like, ‘I cannot look away, but I cannot take a single bit more of this.’ And then the fun guy who tells the penis jokes comes on stage,” he explains with a laugh.

Manoel Felciano and Gaten Matarazzo Heather Gershonowitz

While still in Dear Evan Hansen, Matarazzo had already booked the role of Tobias in Sweeney Todd. Turning to Felciano, he confesses, “I’ve been wanting to pick your brain about this for so long, but I wasn't allowed to tell anybody I booked it.” Even though he was only three when Felciano played Tobias on Broadway, Matarazzo has seen Felciano’s take on the character. “Definitely not a bootleg,” he says with a shake of his head and an amusingly unconvincing tone. 

The new Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd has a 26-piece orchestra and uses Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, which points to its traditional take on the material. By contrast, the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd was more barebones and conceptual—it had 10 musicians and posits that Tobias is telling the story years later from his cell in an insane asylum. “Our production was so idiosyncratic. We’re using the same words, the same notes, but for all intents and purposes, it's a different story,” Felciano explains. With his fingers crooked, Felciano mimes twisting something between his hands. “You know a work of art is great when it can withstand this kind of radical torquing.” Felciano’s talent as a musician was integral to the John Doyle-directed production, which featured the actors also playing instruments onstage. During “Not While I’m Around,” Felciano played a dissonant counter melody on the violin while Patti LuPone sang Mrs. Lovett’s part in the duet with Toby. “It was me being like, ‘I don't really believe you’ and saying that musically. It was one of those moments where the actor-musician thing really worked beautifully.”

“Not While I’m Around” is also an important moment for Matarazzo. Calling Toby “a dream role,” Matarazzo still finds himself nervous every performance throughout the show—except during that number. “That’s the one scene where I'm like, ‘Alright, this is the one.’” He attributes his ease in that moment to his scene partner Annaleigh Ashford, the production’s Mrs. Lovett, whose presence helps him settle into the song and forget the nerves.

When it comes to finding his way in the role, Matarazzo shares that he was “so scared of creating a caricature, so scared of falling into what had been done before.” His way of getting past that concern is focusing on Toby’s history. He asks Felciano, “How much did you know about your past?” 

Felciano replies, “I always framed it as, ‘Has he killed before?’ The lyric for me, is ‘Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays. I’ll send ‘em howling, I don’t care. I’ve got ways.’ So, he's like, ‘I may seem like this little innocent. But, I grew up on the streets.’’’ While researching for the role, Felciano found photobooks and essays about children in asylums and workhouses which served as his touchstone as he developed his performance.

Felciano returns Matarazzo’s curiosity and asks him, “’How long has your Toby been with Pirelli?’”

Matarazzo isn’t quite sure, but he believes that “Pirelli understands his time with Toby is up very soon, because the schtick is this cute kid, right? What happens when he’s no longer a cute kid?” As someone who was a Broadway child actor, it’s a familiar feeling. “There's kind of that vibe when you're doing a show when you're 10 or 11 years old. [You] understand that your time in the industry and doing what you're good at is coming to an end rapidly. I was very lucky I was able to transition to film and TV right after I had that voice drop,” he shares.

He recalls the instant anxiety of that period working on Broadway. “They wouldn't warn you. Company management would come in and say, ‘Height check!’ Your heart would sink into your butthole,” he says. To try and drag out the inevitable, Matarazzo says the child actors would share methods of slouching to look shorter while not looking like they were slouching and speaking in a higher register. “There was a sense of urgency. No matter how good of an experience you've had, no matter how delicate people were with you, no matter how understanding and collaborative and communicative they were with you as a kid, the bottom line is that you have a certain amount of what you can deliver. And eventually, you will no longer be able to do that.”

Matarazzo’s analysis of Toby and Pirelli’s relationship garners a rather emphatic reaction from Felciano who blurts out, “Oh, fuck.” Felciano listens intently as Matarazzo shares his experiences, clearly taking it in with every noise of surprise and sympathy. Tracing the conversation back to the Toby and Pirelli of it all, Felciano says, “This is one of those moments where I’m thinking ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ That’s so good because of your youth being your value, it’s your youth that is also selling those damn pies.”

Gaten Matarazzo and Manoel Felciano Heather Gershonowitz

With the musical’s subplots filling out Sweeney Todd’s bleak portrait of a society, it’s saved by its dark humor. It’s one of the differences that Felciano notes between the Sondheim work and Parade. “We don’t have that in Parade. It’s much closer to the surface, the rawness of the wound feels very palpable. Especially in Michael’s production because it’s so documentarian.” Parade dramatizes the true story of Leo Frank’s life and tragic death. Frank was a Jewish factory manager living in Georgia in the early 20th century, and was falsely convicted of murdering 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan and was sentenced to life in prison. Frank was then subsequently lynched by an angry white mob. After Frank's death, it was revealed that Phagan was possibly murdered by Jim Conley, another factory worker. Frank has since been exonerated. 

Matarazzo played Frankie Epps, who testifies falsely against Leo Frank and later takes part in his lynching. Felciano stars as Tom Watson, a writer for an extremist right-wing newspaper. Felciano remembers the protests that happened during the show’s first preview, where Neo-Nazis gathered in front of the Jacobs Theatre. “I'm playing this character, a rabid, anti-Semitic, rabble-rousing progenitor of today's extreme, right-wing media. And when we had those Nazis protesting, they were right outside my dressing room window. I was like, ‘Wow, those people are like my character’s ideological descendants. And the line between reality and play-making, past and present, really started to blur and it made me really angry and have violent fantasies of going out there. And then I was like, ‘Oh, that's what they want.’”

With navigating such heavy themes, the two actors are conscious of the work they and the productions have put into creating safe spaces. For Parade, the cast and creatives had many serious discussions about the transparency and emotional safety that needed to be established. For instance, in certain scenes, the cast needs to improv interactions, because in director Michael Arden’s version, everyone is onstage almost the entire time, and there’s always action going on in the periphery. “We had some very serious discussions about putting guardrails around the improv in the party scene, because it can be a slippery slope. And then it gets dangerous, and that's an actor safety thing,” Felciano shares. “Certainly when I started in the business, improv could be abused in ways for the sake of realism or whatever.” 

Some other conscious choices behind the scenes? Arden has always been clear about using the word rope instead of noose, and the production used Pride flags in place of the Confederate flags until tech rehearsals.

It’s something Matarazzo also remembers from the musical’s Off-Broadway run. “Transparency is key in a show in which you need to maintain healthy communication and trust and love between the people you're doing a show with—while simultaneously going into a space in which you are granting each other the permission to say and do the most unspeakable things to each other,” he says. Ben Platt (who was also in Dear Evan Hansen) plays Leo Frank in Parade. And when Matarazzo was in the show, "I needed to talk to him every day. I needed to hug him every day. I wanted to make sure that he was comfortable, that we had a rapport, that we were learning about each other. Because the last thing I wanted to do was have the association of our relationship with each other be like, ‘Oh, that's the guy who commits the hate crime to me on that stage. That's the guy who murders me.’”

Manoel Felciano and Gaten Matarazzo Heather Gershonowitz

Despite the heavy themes the two tackle onstage, they haven’t forgotten how to share a joke or have a laugh. One such story Felciano had to share with Matarazzo during this interview was the time he messed up some lyrics during a preview performance of Sweeney Todd in front of Sondheim. During “God, That’s Good,” usually the lyric is, “Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t imagine the rapture in store just inside of this door!” But in one unfortunate instance, Felciano accidentally sang, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see something that rose from the dead just inside of this door!” The line he accidentally used is sung in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” earlier in the show. Making matters worse, it’s the line in the performance which directly preceded Felciano opening the door to reveal Patti LuPone playing the tuba.

Matarazzo is bursting with laughter as Felciano recalls the story. Felciano keeps going. “And from the back of the theatre, you can hear one man howling with laughter. It was Steve. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world that I had just introduced Patti LuPone as having risen from the dead.”

Sadly, Matarazzo won’t have that opportunity to share a moment with the late Sondheim. “You want to get that blessing, and that's just not how it's gonna work anymore,” Matarazzo says, the disappointment clearly expressed on his face.

The ever-present mentor, Felciano comforts Matarazzo, “I think he had an affinity for his Tobys. I know he would have loved you just because of the kind of actor you are. You take it seriously and you have a dirty mind. He loved that because he had a foul sense of humor.” With a slightly bashful look, Matarazzo accepts the compliment. And when he says he’s trusting director Thomas Kail and music supervisor Alex Lacamoire to affirm that he’s making good choices, Felciano reminds him to trust himself. “Your instincts…for a young actor, it’s incredibly mature work.” He points to Matarazzo’s range as an actor, from his performance as Jared in Dear Evan Hansen to Frankie in Parade. “It was so effortless. It just felt like, ‘Man, this guy is not acting.’ And I mean that in the best way.”

While Matarazzo ducks his head a little throughout the conversation with every boost of support from Felciano, the camaraderie evidently goes both ways. It was a fortuitous day for them to catch up. That night, Matarazzo had a ticket for the center of the front row in the mezzanine to see Parade. A press agent comes in to remind them of the time; they've been talking for 45 minutes. They ask for another five minutes. And then another five. Matarazzo tells her, “We’re having such a blast.”

Photos: Gaten Matarazzo and Manoel Felciano Reunite in the Playbill Studio

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