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Pittsburgh actor takes over Broadway lead
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You've heard it before on stage and screen - the star goes down with an injury, the understudy is rushed into action without rehearsal, and a star is born.

It's gone much like that for Matthew Hydzik, who yesterday took over as leading man Tony in the Broadway revival of "West Side Story."

Hydzik, who honed his song-and-dance skills growing up in Sewickley and the Penn State School of Theatre, has understudied the role since previews in Washington, D.C., where original director Arthur Laurents reshaped the show, adding Spanish lyrics and dialogue.

A few weeks into previews, before he had a full run-through under his belt, Hydzik was working with a physical therapist while a performance was going on in the theater, four stories below them.

Suddenly, there was shouting over the monitors. Leading man Matt Cavanaugh (not to be confused with the former quarterback and Pitt coach) had been injured.

"Cav got taken out by a set piece, so it was the most dramatic way ever to go on for the first time. ... There were about 10 people in black with Britney Spears mics saying Cav's going to the hospital, he can't go on. They said, 'We could send everyone home or do you know it? Can you go on?' "

Hydzik said his fellow actors "were looking at me like dead man walking. They didn't know if I could hit a note or act. But everyone said have a good time, break a leg," and on he went.

Luckily, they were at the point of the show of Tony's "Something's Coming," which Hydzik called "a list song, easy to get lost in."

"There was hardly any acting," he admitted, "just the experience of it."

That was the first time. Hydzik has been playing to Broadway crowds ever since, going on for Cavanaugh as often as once a week.

Last week, after a brief vacation and a quick visit to his family in Pittsburgh, he returned to New York on Dec. 8, when he was to take photos for the marquee of "West Side Story's" Broadway home, The Palace Theatre.

"Growing up, I've heard 'Something's Coming' a thousand times in some voice teacher's room, some studio ... It's funny to sing it now, because it's for an audience at the Palace, no less. It's a truly awesome experience."

Hydzik has prepared for this moment most of his life, starting in the fifth grade. His mother, Cathy, a teacher at Edgeworth Elementary School, started a drama club and enlisted her son. His first play was "Knights of Mozart," as the maestro's father, and he was hooked.

Hydzik studied his craft with local teachers such as the late Mario Melodia and Pam Gregg at the Edgeworth Club before heading to the Penn State theater department. He stayed for two years (he got his degree later) before heading out on a tour of "Rent."

When he arrived in New York, he worked for a time as a bartender in Broadway venues such as the O'Neill, Hershfeld, Kerr, St. James ... sometimes more than one in a night. He also did sample sales work for retailers.

"They hired only actors because they usually can present themselves pretty well. You get a well-educated person who knows how to dress up and smile," he said.

"My sample sales job was at the Parsons School of Design, right behind the theater where 'Rent' is, and every day I was hauling boxes out was usually when they were doing 'Seasons of Love.' I'd be hearing it and hauling boxes and thinking, 'I'm so close!' "

He landed an understudy role in the 2007 revival of "Grease" and eventually stepped up to the role of Kenicke. That job lasted until January of this year; he was with the company of "West Side Story" by March.

Now, Hydzik is the star, singing some of musical theater's best-known and most-beloved songs. He called "Maria" and the balcony scene the "quintessential" pieces for actors in their formative years.

Among his favorite moments is just before the first strains of "Maria," when he can feel the anticipation from the audience.

"It's the do or die moment. The moment beforehand, they're doing all this Bernstein music, pounding, fighting, then everything is being pulled away. Onstage, you can hear the ropes to your left, the sound of everything being whisked away, and everything becomes dark. You can take as much time as you want to start. It seems like forever, you can take it in, and then decide, now I'm going to join in."

Hydzik remains humbled by his success, even as he watches talented cast members, some who came out of theater programs, some who didn't. "We have kids in the cast born in 1991. For some, [a Broadway show] is their first pro job."

Then he remembers two months of one-nighters, traveling on a bus, going to auditions without an appointment. He knows that a lot of people get burned out or give up.

"On one end, I feel complete humility and good fortune," he said. "On the other end, I've been working hard, but I'm still at the point where the majority of the work I've done, I've never gotten paid for. It was many years, many hours, but right now completely outweighs the hours that came before."


Sharon Eberson can be reached at seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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First published on December 16, 2009 at 12:00 am
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