The Best of the Best

Assassins was the last show on which I'll have the enormous pleasure of working with Matthew Korinko (for reasons he can reveal if he wants). Not only has he been one of the best friends I've ever had, but he's also been one of the finest, most talented, most intelligent actors I've ever worked with in my 27 years in the theatre. I shit you not.

Back in the fall of 2005, we were casting The Fantasticks, and we just didn't find the perfect guy to play El Gallo (i.e., The Cock), a kind of Devil/God/Zorro/Don Juan kind of guy, who seduces everyone in the show and speaks almost entirely in Beat poetry. He had to be good-looking, a strong singer, and -- because of the way I wanted to approach the show, as the product of the Beat Generation of the 1950s, returning the show to its intellectual and artistic roots -- he also had to be a hell of an actor, one who could handle speaking verse onstage.

So we finished the audition process and didn't have an El Gallo. And then we called in Thommy Crain, who had been working the check-in table for the audition, and we asked him if he could think of anyone who'd be right for this role. Without hesitation he said, "Matt Korinko." I had never heard of him (or at least I thought I hadn't; Matt swears he had auditioned for me for A New Brain but I still have no memory of that). Apparently, Matt had done The Fantasticks on the Goldenrod. Thommy thought our music director Chris Petersen would know how to find Matt.

Sure enough, a few days later, Matt arrived at my door to sing for me. The minute he opened his mouth I knew he was right for it. Handsome, masculine, smart, funny, with a terrific voice. I offered him the part and he accepted. Turns out he hadn't been on stage in three years and wasn't sure if he'd ever return. He had even stopped going to theatre because it depressed him to think that he'd never be back on stage.

He was brilliant in The Fantasticks, finding a depth of emotion and a complexity of character that I had never seen in this role. Matt's El Gallo had a past. He had regrets. He had an agenda that slowly revealed itself over the course of the show. Along with the rest of the outstanding cast, we made a hell of a show. (Thank you Thommy and Petersen!)

I knew during Fantasticks rehearsals that we were going to restage Bat Boy that spring and that I had to re-cast the role of Dr. Parker. (Jason Cannon had done it for us in 2003 and I thought he was wonderful in the role, but he had joined the union since then, so we couldn't use him again.) I waited until we were actually running Fantasticks scenes, to make sure Matt was as strong an actor as he seemed. He was.

So I offered him Dr. Parker. He accepted. And once again he was brilliant. Instead of making Parker a joke villain or a psychopath, Matt gave his character damage, pain, regret, sadness. Like Sweeney Todd, we understood why Dr. Parker became a monster. And in the climactic moment of the show -- "Your eyes, Meredith... He has your eyes..." he had the audience in tears. And believe me, it's not easy to get an audience to cry when your hero is a half-boy, half-bat. But that is the quality of the Bat Boy script and score, and the quality of the artistry of Matt Korinko onstage. He's just that good.

That fall, I offered him a role in a new musical I had written, the very strange, very fucked-up political satire Johnny Appleweed. I offered him the role of Jesus. As in Christ. This was an amiable, joke-cracking, pot-smoking, new-agey, fashionably ironic kind of Jesus, and it was perfect for Matt. He found such warmth and humor and joy in the part. He was nominated for a Kevin Kline Award for his performance. (And then at the award ceremony, the original Judge Turpin, Edmund Lyndeck, presented that category and totally mangled Matt's last name. We teased Matt endlessly about it.)

In spring 2007, we produced Grease, putting back all the obscenities (and there was a lot about that show that had been sanitized), putting it back the way it was in the beginning -- rough, raw, rowdy, vulgar. But we didn't have a Vince Fontaine (my personal favorite role). Even though it was a small part, I asked Matt to step into it, and he was really wonderful, totally capturing the sound and manner of those early rock and roll DJs. What a fucking trouper he is!

Then came Urinetown. Who else could have played Officer Lockstock? It's like the role was written for him, honest-to-God. He was utterly brilliant -- funny, scary, disturbing, ridiculous. He and Amy Leone (now Amy Kelly), who played Little Sally, were an oddball match made in heaven. The whole cast was outstanding, but Matt gave one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances. The audience just fell in love with him every night.

Then came Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll -- a new show we created, a sort of abstract concept musical, more than a revue but hard to categorize. He sang the heart-wrenching "One of the Good Guys" but also the hilarious "Smut." Another excellent performance.

And then his final performance with New Line, John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. When I first got the idea that we should bring this show back (while watching the news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings), the very first thought in my mind was, "I've got to get Korinko and Aaron Allen to play Booth and Oswald." And so I did. And they were both magnificent. Korinko has such incredible stage presence, such emotional power in his performance; but also profound honesty and depth. I've done Assassins three times now, and I've seen other productions, including the recent Broadway revival, but I've never seen a Booth of the caliber of Korinko's. Not even close.

I will miss him so much both personally and professionally. He's truly one of a kind, and I have been so fortunate in having him to work with, having an artist of that level of skill and intellect to realize onstage my often bizarre ideas. He and I were a true artistic match. We belonged together as director and actor. We wanted the same things from theatre, we believed in the same kind of theatre, we both deeply loved the work we did together.

There's no way I will let this man fade out of my life, and though I won't see him as much now, he will never be far out of mind. And if I'm really lucky, he'll come back once in a while as a Guest Artist. That would be awesome indeed.

I adore you, Matthew.
Long Live the Musical!