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Matt Sax’s hip hop in Venice

October 17, 2010

After his successful one-man rap, Clay, a couple years ago at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Matt Sax is back at the KDT with Venice.

Sax performed Clay in Chicago, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, New York’s Lincoln Center, Los Angeles and Kansas City [Kansas City Rep is sharing this production with CTG]. “It’s the story of a kid who finds his voice through hip hop after struggling through a hard past.”

Venice,” he says, “was developed as a commission – my first ever – from Center Theatre Group. They asked me and my collaborator [Kansas City Rep Artistic Director] Eric Rosen if we’d write something else. We wanted to take the lessons we’d learned in Clay and apply them to a larger cast. Eric has, but I’ve never written a musical before, so the process of creating one was completely new for me. It was really amazing how supportive CTG was.” 

Matt Sax & Steve Julian outside KPCC

At 26, Sax is half my age and I grew up listening to the same music as his father – groups like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. I admit that hip hop has been little more to me  than something rabbits do.

But Sax believes hip hop can be for anyone. “Absolutely. I think the power of story telling it has is incredible. At this point now, the culture itself has expanded past the US, past New York; it is now a global phenomenon. It is the language by which young people speak, certainly, but what we found with Clay and certainly with Venice right now, is that while the older audience listens with older ears, they appreciate it just the same way. It’s really a cool thing because the poetry in it is something the older generations can relate to as well.” 

He schools me. “Hip hop, to my taste, is non-specific. It is essentially more a state of mind in that it is taking this record and taking that record at the outset and putting it together and making something new. So you could take a classical piece of music and throw a drum break on top of it and rap on top of it – and that is a hip hop song. So the notion that it is a very specific type of music is a fallacy. I think it actually, and why it’s lasted for so long and why it continues to thrive is that is incredibly malleable. It can be rock music. It can be soul music. It can be classical music. As long as someone’s rapping over it, it can be hip hop.” 

Yet, when I drive through places like Highland Park and admire (truly) the artistic graffiti, I’m drawn to the hip hop culture. “It’s also the break dancing, rapping, the clothing people wear, the way people talk. There’s a whole culture surrounding it.” 

And while Sax’s dad, like me, was listening to rock, Sax and his brother eventually got to choose their own radio stations. They always landed on rap. “That was the language being spoken to us from a very young age.” 

I wondered whether Venice was developed as a story or as a musical. “Both, actually. We loved some of the relationships in Othello and decided we’d start from there. The first thing we did was a workshop and I created a bunch of songs based on Eric and my conversations about Othello just to see if some of the material could sing at all. And that first workshop was cool because we created 4 or 5 songs and 2 of them are still in the show.”

Sax admits he’s not trained as a musician. “So, I’ll make the beat on the computer and then I’ll record my voice into and we’ll give it to someone to notate and they’ll put it on the page so people can have a score.” 

Forget the Boardwalk. “Venice is a fictional city; neither Venice, California nor Venice, Italy. I think it’s a cross between New York City and Jerusalem.” 

The story itself, he says, is about two brothers trying to avenge the death of their mother in two opposite ways: one, a very left wing mindset and the other a right wing mindset. “It’s about a generation of kids who have inherited the problems of their parents’ generation and are trying to solve them by emulating their parents which we know in today’s world isn’t always the best way to go about things.” 

Sax wanted to be an actor. “I went to college and wasn’t getting cast in any plays – I thought I was probably more talented than I was. So I started writing for myself. I wrote Clay just to give myself opportunities to prove people wrong and that lasted longer than I expected it to.”

Cast member Erich Bergen was in Reprise’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum earlier this year. I didn’t realize he could break dance. “He doesn’t!” Sax exclaims, laughing. “He’s got some dance moves though. There’s a lot of dancing and way more than I’m used to. We have two choreographers working together in tandem, so I mean that in and of itself is really cool.” 

One is John Carrafa, a Tony-nominated choreographer for Urinetown. The other is Tanisha Scott who choreographs for Rhianna and Beyonce, “so the two of them together, creating the visual movement language of the show, along with Eric the director – that is hip hop at its core.” 

Does that mean that hip hop improves through friction? “To a certain extent. I think what’s cool about this show that I really appreciate that drama is created by two opposing forces in any scenario. So the subject matter in the show combined with sometimes the excited music that comes along with the show creates a certain drama that I think is really, really exciting and potent. So while the subject matter in one song in particular is about 20,000 people being killed and there’s a public rally and the music is [a light] la-la-la-la-la.” 

Center Theatre Group’s artistic director, Michael Ritchie, has been criticized for having too much of a New York influence on LA productions. Sax, who is from New York, decides to let the local audience argue that one. “I know that CTG has been incredibly generous with me as an artist and has been very supportive. I can’t speak to their programming initiatives but I know that they are incredibly supportive of what we’re doing and they treat artists really great.” 

Venice runs through November 14, 2010 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Ticket information.

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