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Theater Interview: “Venice” Creator Matt Sax

Matt Sax and Venice cast (photo: Joan Marcus)


Music by Matt Sax, lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen Book and direction by Matt Rosen Performances through June 30, 2013

While performing his one-man show Clay at the Duke on 42nd Street in 2008, Matt Sax probably had little idea that his next musical creation, Venice, would draw from Shakespeare, Rent, hip-hop and the modern security state. Venice’s journey from commission to an extended run at the Public Theater (which ends June 30) has been long but rewarding for Sax and his director-co-creator Matt Rosen. Sax recently spoke by phone on a rare day off to discuss the show.

Kevin Filipski: How did Venice come about?

Matt Sax: I was doing my show Clay and my collaborator Eric Rosen and I were offered a commission in Los Angeles. We wanted to do something inspired by Shakespeare and Greek tragedy and take the lessons from Clay, integrating hip-hop and storytelling into a much larger scope. We started with a few songs, from which were born characters, then the story. The goal was to explode the one-man show onto a much larger canvas. What I constantly learn is no matter how big the story, it always comes down to characters.

KF: I imagine it was easy finding contemporary relevance in Shakespeare.

A: There was something in the Othello text that we loved, which is the idea that the enemy without is actually the enemy within. We often point fingers at others, but sometimes the opposition is closer to us than we realize. It obviously parallels the world we are living in now. We started working on Venice around the time that Obama was first becoming a viable candidate in the primaries: “hope” was in the air, and all of those kinds of impulses were very important at the beginning for us.

KF: What are your influences musically?

MS: My father was a huge fan of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, so I grew up listening to all that. I then discovered hip-hop, which has been very important to me. In this show, all of the characters speak and sing differently from the others, so woven through the show are certain thematic melodies resonating in their voices. It’s an experience where, when you work on something a long time, you approach it in a certain way. That’s not something you can do in a short amount of time: it’s been building for awhile, combining disparate influences to make something new. To have no specific genre or boundaries when you’re creating is important to me. Audiences have been telling us that they’ve been into it: it’s amazing to see audiences respond to our show. There are detractors against trying something new, which is always the case when you’re doing something that makes people uncomfortable. Having people feel passionately is something I strive for.

KF: How did your character, Clown MC, come about?

MS: We wanted to create within a large scale musical a character that mirrors the within/without feeling of Othello, someone on the edge of the story and also part of it as it is happening. We feel that we really achieved that, and he’s called a clown because of what clowns symbolize in Shakespeare and in ancient Greece: it’s an opportunity to be in both worlds, as if someone’s being invited to the parties but also on the outside looking in.

Jennifer Damiano in Venice (photo: Joan Marcus)


KF: Talk about the incredible Jennifer Damiano, who will be a huge musical star someday, and who plays Willow.

MS: Jennifer is an incredibly soulful spirit onstage. When we looked at bringing different tones to each of the characters, and letting them sing differently, Willow has a musical vocabulary that’s all her own. I’ve been a fan of Jennifer, so the opportunity to work with her and see her invest her whole heart into this character has been especially gratifying. Hearing her sing these songs that we’ve written has been a real joy for us. “Willow” was the first song we wrote for Venice, it was the first impulse to bring the show to life, and the only song in Shakespeare’s text for Othello is “The Willow Song.” It felt like a natural place to begin for us.

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

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