Matthew Stern has always been drawn to musical theater. “I saw my first show, “The Phantom of the Opera,” [on Broadway] at 7 or 8,” he told the Journal.
While growing up, Stern, 36, would see musicals for Hanukkah and his birthday, sing in a school choir, and attend Jewish choral festivals. Eventually he earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis and a master’s in theater studies (with a concentration in music theater) at Boston University.
Now the Medford resident – who has worked with such area companies as the Huntington Theatre, SpeakEasy Stage, Wheelock Family Theatre, and the Greater Boston Stage Company – is relishing the opportunity to serve as full-time music director/pianist for a Lyric Stage Company of Boston revival of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
The production opens April 15 and runs through May 22.
Based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” the 2014 Tony Award winner – including best musical – centers on the efforts of outsider Montague “Monty” Navarro to murder the eight people in the line of succession ahead of him in order to become the earl (a plot that many film buffs will recall from the 1949 screen adaptation, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”).
As Stern – assistant professor of musical theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee – researched the novel and prepared to do the musical, he confronted what he described as “an interesting kind of conundrum.” In the novel, the protagonist’s mother became a family outcast for marrying a Jewish man. Composer-book author Robert L. Freedman and lyricist Steven Lutvak (both Jewish), he noted, “Didn’t want to make it [the outcast factor] about Jews.”
Controversy aside, Stern agrees with those who regard the story not as antisemitic, but rather as an exploration and parody of the antisemitism rife in Edwardian England. At the same time, he values the musical’s focus on “the idea of being an outsider trying to find his way into this Edwardian family.” Stern acknowledged that “This is a difficult time to put a racist woman like Lady Hyacinth on stage.”
The D’Ysquith family also includes a member interested in eugenics. Even so, the sharp writing features considerable wit and humor. “We gravitate towards stories about outsiders. We’re given the perspective of an outsider in order to frame the comedy,” Stern said.
Besides the smart book, the versatile music director – whose repertoire has ranged from Jewish choral material at Wellesley’s Temple Beth Elohim to over 100 musical productions – greatly lauded the score. “This is a show that wants to be heard acoustically,” Stern said, describing it as a “British music hall” style of show. “The writers have taken the operatic style of the era and given it a modern form.” He singled out a quintet with “gorgeous five-part harmony” and huge choral roles.
Stern was particularly excited about the opportunity to work with many of the area’s finest musical theater talents, including Neil A. Casey, who plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith family, and Jared Troilo, who portrays Monty. He called Casey, with whom he worked on the Sondheim comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “one of the most comically gifted actors.” A veritable Who’s Who of Hub musical standouts, the Lyric Stage cast also includes Aimee Doherty, Leigh Barrett, Phil Tayler, and Jennifer Ellis. The director is Spiro Veloudos, the former longtime company artistic director.
Stern is a collaborator who values the art of storytelling through music. Calling “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” the “kind of theater that the world needs now,” he concluded, “This has really fulfilled my expectations.”
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston is located on the second floor at 40 Clarendon St. For tickets, call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.