It was just another rejection letter at first glance.
At least that’s what Matt Gould thought when he saw another skinny envelope in the mail collected after he and partner Griffin Matthews returned home from a performance in Lake Tahoe.
“We had just done a bunch of songs at a seminar in Lake Tahoe,” Gould explained. “We came home and were really amped up and had such a good time, we weren’t thinking about the show, really.”
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The show is “Witness Uganda: The Musical,” a documentary telling of Matthews’ difficulties keeping a nonprofit helping Ugandan children afloat and the futility so many young people feel when they try to do something good.
“We got home and got this thin little letter from the Society of Arts and Letters and I was like ‘Throw it out, it’s a rejection letter. I can’t do rejecting right now, throw it out.”
Matthews persisted and opened the envelope. Inside was a piece of paper that will change the young mens’ lives.
“It said ‘Congratulations, we’ve chosen one winner this year and it’s Witness Uganda. Signed, Stephen Sondheim,’” Gould said. “We just cried.”
“It’s a huge honor, it feels unreal, he continued. “(Witness Uganda) is really a piece that is a labor of love. It’s a show about a character who is of our generation (Gould graduated in 1997 from Hart High) who is trying to do good in the world and the play asks the question ‘is changing the world even possible?’”
Previous winners of the Richard Rodgers Award include Maury Yeston for “Nine” and Jonathan Larson for “Rent.”
The musical chronicles the struggles Matthews experienced at a nonprofit organization he started in Uganda several years ago. It’s solo purpose: to help 10 orphans get an education, because in Uganda, school is not free.
“It’s a true story,” Gould continued. “A couple of years ago, when the economy collapsed, all his donors were poor artists and nobody could afford to give money anymore.”
When Griffin “ranted” about his difficulties and self-doubt, Matt secretly left his computer running to record them. He later segmented the speeches and wrote music around them. Soon, the stories of Griffin, the orphans he helped and some of the staff were scored and the men had a book musical that Gould said could be considered “an adventure story.”
“In the end he comes to the point where he asks the question ‘what is the point of this?’” I think that’s something a lot of people in our generation face, like we want to do good, we see all these problems in the world, we see people constantly in need, and we so badly want to help, but people don’t know what to do and they’re stuck, so they do nothing.
The show is meant to inspire a movement not just in our theater community but in our country to do something, because doing something matters.”
Their goal with the musical seems to parallel those of the Occupy movement sweeping the nation, sharing a vision but not the same execution.
“Those guys are trying to get the bankers and politicians to listen and we’re trying to get bankers and politicians to listen, but I write musicals, I don’t want to camp out in City Hall, I write musicals, that’s my skill.”
Readings of the piece were done for potential backers and other interested parties, but creating a musical is a long process that takes years.
“It costs so much money to get a group of 10 to 15 actors in a room for two weeks to learn a bunch of music, just to sit at music stands and read,” Gold explained.
The staged reading portion of the Rodgers award will cover those costs, which could range up to $50,000. Although he could not divulge exactly where, Gould could share that the reading will be done within the next year and at a major nonprofit theater in New York.
“It’s basically a backer’s audition, to show it to all the producers and all the folks in New York who might potentially want to put on a full production.”
Gould and Matthews know they have something in “Witness Uganda” when they perform.
“People weep. They weep because people are hungry to see theater and see art that moves them and inspires them,” Gould said. “We are caught in this idea that everything needs to be entertaining and funny and flippant and crazy and ridiculous and that’s all well and good. But if I’m going to pay $120 to watch a Broadway show, I damn well better leave that theater feeling empowered or inspired, not just ‘that was a pleasant afternoon.’ I don’t want a pleasant afternoon.”
He also feels that the soul of classic plays, such as “Gypsy” or Rodgers and Hammerstein standards like “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific” is lost on modern audiences.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein had a message,” he said. “They were trying to inspire people, they were trying to end racism, they were making a statement about the country. We’ve lost that, because now the theater is run by commercial producers who want to make money and have to make money otherwise they can’t afford to do the shows. I think we’re living in a time where people actually are starved for something that matters.”
He also feels that the soul of “Witness Uganda” is what Sondheim and his judges hope to nurture.
“We’re still working on the book of the show, still working on getting more specific and clear on how to tell the story,” Gould said. “The heart of the piece is there, that’s why we won the Rodgers award, people are feeling it, the guts are there.”
Bits and pieces of the show have been performed on stages, conferences and living rooms, Gould said, adding that they are open to anyone who invites them to present the work.
Along with “Witness Uganda,” Gould is also working on a commission for Yale Repertory and has written and directed “Free Style” for LA’s Reprise Theatre Company, and wrote “Twilight In Manchego,” which received the Jonathan Larson Foundation Award.
During high school, he acted in shows with Hart and the Canyon Theatre Guild. After graduation, Gould went to Boston University, then immediately joined the Peace Corps, living in Africa for two years. That’s where he had his “aha!” moment.
“I thought I was going to be a famous actor,” he said. “I love to perform, I just think that there was a higher calling, after college, I went straight into the Peace Corps for two years because I felt like, as an artist, I didn’t know what I had to say. And the year I graduated from college was the year Columbine high school happened. I got a great education, my classmates went on and they’re in movies and blah blah blah.
“I felt like there was something else, something else was missing. I lived in Africa for two years, I wanted to change the world, I really did, I wanted to do something good. I would up doing theater with girls.
“I did a production of Romeo and Juliet in Pulaar with a bunch of girls in a village. And one night these girls were standing in the middle of a soccer field with a single light bulb hung off the goal post running off of a generator surrounded by 150 kids watching them, screaming at the actors, “Don’t, don’t do it” – and I was like “Oh my God, this is the most powerful amazing medium ever created, this is what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to tell stories and I’m supposed be a storyteller and tell stories that matter. For them it was Romeo and Juliet, because it was a village where girls were dealing with forced marriage and we chose that subject to tell their story and highlight that.”
Around that time, he met Griffin and the two were a perfect match. “Witness Uganda” is their best and brightest collaboration.
“We have met with some incredible Broadway producers we love the show, they tell us ‘we think it’s brilliant, we want to do it, but we have no idea how to do it, there’s no way to sell a show called “Witness Uganda”’, Gould said. “We’ve had producers literally telling us we have to put more white people in your show, we had people telling us ‘you have to change the name, you have to do this,’ we had one production lined up that, at the last minute the producers backed out and we lost our production because we didn’t want to bow to the demands that that person was making on us.”
“For a long time, we said you know what, we’re going to finish our show and leave it. But in the meantime, we have a lot of other stuff to do and now this opportunity has come up. We’ll have a chance to put our show up in a reading in front of everybody.”
And the world is paying attention. The pair have been invited to TEDex, a business and cultural gathering of some of the world’s biggest thinkers.
“We’ll be performing selections from ‘Witness Uganda’ at the New York Stock Exchange in front of 300 of the most powerful bankers,” Gould said. “To walk into a room like that and watch bankers, – these are the guys people think of as “the enemy” – to watch those guys get some of that medicine. It’s the same feeling as standing on that soccer field and watching those girls and it matters.
Learn more about “Witness Uganda” here