Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 27, 2018
From Brooksville to Broadway, GSA grad follows his dream
Matthew Smedal followed his passion from Brooksville to a career as a theatrical music director for touring Broadway shows and more.
by Anne Berleant
Making a living in the arts takes passion, dedication and not a little bit of luck. For Matthew Smedal, a 1997 George Stevens Academy graduate, it took all that plus hard work and long hours to string together an impressive run as music director for touring Broadway shows and theater productions from Los Angeles to Ogunquit.
His latest gig was at the U.S. Open’s women’s tennis final September 8, accompanying singer Deborah Cox for the national anthem in front of 23,000 people and a televised audience in the millions. But for his first performances, he played trombone in the GSA band, “sang at a couple of All-States,” and was music director on the school’s theater production of Something’s Afoot at age 15.
Then, he had to decide to focus on passion over practicality.
“I went to West Virginia Wesleyan [College] for liberal arts,” he said. “I very much enjoyed music but part of me was saying I should do a computer science degree. Back then ‘computer’ was a big buzz word.”
But he couldn’t stop doing music. “It’s like you find one thing you love to do, and, if you’re lucky enough to find that at 18, you just keep doing it.”
After earning a master’s degree in music from West Virginia University, an unpaid summer theater stock stint in Michigan, a run of Jesus Christ Superstar in Boston’s North Shore Dinner Theatre, and a job playing piano at a Los Angeles actors school followed. Then, “somebody gave my name to somebody, who gave my name to somebody,” and Smedal landed an associate music director’s job with Reprise Theater, run by Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame.
“I had never actually worked for anyone famous before,” he said. “Here was this man I’d watched [on television] in my living room.”
But that job nearly didn’t happen, Smedal learned a couple of years later. “When he saw me, Jason was going to fire me because he thought I was too young for the job.”
Smedal ended up staying there for six years, working with choreographers, music supervisors and directors, connections that opened doors for him and “have sort of kept me going,” he said.
Since 2006, Smedal has been music director for 14 productions, including four back-to back national tours: Catch Me If You Can, Ghost, Matilda, and The Bodyguard, which starred his U.S. Open singing partner, Deborah Cox, as Whitney Houston.
Naturally, he has some stories to tell. The most dramatic was during a 2014 Ogunquit Playhouse performance of Singing in the Rain, when a pair of set drapes caught on a lighting element, and slowly the theater filled with smoke.
“The fire department came, the theater was evacuated, the cast, crew, orchestra, audience, everyone was out on the lawn,” he said.
But theater life usually isn’t so exciting, and it takes more than talent to make it. “The stories you hear are not the day-to-day reality. They make great stories but they are not the norm,” he said. “It’s a job, and there are times when you have to work late and won’t get compensated. … It’s like anything else. A little hard work and dedication goes a long way.”
He continued, “I have a lot of friends who did a music degree and went on to become lawyers because they didn’t want the instability. When you’re first starting out, you have to know that your love and passion for your art are worth it, and are going to make the lean months worth it.
“The more even keeled you can be, the more down to earth you can be, the more willing to compromise, the more likely you are to have longevity as an artist.”