For Matt Castle, a New York-based jack of all musical trades whose work can currently be heard in Sacramento Theatre Company’s lauded world-premiere production of “A Little Princess” (extended through the evening of May 19), taking on the task of orchestrating Eric Rockwell’s score was a multi-layered labor of love.
Not only did it allow Castle, a Sacramento native now living in New York, the opportunity to participate in the gifting of his hometown with an original musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, but it provided yet another project on which he and husband Frank Galgano could collaborate – further establishing the duo’s reputation as go-to guys for musical theater orchestrations.
“When Eric came to me and Frank, we were happy to be asked,” said Castle during a rehearsal break from his current gig as the musical director/pianist for the Fiasco Theatre production of “Into the Woods” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. “It’s definitely a big deal for Sacramento Theatre Company to be creating a new musical. It’s a huge endeavor.”
“We talked with him and the other two authors (lyricist Margaret Rose and book writer William J. Brooke), discussed the space available, and once we had the choice of instruments set (harp, cello, clarinet/flute/piccolo, piano/synthesizer, percussion), we went to work.”
Castle said he likens the work he and Galgano accomplish to what one sees on “reveal-happy” reality shows. “You get the parameters from those in charge, and then you have to balance your work between utility and design and cost. It’s a wonderful process – it uses your whole brain.”
What followed were an exchange of ideas and digital files between Castle and Galgano, and the other members of the creative team that also included Sacramento Theatre Director Executive Producing Director Michael Laun, who oversaw Equity principal auditions in New York this past October. The 18-member cast – led by Jerry Lee, Josh Powell, Michael De Souza and Deborah Tranelli – first gathered for a read-through in February, with rehearsals starting in earnest a month later.
“We understood very well the style of Eric’s score, Margaret’s lyrics and William’s book,” Castle said. “Our primary challenge as orchestrators – and what we had no way f knowing – was the tone and style of the production itself. We hoped to orchestrate with a design that will last for the life of the show, something that fits with the play as written. We didn’t know Michael Laun’s work as a director, we hadn’t seen set sketches or costume sketches. We were, after all, on the other side of the country.”
“One thing we did to help bridge the distance after scoring the first song, was orchestrate what was essentially a karaoke track so the other designers could hear a soundscape. We sent it out to the design team to help them imagine a jumping-off place.”
The feedback from Rockwell was more than positive, said Castle.
“He said some very gracious and complimentary things about our work on the show,” he said. “He said we took what he wrote and lifted it to a new, higher level. We couldn’t ask for a better compliment than that.”
Despite the kudos the creative team was trading, a certain amount of anxiety comes with the opening of every world premiere. They needn’t have worried; local reviewers were extremely generous, tossing out superlatives like Mardi Gras doubloons.
“Exquisite score,” proclaimed The Sacramento Bee. “This show has everything one could want to make it a hit,” said The Davis Enterprise. “The music, by composer Eric Rockwell, is one of the stronger aspects of ‘A Little Princess.’ And just about everyone in the large cast … sings well,” broadcast Capital Public Radio.
“It turned out much better than I ever hoped it would,” said Castle, who said he tends to avoid embracing expectations. “I guess that’s a benefit of enjoying the unknown as I do. I don’t have to meet an expectation; I just go forward doing the best I can, enjoying it as it happens. I don’t often feel disappointed because I go in with high hopes, with open eyes, and an open heart. Part of the reason I feel successful – and my standard of success is based on what I’m doing, if the work I’m doing today better than what I was doing yesterday – is that I feel very happy about what I’m doing.”
Castle’s positive attitude and willingness to explore the unknown have served him well in an industry where knowing too much can often dampen a performer’s creative spark before it has a chance to catch fire. His never-say-die spirit was evident even as a University of Pacific Conservatory of Music student, said Professor Sue Eskridge, who served as Castle’s mentor and collaborator during his matriculation and subsequent tenure as head of the school’s summer enrichment program, which facilitated musical theater training for juvenile artists.
“Matt’s the only perfect person I know,” said the now-retired Eskridge, “not that I’m biased. He truly does come close to perfect. During the 10 years he was artistic director for SEP, he wrote the shows, directed the shows, did everything, including playing the piano. I think I called myself the program director. I created it and raised bundles of money so he could make it wonderful, which he did. But he was the artistic genius. Yes, I am quite biased, but it is all true.”
“Since I first met Sue she fully expected me to go to New York and take over ‘Phantom,’” laughed Castle. “But it’s easier for some else to say than saying it about yourself. That’s not how my ambition functions. Since my first involvement in theater as a sophomore in high school, I subconsciously felt that pull until my mid-20s. Then it took a little time to feel ready.”
After a few months of study with Fair Oaks-based vocal coach Jackie Victorino, Castle said it was time to head east.
“There was nothing left but to jump in and try to do my best and see if it would work out,” Castle said.
When Castle decided to make the move in the fall of 2000, he confesses to going in blind.
“I can honestly say I moved to New York City without one expectation of what it would be like,” said Castle. “I knew I couldn’t predict it, couldn’t even imagine it. I’ve never been a five-year plan person – it’s just not my style. I enjoy the unknown, and the adventure of what that means. I went to New York to make an identity for myself as an actor, and knew exactly two people in the entire city. I had no idea how it all works. I had a headshot and a résumé, but didn’t know where to go to find where auditions are. Plus, I had no professional training as an actor – all my training was in music. I learned it all on the job.”
Call it luck, call it talent – or a combination of both – but Castle found a modicum of success right off the bat.
“Then September 11th came, and the job market changed overnight,” said Castle of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers. “Those with Broadway jobs had to take jobs out of town; people at the top of the food chain changed. I had such a slight foothold that I was completely bumped – I did what I had to do, and that included going to temp agencies and taking clerical tests.”
But Castle never had to trade in the calluses built up over years of playing the piano for paper cuts garnered from daylong sessions of filing legal folders thanks to a job offer playing for rehearsals at New York University.
“I began playing more, and getting musical-direction jobs,” said Castle. “And I was still auditioning from time to time. That led to work as a musician-actor combination, which is how I got to understudy Eric Rockwell in ‘The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)’ off-Broadway. He didn’t want to do the show eight times a week, and the producers allowed him to sit out three days a week and I was going on every matinee in his place, as well as occasionally for the other male lead.”
In 2006, Castle made it to Broadway as a cast member in the Tony Award-winning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” an experience he hopes to repeat.
Soon thereafter he and Galgano discovered one another and thus began their personal and professional partnership.
“Frank comes to music as a singer,” said Castle of the duo’s approach to orchestration. “His knowledge comes from recording other people’s orchestrations. He’s recorded more than 100 Broadway shows instrument by instrument. His training reminds me of how orchestrators trained before computers.”
“I often do the nuts-and-bolts work, the technical side. He maintains the broader, stylistic, overall view of what we do. Sometimes he does the forest and I do the trees. Other times, he does the fun aspects, and I do the detail work. For me, the nuts-and-bolts stuff is fun so we both have jobs suited to our personalities.”
In just a few short years of working together, Frank and I are becoming known as a creative team,” said Castle, who said the couple’s professional teaming has happily tipped the scale of his creative endeavors in favor of orchestration work.
“In the past eight or nine years, a lot of what I’ve been doing has been musical direction, with some orchestration,” said Castle. “Now orchestration is a bigger piece of what I do, and that’s partly because it’s something Frank and I can do together – something we can do better together.”
Together for more than four years now, the couple made it official a year-and-a-half ago.
“We have both been actors, but Frank doesn’t act that often anymore, so I guess for me it’s not so much about changing focus than switching my work balance a bit,” Castle said. “I’m very happy with the current balance – happier than before. It’s a silly thing to say, but it’s true. It’s more enjoyable because I get to do it with my husband.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The world premiere production of "A Little Princess," a new musical by Eric Rockwell (composer), Margaret Rose (lyricist) and William J. Brooke (book)
WHERE: Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHEN: Plays through May 19, with performances at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday,12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
WHO: Directed by Michael Laun; orchestrated by Matt Castle and Frank Galgano; with musical acompaniment by Erik Daniells (conductor/piano), Elaine Lord (percussion), Alex Winter (cello), John Doolittle (reeds), Beverly Wesner Hoehn (harp); featuring Lauren Metzinger/Alyssa Middleton (Sara Crewe), Jerry Lee (Captain Crewe, Sara’s father), Josh Powell (Tom Carrisford), Michael De Souza (Ram Dass), Deborah Tranelli (Miss Minchin), Tyler Wipfli (Mariete), Tori Johnson/Emma Vance (Becky), Martha Omiyo Kight (Amelia), Meghan Greene/Abbey Williams-Campbell (Lavinia), Devon Hayakawa/Christine Miyashiro (Ermengarde), Courtney Shannon/Jordan Taylor (Betsy), Sydney Christofferson/Ana Riley-Portal (Ruth), Kiki Burns/Bella Bagatelos (Jessie), Angel Marie/Jillie Kate Randle (Lottie), Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly (Constable), Blair Leatherwood (teacher), Carol Miranda (cook), Kayla Berghoff (maid), Courtney Shannon/Jordan Taylor (beggar girl), David McDaniel (beggar), Kayla Beghoff, Kailey Diggs, Jeffery Lloyd Heatherly, Blair Leatherwood, David McDaniel, Carol Miranda (other servants and Londoners)
HOW MUCH: $15-$38 (discounts for students, seniors, and groups available)
FOR MORE INFO: (916) 443-6722; www.sactheatre.org