Matt Bogart is Smokin'!
The ''white guy'' in the Broadway Television Network's premiere presentation, Smokey Joe's Café, has starred in four Broadway shows in less than two years. An intimate chat with the new Bogie.
Ever since he landed the plum role of Chris in a national tour of Miss Saigon at a tender age, Bogart has had little free time to spend hanging out at the Equity lounge. He went from Saigon to The Civil War and, when that show closed much sooner than anticipated, he slipped into Smokey Joe's Café for the Leiber and Stoller revue's final six months on Broadway. Lately, you might have caught him in Aida at the Palace Theatre, making musical love to Heather Headley in his role as understudy to the show's male lead, Adam Pascal.
Broadway theatergoers saw a lot of Bogart when he was one of a small group of performers featured in a giant Jockey underwear billboard in Times Square two years ago. He is about to receive even more exposure (of a different kind) through the medium of pay-per-view TV: A state-of-the-art video version of Smokey Joe's Café will be broadcast on September 10 as the initial presentation of the new Broadway Television Network, starring Matt and several members of the show's original cast. In a recent telephone interview, I spoke with Mr. B. about this highly anticipated event--and about what it's like to be a casting director's dream.
TM: Matt, your bio says that you played "the white guy" in Smokey Joe's. Is that how the character is actually billed?
BOGART: No! I just put that on my résumé and in my bios for shock value. I mean, how else do you describe it? Do you say it's the Michael Park role?
TM: Then how is the character billed?
BOGART: There are no characters; it's just the nine people's names listed in the program. I guess I could have said "Matt played Matt in Smokey Joe's Café." Instead, I said "the white guy," and that made a few people cackle--even if it is politically incorrect. I could have said "Caucasian," but that's a little much.
TM: I've seen a preview tape of the TV version, and it looks terrific. What were some of your favorite numbers to do in the show?
BOGART: Definitely "Ruby" and "Jailhouse Rock." The taping was a lot of fun. We were crossing our fingers when we watched the screening, but I'm very pleased with how I come off, and I think everyone looks pretty good. Because the show was taped in high definition, it's almost like 3-D; the colors are so vibrant, and the sound is great.
TM: They had a screening for the cast?
BOGART: Yes, here in New York, a couple of months ago. It was fun to see everybody again. A little reunion.
TM: Tell me about the actual taping process. I know it was done in the theater, but was it before an invited audience?
BOGART: No, just regular ticket holders. They taped five performances--the last five shows--and, in the final cut, it looked to me like they used a lot of the highlights from the last performance. Because, of course, closing nights are very exciting; there are usually lots of fans in the audience who've come to see the show more than once. For the taping, they more or less turned the theater into a television studio without hindering the audience's view or taking away their enjoyment of the show.
TM: It will be a nice treat for those who didn't get to see you do the show live. Ever since Miss Saigon, you've worked almost constantly.
BOGART: I've been very lucky. What can I say? I have been out of work, but it hasn't lasted for long. I'm just happy to have a place to go to at 8:00 every night.
TM: Your bio says that you went to school in Cincinnati. Is that where you're from?
BOGART: I grew up north of Dayton, on a farm.
TM: And I seem to remember reading or hearing that you have one or more brothers who are also in the business.
BOGART: My youngest brother is thinking of being a musician, but he's still in college. My other two brothers live in New York right now. Both of them also graduated from the conservatory in Cincinnati; Dan was a musical theater major there, and Dominic was a drama major. Dan is out in Chicago at Steppenwolf right now, working on The Ballad of Little Jo.
TM: You guys must be pretty close in age. Your poor mother!
BOGART: I know! I'll tell you, my parents were incredibly skeptical about me going into the business; they had kind of traditional ideas of what people should do for a living. But, when I was lucky enough to get Miss Saigon right after I graduated from school, they were pleased. They embraced it, and my brothers did, also. You know, acting is not necessarily something you're going to get rich at. But you can make a living and have a good life in New York, at least. I think that's what we aspire to.
TM: Saigon was your first big show?
BOGART: Yeah, I did Chris in the second national tour. I had about seven months between the time I got out of school and actually started the job, but I think I booked it two months after I graduated. So I had to wait, like, five months before I started--which was difficult. I had already moved to New York, and I sold shoes in between. After the tour, I had eight months off. I came back to New York and auditioned for lots of stuff, but then I was offered Saigon on Broadway.
TM: You did that show for quite a while, didn't you?
BOGART: Over three years, including the tour. It seemed to me that they didn't keep guys in the role for longer than a year and a half. It was enjoyable, but a tough role. Very challenging. That's why I stayed so long; it always kept me interested.
TM: You were probably the fourth or fifth person to play Chris on Broadway, yet you're the one whose image is featured in all the billboards and posters for the show.
BOGART: That mostly had to do with timing. They took a lot of promo pictures out on the tour; that's where all those images come from. Around that time, they decided they wanted the look of the show in the ads to be less warlike, more romantic. They were afraid that a certain demographic of people weren't coming to the show because of the war theme.
TM: Who is your Kim in those pictures?
BOGART: That's Deedee Lynn Magno. We did the tour together and then we did the show in New York.
TM: Is it an issue that you're still in all of the ads, even though you haven't been in the show for a couple of years?
BOGART: It's not an issue for me! They took those pictures when I was 23 years old. I look great! But, seriously, it's enjoyable. When my parents come to visit, they see my face on buses and the posters in midtown. I think the only people who might have an issue with it are the actors who are in the show right now. Maybe they'd like to see their pictures up there! But they're all friends of mine, so we joke about it.
TM: Speaking of billboards, let's talk about your famous Jockey ad. Was that wild?
BOGART: You know, it happened so fast. For the audition, I had to take my shirt off in front of the camera, and at least be comfortable with that. The actual taking of the photograph was very cool; all seven of us went down to Chelsea Piers, and it was fun, because we all knew each other from other shows or from just seeing each other around. We realized it was going to be a lot of...exposure...and we had a good time. William Ivey Long was kind of in charge of who was wearing what, and he's a lot of fun, too. With these print ad things, you never know what they're gonna look like until they're up. They had us all come down for the unveiling--I think it was in March of '98--and it was scary. But it turned out great. When my grandma saw the billboard, she was, like, "Well, this is fine; but if you take anything else off, it becomes a whole different thing!" I remember one funny moment where we were getting dressed at the shoot and they were deciding which person should wear what underwear. I was originally supposed to wear green boxers to match the fatigues that I wore in [Miss Saigon]. And I thought, "Oh, that's cool. I don't need to put up with any embarrassment or anything." Then William Ivey Long walked up to me with some butt-floss bikini underwear in his hand and said, "You'll be wearing this." That was interesting!
TM: After Saigon, you went into The Civil War. That must have been a huge disappointment, because it was so...
BOGART: Short lived?
TM: Yes. I went to see it as part of a group and, though we really loved the music, we all seemed to feel that the show didn't hang together dramatically.
BOGART: I think that's how most people perceive it in retrospect. I don't understand exactly what was wrong with it because, if you're in something, it's hard to be objective. I was in all the workshops, the readings; I did the show at the Alley Theatre, and then we came to New York. What seems to have been the problem is that they changed directors halfway through; they decided to change the concept, and I could see the point of both approaches. Nick Corley was trying to give the show a concert feel that was kind of timeless and yet contemporary--to allow the audience to use their imaginations. Jerry Zaks felt that it needed to be more theatrical. In doing so, he attempted to go somewhat "period" with it. That made the audience expect more in a realistic sense than we could live up to, because we didn't have the book. There was no dramatic through-line to sustain that kind of theatricalism. So the show had a hard time deciding what it wanted to be, and it never got there in time for the critics to help us out. It was difficult for the writing team and for the director to figure out what to do, because the audiences were really enjoying the show. And it was also tough to gauge because Frank Wildhorn has a strong following of people who will support whatever he puts out there. That's not a bad thing, but it can be misleading. Still, The Civil War was a great experience. I worked with some amazing people. It was hard to see the show go down so quickly.
TM: They never made a recording of the Broadway company, did they?
BOGART: No, they didn't. That was one of the biggest disappointments, because there were about three or four new songs that were not published and were not on the all-star recording they did. And I just feel like the Broadway company had something original to bring to that music.
TM: Fortunately, you bounced back quickly into Smokey Joe's. And now you're standing by for Adam Pascal in Aida. I heard that you had a chance to go on last month.
BOGART: Yes, they prepped me in time for Adam's vacation. I got everybody in there: all my friends, my family, some business people. It was wonderful. To do a show that the audience is excited about is really a pleasure.
TM: Were you hesitant to take an understudy job, even for such a high profile role? Or do you have some kind of a deal where you'll take over after Adam leaves?
BOGART: Good question! It took over a month to negotiate the contract. I was hesitant, because I'm at a stage where all I want to do is new shows and blah, blah, blah. I did ask if I could take over when Adam leaves, but I don't think they were ready to give that to anyone at that point. They wanted to keep their options open. Plus, I think they wanted to see me do it first! They've been very particular about this role. The good thing about standing by is that I'm available to audition for other shows. If something came up, I could probably get out of Aida without a problem. But it's a good job. It's a blessing. And, certainly, there isn't much coming in right now to audition for. I mean, there are things coming in that I'm excited about, but they're all cast.
TM: Given your experience as an underwear model, did go out for The Full Monty?
BOGART: I did, originally. I didn't even get a callback.
TM: I'm sorry.
BOGART: What's up with that? Don't they know I'm the Jockey guy?! [laughs]
TM: I interviewed Deedee Lynn Magno when she was in Saigon, and I asked her what it was like to play love scenes with Matt Bogart. So I guess it's only fair for me to ask you what it's like to play love scenes with Heather Headley.
BOGART: Hmmm... Well, I'll tell you, she's an incredible talent. And she's sexy. She's so powerful in what she does, I have to try my best to keep up with her. She's got an incredible presence. I really enjoy singing the duets with her; "Elaborate Lives" is one of my favorites. As a stand-by, I don't get to do the show with her as many times as I would like. So it's all about us trying to find where our show lies, and how we fit physically. Heather has a thing going on with Adam that's comfortable, and I'm a little different. But we have fun out there. These are two great roles, and we're both going for the same thing--trying to make the love story work, so that the rest of the play will work. You've got to care about these people and see how much they want each other, or else the whole second act doesn't matter.
TM: My last question is a little personal; I'll try to phrase it right, and you can tell me if you want to answer it.
TM: You've had all these Broadway leads, you're super talented, you're amazing looking...and you're a straight guy in a business that employs lots of gay men. I imagine you get a lot of attention from the women you work with. Is it sort of like being a kid in a candy store?
BOGART: No. I dated a couple of girls in the company of Miss Saigon and I enjoyed having someone to share my life with and my work with, but it became a conflict of interest. Also, I decided that it wasn't a good idea to spend all of my waking hours with one person. You can't have your cake and...theirs, too! You'll tear yourself up emotionally if you live that way.
TM: I suppose it would be silly to think that women on Broadway are constantly on the lookout for straight men in their shows--for husband material or whatever.
BOGART: I think they're actually more wary of straight guys, because they don't want to get hurt. I'm very careful about whom I choose to date and go out with, and I try not to take advantage of anyone. It's just using common sense, knowing yourself, and loving yourself first before you love someone else. Trying not to take the people in your life for granted. It took me a couple of years to learn that. Unless you're incredibly secure, it's smart to think twice about dating someone you work with. That goes for straight, gay, whatever.
TM: Well, thanks for answering that questionable question. And thanks for the interview. I know a lot of people are looking forward to seeing Smokey Joe's Café on television--not only to enjoy the show again, but to see if this whole "Broadway on pay-per-view" project is going to fly.
BOGART: The idea is to get these shows out there, and I think it can only help. It's publicity. One of the greatest things about the TV version of Smokey Joe's is that seven of the nine original cast members are in it, so there's that documentation. It was a very special, charming show, and I hope it will be exciting to watch.