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How Matt Harrington assumed a major Broadway role
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
Every night before Matt Harrington goes on stage for his first scene as Mr. Wormwood in Matilda, he does a little dance in the wings.
Matilda's television-loving, car salesman father makes his first appearance in "Miracle," the opening number, and shortly after his wife gives birth, he bounds in wearing a checkered green suit. "Wormwood's got to come in at an 11," Harrington says. "So I'll start bouncing around and getting into the rhythm of the song."
Based on the beloved children's novel by Roald Dahl, Matilda follows the title heroine as she grows up among adults who don't understand her intelligence, her sensitivity, and eventually, her telekinesis. Worst of all are The Trunchbull (her school's headmistress) and her parents, who are alternately furious and disappointed that she's not, well, stupider.
Harrington has been playing Mr. Wormwood since March, when he replaced Gabriel Ebert, who won a Tony for the role. He didn't want to mimic his predecessor's performance, however, so he refrained from seeing the show until he was far along in his own rehearsal process.
Director Matthew Warchus and assistant director Thomas Caruso gave Harrington permission to make the role his own, which helped take the pressure off. "If I went in there and tried to watch Gabe and do his bits, it would get in the way of me finding my own organic actions to play and finding my relationship with Matilda and with my family," he says.
The rehearsal process for a replacement presents the challenge of not being able to work with the company, who are in performances. Instead, Harrington rehearsed with Caruso in a studio far away from the Shubert Theatre. There were no sets and no tech elements, and stage managers played Matilda and the other characters.
He did have a few opportunities to work with Lesli Margherita, who plays his wife, and Taylor Trensch, who plays his son, but other than that, the only time Harrington rehearsed with the full cast was during his put-in, which is a replacement's one shot to perform the entire show in costume with full tech elements. "I had weeks to prepare little bits, but once it comes time to jump in, it becomes a very fast process and you really are learning on your feet," he says.
On Caruso's advice, he treated the first few weeks of performances like previews. "Especially in terms of comedy and finding the nuances of the character, there are things that I just can't find in a rehearsal room away from the other actors. So when it comes time to start performing, you dive in and start splashing around and seeing what it's going to turn into in front of an audience every night," Harrington says.
This is especially true for his song "Telly," a jaunty explanation of why watching TV is better than reading books. The number opens the second act, and the house lights are still on when Wormwood comes on stage. Before he sings, he chats with audience members, who sometimes aren't sure if it's part of the show. It's Harrington's responsibility to reel them back in and make sure that he is driving the crowd, not the other way around.
To Harrington, Mr. Wormwood is a man on a mission, who is desperate to use any means necessary to get ahead and achieve fame and fortune. He says the key to playing someone like that, for whom the stakes are very high, is to not let his quest become a joke. "Matthew said something great, which is that you look at the costume and the hair and you don't need to play that," he says. "The costume and the hair will send him over the top. It's my job to play this like it's Chekov. It's dead serious."
That hair is styled in a high quiff. Harrington wears a wig, but unlike most men who have played Mr. Wormwood on Broadway and in London, he chose to grow his own outré facial hair, which significantly cuts down his pre-show prep time. "It was a debate whether I walk around all the time with a mustache and sideburns," he says. "That's the price to pay. But what I gain out of it is not having to glue those on every night. I've always had a tough time with spirit gum and fake beards. It's itchy, and you've got to do that eight times a week and pull them off."
When Harrington is in costume, he feels like it catalyzes the work he's done to create the character. "It cooks it up," he says, "And then suddenly there's this crazy man that I've become."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @ PataphysicalSci
Photo by Joan Marcus