The road less travelled to the West End

The odds were stacked against Matthew Colthart making it in musical theatre – but that didn’t put him off. After years of hard work, he is now making his mark on the West End. He tells CLARISSA LAND how his persistence paid off.

I am all enormous smiles and tingly with anticipation at the thought that in two days’ time I’ll be on my merry way to see the songwriting luminary that is Carole King perform at British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park. An all-time great with a sun-drenched voice full of ‘70s Californian blue-eyed soul, she credits her first performance in over 25 years to Beautiful, her all-singing, all-dancing biography, currently playing at The Aldwych in the West End.

“I want to begin by thanking Londoners for making Beautiful: The Carole King Musical so successful,” King says. “And now I’m coming to London and can’t wait to perform Tapestry from beginning to end for the first time ever. How perfect to be doing that in the heart of one of my favourite cities.” 

After four years in musical theatre, Matthew Colthart has bagged himself a coveted spot in the cast of that very musical. He is a “swing”, meaning that he understudies several roles at once; currently, two ensemble roles and the lead role of Barry Mann, a New York Jew and a competitive hypochondriac who competes with King to write hits and pens the pop classic You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. Colthart’s previous credits include UK tours of Dreamboats and Petticoats and Dirty Dancing.

It would be easy to assume that Colthart must have attended a prestigious drama school, but with no formal training in acting or dancing, his route through fierce competition to tread the hallowed boards of a West End stage is a story less heard.

A London boy, Colthart got his start at 15 when a friend overheard him singing and encouraged him to join the prestigious London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC), of which he was a member for five years. Not only did this give him a solid foundation in harmony, but meant that he performed high profile gigs from a young age. Through LCGC, he went on to perform with Florence and the Machine, Will Young, Westlife, Simon Webbe, Carlene Anderson, Barry Manilow and more.

Finding that he was losing his voice after heavy weekends of gigging, he began to train privately (with iSing’s very own Line Hilton) before becoming a vocal teacher himself, qualifying through SLS, making him the youngest SLS teacher at that time. He left LGCG at 20, but continued to get his gospel fix by performing with Noel Robinson and Nu Image. 

Despite always knowing he wanted to sing, Colthart eschewed drama school and opted instead to read Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Impressively, he funded his own way through university by teaching, paying for his own private lessons throughout, and graduated from university debt-free.

So with an impressive CV as a session singer and a background in gospel, what attracted him to the bright lights of the West End? In a word, Wicked!

After being blown away by the musical, Colthart spoke to a friend in the cast of Cats. On her advice, he sought an agent, auditioned and was taken on.

Colthart has a remarkable 14 years of professional singing under his belt, but with no training in acting or dancing, how has he managed to land these roles, I ask? Colthart laughs melodically and tells me that the casting director for Beautiful asked exactly the same question at his audition. The answer is sheer persistence. He took himself off to dance classes at Pineapple Studios, spent hours filming himself acting to watch it back and asked actor friends to run scenes with him, drawing upon their guidance and critique.

Acting is all about making choices, he explains. “It’s about looking at a script and making a decision on what you think the character is doing or wanting in that situation. Your job is to portray motives, wants and needs; emotions are secondary.” 

Colthart contends that a formal training makes securing work easier as a degree provides a stamp of approval, saying “I’ve trained for this”, but it is by no means impossible to break into the industry without one. He tells me what he wishes he’d known at the start that nobody told him.

“Simple things, like when you’re given a script at an audition, don’t act with the hand that’s holding the piece of paper because it’s really distracting,” he says. “Make sure you engage with the person playing the scene with you, even if they’re sitting behind a desk; don’t pretend there’s someone standing beside you.

“Make bold decisions. Even if it’s not actually correct for the scene, be memorable. There’s no right or wrong in acting and if a director wants you to play a scene a different way, they’ll tell you. Show them that you can make decisions and take direction. They want to know that you’re someone that they can work with. Don’t be half-hearted or wishy washy.”

The first few auditions served as a sharp learning curve, but he is at pains to point out that his industry is not as cut-throat or scary as people make out. He’s heard auditions through doors where people have sung out of tune or forgotten lines but are given another chance.

“It’s not a memory test,” he says. “People want to see you do well. They want you to be the person they cast as it makes their job easier. They’re rooting for you, and if they’re not getting what they need, they will give you direction to see if you can give them what they need.” 

He tells me his biggest learning curve was the realisation that in a singing audition for the West End, you are actually being judged on your acting. He talks about auditioning for The Lion King and being told by the director that she couldn’t judge his singing as she wasn’t a musical director; she needed to see him act those songs.

Other advice from Colthart: “Don’t compartmentalise. All the disciplines in musical theatre overlap and you have to be able to demonstrate all three in every single audition no matter what the audition’s focus seems to be. Acting underlines the dancing and the singing. It underlines everything.”

How can singers improve their acting? Download movie scripts from the internet and try self-taping. Go to as many workshops as you can; he regularly attends workshops put on by his agent where he can meet casting directors and receive invaluable feedback. Find workshops like this. But most of all, he insists, you must be persistent. It took him four years, from 21 to 25, to land his first professional musical theatre job.

Upon leaving drama school, a graduate’s first role is normally in an ensemble, but not being a dancer (he calls himself a “mover”) this was impossible for Colthart. His skill set was geared to lead roles, which meant he was pitted against senior actors with far more experience. Yet, he kept pounding on the door and his determination has meant that not only has he fulfilled his dream of performing on a West End stage, but that his very first time doing so was in a leading role.

Colthart knows another four performers in the West End without formal training; they are a minority to be sure, and all exceptional singers, but prove exception to the rules. He is adamant that no one should be put off, that there are jobs out there for everybody if you know your strengths.

It seems the traditional definition of a “triple threat” (being an outstanding singer, dancer and actor) is under reconstruction. Due to budget cuts and producers being far savvier with their castings, singer/musicians and actor/musicians are now increasingly desirable as they eliminate need (and budget) for a band in the pit. So if you’re a strong musician but don’t have fancy footwork, you needn’t assume that the West End is not for you. And with the exhilarating advent of new musical Hamilton, expected in London in 2017, there will be greater roles for ethnic minorities and, for the first time, rapping will be now become a valued and valuable addition to a performer’s repertoire. The whole game has changed.

Two days after speaking to Matthew, I was blessed enough to attend the long-awaited musical spectacular of Carole King’s live performance in Hyde Park. Supported by Don Henley and Michael Kiwanuka as well as her own daughter, Carole King shone like a diamond and sang like, well, herself. Her voice is husky and forced as it ever was, so full of intention and meaning and honesty. She smiled as she shook her curly hair and hammered out her pop legacy and even rocked out on the guitar looking fabulous all the while. I hope I am an even a glimmer of Carole King when I am 74. The sun went down, the stars came out and Carole played her encore. Just as we thought we had cheered for the final time the cast of Beautiful! came pouring onto the stage and there was Matthew. He had kept that quiet from me.

I caught up with him again to find out how the experience had been. What was like to sing with Carole King? Was he nervous?

“I wasn’t nervous at all, to be honest,” he says. “When you’re backing singing for stars you know that people aren’t there to see you directly (they’re there for the star), so it’s great because you can have all the enjoyment of performing to a massive crowd with none of the pressure.

“Had I had a solo then I would have been nervous… Singing with Carole was amazing. The main thing that really struck me at the concert was how special her songs are to a whole generation of people. It was incredible to be part of a celebration of an era in music.”

Twitter: @MattColthart 

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