New Jersey Jewish News
From bar mitzva boy to Wedding Singer:
When you hear Matthew Sklars story, it sounds as if the 32-year-old composer from Westfield has had way too much luck for one person. Opportunities seem to have fallen into his lap since he was a kid taking part in musicals at school or at the Westfield Summer Workshops, and later during his years as a pit musician for professional musicals.
But listen a little closer and though in his quiet way he doesnt make much of it its clear that each of these opportunities was the result of hard work, drawing on courage and long hours of endless effort.
The latest result is the roaring success of his very first Broadway musical, The Wedding Singer, currently pulling in the crowds at the Al Hirschfeld Theater in Manhattan. Sklar wrote the music to go with lyrics by his writing partner, Chris Beguelin, and a book by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy. The on-stage adaptation of the hit Adam Sandler movie pays homage to the pop music and styles of the 1980s, with big emotions and even bigger hairstyles.
Sklar was nominated for a Tony Award for his composition, and though he didnt win it, he acknowledges that he was delighted by the recognition. The show was also nominated for eight Drama Desk Awards and three Drama League Awards, an extraordinary coup for newcomers.
But applause counts more than trophies. By far the most enjoyable part of all this is watching the audience enjoying the show, Sklar said, talking by phone from his Manhattan apartment in a very brief break between appointments. Its amazing to sit at the back and hear 1,400 people laughing.
Its that dynamic that hooked him on show business as an eight-year-old, watching his older sister and her friends on stage in Westfield. His parents still live there, and are still active members of Temple Emanu-El, where he became a bar mitzva and where he sang at synagogue events with Cantor Martha Novick. A picture from his bar mitzva celebration actually features as decor in The Wedding Singer.
He recalls his childhood with gratitude and pleasure. Lord knows, I love that I come from New Jersey, he said. I was very fortunate to grow up in a place like Westfield and to always have music in my home.
His father and his two sisters, one older and one younger, all play music. My mom is the only one who isnt at all musical, but she showed up to everything and was always the last to leave. Shes been a great supporter, he said.
He could pick out tunes on the piano by ear by the time he was two and started lessons at four. At eight, he composed his first song. My father wrote it down as sheet music, he recalled.
In elementary school he played in the band; in junior high he began song writing and composing. In summer workshops, working with a number of extraordinary teachers, includingWestfield High School theater director Joe Nierle, he got to explore all facets of musical theater. He performed in productions of The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Hello, Dolly!, and Godspell and toured Europe with the schools Broadway Revue.
And then there are those lucky breaks.
On his 15th birthday, at rehearsals for a concert at the Union County Arts Center in Rahway, he met legendary popular music composer Marvin Hamlisch. A friend persuaded him to ask the celebrity if he could play for him. Hamlisch listened, asked him to riff on one of his tunes (which Sklar knew well), and then invited him to play on stage that night. The two of them schemed together to make it as big a surprise as possible for his astounded parents, who were in the audience.
In ninth grade, his classmates performed a song of his. He taped it on a four-track recorder, and on a whim sent it to the Disney Channel. To my amazement, they played it, he recalled. I got a taste of what that felt like, and I loved it. Of course, it took years to get back to experiencing anything like that, but it made me want it. It felt so amazing that the song Id composed in my room at home was taken seriously by professionals.
By virtue of Jewish geography, he said, a friend of his grandmothers helped him meet composer Maury Yeston, and while in his teens he got hired as a rehearsal pianist at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, which was mounting a production of Yestons show Titanic.
With feet still firmly on the ground, he decided he wanted to get as much music education as he could. While still in high school, thanks to a recommendation from Hamlisch, he was accepted in the Juilliard Pre-College Division as a composition major. One summer he attended Boston Universitys Tanglewood Institute, and after graduating from high school he went on to study music at New York University.
He was 19 and a composition major when he was introduced to Charles or Chad Beguelin, a song writer. They clicked immediately. I really trust Chad, he said. We learned how to script musical theater together.
While studying, and composing with Beguelin, he also sought out every chance he could to play professionally, working his contacts to get jobs as a pit musician and later as an associate conductor. He worked on Broadway productions of Miss Saigon, Titanic, 42nd Street, and Nine. He was only 21 when he was asked to serve as assistant conductor for Les Miserables on Broadway. Looking back, I was just a kid, he said.
During that time, he and Beguelin wrote their first musical, a noir spoof of the Oedipus story, Wicked City, which played in a few out-of-town venues, and their second, Rhythm Club, a story set in the 1930s about a love affair between a Jewish boy and a German girl.
That got us recognized by the theater community in New York, Sklar said. Rhythm Club was staged off-Broadway and was moderately successful, and he is hoping it will still find a wider audience. But the Big Time was still eluding them.
About three years ago, he saw the movie The Wedding Singer. I jumped at it, he said. As successful as the film was, with a soundtrack punctuated by a couple of songs, to Sklars mindset, it was full of emotional crosscurrents that cried out for full musical interpretation.
To get a show like that off the ground takes getting the right group of people behind it, with the right chemistry. This time it happened. Producer Margo Lion came on board, New Line Cinema, which owned the rights, joined in, and they found seven of the nine lead singers. The planets were aligned, he said.
It took three exhausting years to bring the show to Broadway, and now Sklar is basking in the achievement but not taking any of it for granted. He has produced a cast album of The Wedding Singer, and he and Beguelin are pressing ahead with new projects, determined to produce a body of work that establishes their reputation.
There are so many gifted people who never get the opportunity to show what they can do, he said. I suppose it is a matter of timing. And its imperative to grab the opportunities when they come.
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