Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colellaat a press preview for Urban Cowboy(Photo: © Joseph Marzullo)
Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella
at a press preview for Urban Cowboy
(Photo: © Joseph Marzullo)
Interviewing performers just as their careers are taking off is the most exciting and rewarding part of my job. I recently had the happy opportunity to speak with two fresh-faced types who have every good reason to be optimistic about their Broadway future: Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella, who play Bud and Sissy in the boot-scootin' musical Urban Cowboy.

Due to the vagaries of showbiz scheduling, I talked with these cowpokes separately by phone, and each waxed poetic about the other for minutes at a time. It's evidently a down-home love-fest at Gilly's on stage at the Broadhurst Theater, where the show is now in the final stages of previews as it heads toward its opening on March 27.

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MATT CAVENAUGH: Have you spoken to my leading lady yet? You are going to love her. She is awesome! Be careful, though. No matter what you say, Jenn will turn it around and make it dirty. She will find innuendo in the most innocent statement. She's the most crass, sexy, dirty girl I've ever met!

THEATERMANIA: I can tell that this is not going to be an in-depth, serious interview.

MATT: You won't ask if I've "had sexual relations with that woman," will you?

TM: You keep talking dirty and I will pull this interview over and you can just get out! Actually, the subject of sex is a very good place to start an interview about Urban Cowboy. What has it been like for you, coming from the relative obscurity of regional theater and all of a sudden being the new Broadway stud, with sexy pictures of you on the marquee, in the posters, and in newspaper ads?

MATT: It's a little weird. I mean, this time last year, I was doing a non-Equity tour of Strike Up the Band -- the concert version! I've been getting a lot of shit from my friends, like, "What the hell are those pornographic pictures of you?" It's hilarious.

TM: Not so long ago, sex appeal was the last thing on the minds of theater marketing people. Now, they're using sex in the way that Hollywood and the fashion industry have been doing for years.

MATT: It seems perfectly sensible to me, depending on the project. Parade probably shouldn't have a sexy billboard, but our show happens to be hot and sexy. I mean, we ride mechanical bulls on stage, for God's sake. It doesn't get much more sexual than that!

Welcome, Matt!(Photo: © Joseph Marzullo)
Welcome, Matt!
(Photo: © Joseph Marzullo)
TM: Had you ridden one of those before?

MATT: Nope. Never. Some of us went to the Colorado Café, a big country-western bar in Jersey, to practice. My dad used to ride saddle bronc and bareback, so I called him up to see if he had any advice. He told me to keep my upper body leaning back, because if you're bucked off, it's usually from the front. He told me to grip and hold on really tight with my legs. I find that gripping the saddle with my left hand, with my elbow tucked in, stabilizes me. The right hand goes up for balance...

TM: ...and for the poster.

MATT: Exactly. To show off the abs! You can explain it for hours, but what you really have to do is try like hell not to fall off.

TM: Did you know that your fellow cast member Sally Mayes used to sing at Texas county fairs and rodeos when she was a little girl? She told me her mother used to Scotch tape bows to her head so they wouldn't fall off, which I think is a beautiful image.

MATT: I can't wait to tell her I know that! I used to sing at the Arkansas State Fair growing up. My big song, which I sang with my friend Rainie English, was "The Last Night of the World" from Miss Saigon. Please don't print that -- it sounds so totally wrong! We normally didn't win. It was Arkansas. They just stared at us.

TM: So many actors have played Bud in readings of Urban Cowboy over the past few years: Jeremy Kushnier, David Elder, James Carpinello, Raúl Esparza. How did the role end up in your lap?

MATT: Jeff Blumenkrantz, who has written some of the new songs for the show, saw me in Strike Up The Band and we chatted afterwards. A month later, I got an e-mail asking if I would be interested in reading for the role of Bud. I couldn't dream of a better part. I feel well suited for it, though it does carry a lot of star-power, mostly because John Travolta did the movie. You know Travolta's the coolest, right?

TM: So, you're a fan. Are you prepared for the moment when he comes backstage to meet you?

MATT: I can't wait. I'm so psyched! It's interesting, because I don't feel like I'm a cool guy. I'm basically a dumb dork-head from Arkansas.

TM: Yeah, that's how it always starts out. This time next year, you'll be giving interviews through speakerphones, wearing sunglasses and with your overcoat thrown around your shoulders, using very big words.

MATT: Don't worry, I don't know any big words! But really, so much of the fun of Urban Cowboy comes from the fact that it was such a sensation as a film. People all over the country started wearing boots and hats; everyone went crazy. Our cast is having such a blast together. Between our director, Lonny Price, and the producers, Chase Mishkin and Leonard Soloway, everyone has helped to make the experience a total joy. I've been a huge Jason Robert Brown fan, too, so to have him writing songs for me and the show is a total kick.

TM: Does the cast really get along that well? You can tell me; I won't say anything to anyone.

MATT: It's one big, incestuous family. No, I'm kidding. That's all we need -- that rumor starting up! The cast is made up of people who have done a lot of New York shows, like Leo Burmester and Sally Mayes. Then there's Jenn and me, who have no clue. The whole cast is sexy and fun and totally kicks ass.

TM: You must be so excited about opening night.

MATT: There are seven kids in my family, so the whole village is coming...plus assorted aunts, uncles, wives, cousins, and all of my college and high school friends. This dream gets better every day. Please, don't wake me up!

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JENN COLELLA: Hi. I'm sitting here in my new place, waiting for all my furniture to be delivered from California. I can't wait to get everything in this apartment so I feel like I really live in New York. I need to nest.

TM: You moved here from L.A.?

JENN: Yes. I grew up in South Carolina, then went to grad school at the University of California at Irvine.

Jenn with the light brown hair(Photo: © Joseph Marzullo)
Jenn with the light brown hair
(Photo: © Joseph Marzullo)
TM: This is your first Broadway show and Matt's first Broadway show. It must be interesting for you two to go through all of this together.

JENN: It's thrilling. When I saw the first Times ad, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. Matt is so foxy! He and I were totally in love with each other from the get-go. We feel like brother and sister, although on stage, it's hot. When you see us making out, we're really making out. No stage kissing here, folks! The whole Urban Cowboy experience has been so happy that it almost seems surreal. And now, after all the work we've done, it's finally happening.

TM: There's been a lot of chat about the way the show is being advertised. Do you like the concept?

JENN: My sensibilities are not that delicate -- I'm sorry! We all thrive on the sexual energy that surrounds our show. The characters we portray are rather simple folk. When they're mad, they're mad. When they want to have sex, they want to have sex. It's all kind of primal.

TM: Tell me about the character you play.

JENN: She's very similar to the character Debra Winger played in the movie. Sissy is a tomboy who hasn't had great luck with men but never plays the victim. And she's a fighter, man! Of course, her toughness is just a veneer. She wants what every other woman wants: to find someone to treat her right and sweep her off her feet.

TM: Have you ever before been involved in the creation of a new show?

JENN: Not to this extent. Lonny Price has been one of the most tremendous leaders I've ever come across. It's been a truly collaborative experience on every level; he's established such a sense of trust and respect, and that groundwork has developed into kindness and compassion and a willingness to share new ideas. We've all fallen in love with each other. That love, along with Aaron Latham's script and Jason Robert Brown's music, hopefully translates on stage. That's where the magic comes from.

JC: Let's talk about the music. Combining Jason Robert Brown and the Dixie Chicks is inspired.

JENN: It's perfect! There are moments when the audience is clapping and singing along to one of the familiar songs, then Jason's music swells and they're absolutely captivated.

TM: Did you see a lot of theater when you were growing up?

JENN: The first show I saw on Broadway was Phantom of the Opera, and I was so taken with it. As soon as I turned 18, I got a phantom mask tattooed on my arm! Now, I'm moving into the theater right next to Phantom and I've decided to get a star tattooed over part of the mask, so he's kind of peekin' out from behind. A bunch of us from the cast are getting tattoos together. Most everyone is getting some kind of star.

TM: For the Lone Star State?

JENN: Yes, but also for guidance and light. I'm lucky; I have family coming out of the woodwork. The support and love I'm getting from them and all my friends is what it's all about. There are a great many people planning on making the schlep from South Carolina and all over the country, just for me!