On the day after the new musical “Witness Uganda” opened in previews at the American Repertory Theatre, co-creators Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews were relieved and energized.
“It’s a dream come true because we’ve been working five years to get to last night,” said Gould, who also is the show’s conductor and keyboard player. “Over three-fourths of the audience stayed for the talk back, which was a great reception.”
“Witness Uganda,” which opened in previews Tuesday and formally opens Wednesday, has an unusual subject for a musical. It follows the journey of New York City actor Griffin Matthews, an African American gay man, who joins an aid project in Uganda in 2005 and confronts the complexity of how to make a difference in the face of corruption and lack of opportunity for orphaned youth.
“When we first thought of doing a musical, I thought people wouldn’t be interested,” said Matthews, 32, who plays himself and has a degree in musical theatre from Carnegie Mellon University. “Now, I realize that anyone can relate, because everyone at some point in their life is on a journey, whether to find their passion or their love or your career. Griffin’s journey is just in an unlikely place.”
The two artists themselves are on a mission – not just to create exciting, meaningful theater but also to send Ugandan orphans to school by raising funds for the non-profit Matthews started, UgandaProject. After every curtain call, they return for Act III – a conversation with the audience. And last fall, they performed a stripped-down version of Witness Uganda in a dozen Boston schools and community settings and lead discussions.
“So often theater and real life are placed on opposite ends of the spectrum,” said Gould, 34, who also spent time in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania. “The idea was to blend the two.”
When Gould and Matthews first collaborated in 2008, they wrote songs to perform at a fundraiser for UgandaProject, never expecting they had the seed for a musical. Afterwards, they realized they’d raised important issues when audience members wanted to learn more about Matthews’ experience. But a pivotal moment came after they performed at Disney/ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop.
“Stephen Schwartz (composer of the musicals “Wicked” and “Pippin”) pulled us aside and said, ‘Boys, you have a lot of work to do, but if you can figure it out, this is a musical,” Gould said.
After Gould won the 2012 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater – which supports the development of new musicals – A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus came on board to direct two workshops in New York City and bring the musical to the A.R.T. She has since agreed to donate all the ticket sales from one performance to the Uganda Project and to allot lobby space to publicize Uganda Project and sell its T-shirts.
“She understood that it was bigger than just the show, and she supported that mission,” Gould said.
The A.R.T. also has organized seven post-show sessions where scholars and non-profit leaders will speak about development work.
“We always try to connect what is going on onstage to the community, but the scope of this is a first for us,” said Brendan Shea, education and community programs manager at A.R.T. “It’s ambitious and unusual for the creators to be at every show. It’s not about marketing the show, but about Matt and Griffin sharing their passion to inspire people to think about ways they can use their talents to make a difference.”
Gould, who studied theater at Boston University, wrote music inspired by African rhythms, patterns and tones, but also American musical traditions. The show uses projected images to bring the audience to Uganda and has elements of suspense and danger, as well as soaring inspiration, heightened by the African dance choreography.
“In many ways, it’s a thriller and very cinematic,” Gould said.
It’s also unromantic and honest.
“You’re not supposed to stand up on stage and talk about your mistakes and how difficult it is to do the right thing,” Matthews said. “That’s why people are so moved.”
At the previews this week, many in the audience were visibly moved, a reflection of the show’s relevance.
“Not everyone is going to want to fly off to Uganda, but everyone can ask, ‘what can I do to be of service to people around me?’ ” Gould said. “Little actions are things that can make a big difference over time.”