I want more attitude,” says director and choreographer Matthew Steffens (Col ’98).
It’s mid-June, and the cast of A Chorus Line is rehearsing a scene: Fifteen dancers converge on the character Richie, surrounding him as he sings. “Get in his face,” Steffens says into a microphone. “I think we need a little more recklessness.” He counts off—“Five, six, seven, eight”—and again the actors dance, sing and strut.
Opening night is five days away.
A Chorus Line, the timeless tale of hopeful singers and dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical, will be the first show in UVA’s summer Heritage Theatre Festival, and the cast is four hours into a 12-hour day. Their long labor is the
performance’s glue. They hone facial expressions and complex routines, accumulate blisters and sweat, and seek the subtle perfection that makes fiction seem real.
“Audiences are going to go on a journey the second they walk into this building,” says Steffens. “If something jars [that journey], it takes a while to bring the audience back in.” And so they’ve worked on this one intricate scene for nearly an hour. A few performers stifle yawns during a 10-minute break, but most seem energized, stretching and spinning, snapping fingers, and practicing moves.
No one is more energized than Steffens. This is the first Heritage festival produced by his longtime friend Jenny Wales (Col ’98), who was hired as artistic director in 2017. (“No one else, for me, was going to open this season and this show except for Matt,” she says.)
It was also an opportunity for Steffens to share his considerable talents with the UVA community. He has directed and choreographed such shows as Guys and Dolls, 9 to 5 and Hairspray; performed in movies, television and at the Metropolitan Opera; and appeared on Broadway in a range of musicals, including Promises, Promises opposite Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.
Steffens also served as associate choreographer and resident director on the off-Broadway hit Queen of the Night, which won a Drama Desk Award in 2015.
For all his success, a theater career was hardly inevitable. At UVA, Steffens majored in government and minored in drama. His senior year, he auditioned for the Southeastern Theatre Conference, a regional organization that helps young actors find jobs.
But he didn’t make the cut. “I thought, ‘If I can’t make it out of the state, how am I going to make it in New York?’”
So he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for seven years in advertising. Then a friend suggested they take a hip-hop class together.
“I had an acting base. I just didn’t have the dance skills or the singing skills,” Steffens says. As he took more classes, a series of teachers took him under their artistic wings. “There was an audition for Footloose, which was doing out-of-town tryouts for Broadway at the Kennedy Center, and I went and auditioned and I got called back. … I thought, ‘Whoa—maybe if I apply myself, I could actually make a career doing this.’”
Now Steffens is back at the Heritage Repertory Theatre, where he first performed as a second-year student in Fiddler on the Roof. “Never, in my wildest dreams,” he says, “did I think I would be back directing and choreographing at Heritage Theatre Festival.”
He sits on a couch in the theater’s sleek lobby with Wales. They met the first week of their first year, and their close friendship provides the freedom to disagree. “It’s an artistic conversation as opposed to a personal conversation,” Steffens says.
Case in point: Steffens has a strong background in immersive theater, and in one scene, he wants the cast to dance in the aisles. Wales is skeptical, but they know the best idea will ultimately win, based on its merits.
“And we have yet to determine: Is this the best idea?” she says as they laugh.
They did, however, agree on Steffens’ idea to hire some Broadway professionals. New York talent raises the performances of the entire cast, he believes. But the production also features UVA grad student Alisa Ledyard (Col ’21) and alumni Daniel Kingsley (Col ’18) and Julian Sanchez (Col ’18), whom Steffens calls “one of the strongest actors in the show.”
As for the audience, Steffens and Wales want them to meet characters who may seem different yet chase familiar dreams. Such moments can free us from our social and political silos, the two believe, if just for one night.
“That’s the power of art,” Steffens says, that for two hours, the audience will feel like part of the show. “That’s the joy of theater for me—it’s a moment in time that will never be replicated. This show will be done many times, but it’ll never be the same twice.”
When the show debuted in June, however, one thing did happen repeatedly: The actors danced in the aisles.