A wall in the lobby of Dillingham Center bears more than 100 posters from Broadway shows Ithaca College alumni have been involved with, but there is just one poster that features an alumnus front and center. A beaming Matt Cavenaugh ’01, bare-chested and donning a cowboy hat on the poster for “Urban Cowboy,” greets students and theatergoers from his spot on the wall. Starting this month, they will have another reason to remember his face.
Cavenaugh will star as Tony in a bilingual revival of “West Side Story,” which previews on Broadway Feb. 23. The 1957 musical based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” will open on Broadway for the first time since 2002. The show features duels between the Sharks, a Latin gang, and their rivals, the Jets.
Cavenaugh worked with the show’s director Arthur Laurents in 2005 on “Two Lives,” a small show sponsored through the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., Cavenaugh said he is excited to be working with Laurents again, especially for the role of Tony, a member of the Jets gang.
“It’s one of the most sought-after, great roles for a young-name man in musical theater,” Cavenaugh said. “And it’s arguably one of the best musicals ever written.”
Cavenaugh performed on Broadway for the first time as Bud in “Urban Cowboy” in 2003, two years after graduating with a BFA in musical theater. Though the show only ran for seven weeks, Cavenaugh’s rugged image (the same one that hangs in the Dillingham lobby) helped bring his name to the forefront of musical theater.
Cavenaugh played two character roles in the 2006 Broadway hit “Grey Gardens.” In the first act, he portrayed a charming young Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. and in the second, he played Jerry Torre, a down-and-out boy from Brooklyn. In 2008’s “A Catered Affair,” based on a Bette Davis movie, he played Ralph Halloran, a love-struck teacher from the Bronx, who plans his wedding to an Irish blue-collar family in the 1950s.
Cavenaugh said backstage on Broadway is not as glamorous as some may think, but once the curtains go up, it’s a whole new experience.
“There’s not that much space in the wings, but New York is known for the Broadway Theater,” he said. “So if you’re in a hit show, it’s thrilling.”
The Arkansas native participated in several theatrical productions at the college, beginning with “Pajama Game” and “Pirates of Penzance” his freshman year.
Norman Johnson, associate professor of theater arts, directed Cavenaugh in “Pirates of Penzance.” He said he was impressed with Cavenaugh’s vocal skills during his audition.
“His amazing voice … was the first thing that started to turn all our heads,” Johnson said. “Literally, I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ and ‘Is he really doing that?’”
Mary Corsaro, professor of theater arts and coordinator of the BFA program for musical theater, also worked with Cavenaugh during “Pirates of Penzance.” She said she remembers his determination to perfect the role of Henrik.
“He learned the fingerings and bowing techniques as though he were truly playing the cello which is incredibly difficult, and he hit it out of the ballpark,” Corsaro said.
Cavenaugh then took a year off from school in 1997 to play Eugene in the national tour of “Grease.” Corsaro wasn’t sure if he would come back to school and if so, how he would act.
“When someone leaves and comes back, their head is often in a different place, but with Matt that just wasn’t the case,” she said. “I respect the fact that he came back to finish his degree.”
Johnson helped Cavenaugh decide whether to stay in school or join the tour, since students who take time off to work professionally do not always come back to finish.
“There’s no rule that you have to graduate in four years,” he said he told Cavenaugh at the time. “This degree program is going to be here when you get back, what are you going to lose in a year?”
Cavenaugh said the staff at the college gave him personal and professional advice, especially when it came to understanding the emotional side of his roles.
“All the staff there are terrific at fostering young artists, not just actor robots,” he said. “That’s really at the heart of what acting is and certainly is what is at the heart of what the faculty [at the college] teaches.”
Cavenaugh, who starred in 40 episodes of the daytime soap opera “As the World Turns” in late 2006 and early 2007, is acting in the upcoming film “New Brooklyn,” a drama about two roommates struggling to find their identities in Brooklyn. It will be released March 6 during the Miami International Film Festival.
Cavenaugh’s professors said they not only admired his talent, but also his personality. David Parks, professor of music performance, said how personable he is and how important this trait is to the acting profession.
“You have to be able to deliver the goods,” he said. “But one of the things that has served Matt so well is that he’s a nice guy and people constantly want to work with him.”
Parks also said he’s proud of Cavenaugh’s career so far and said he is eager to see what he’ll do next.
“He’s at a point in his career that 90 percent of musical theater actors can only hope for,” Parks said. “If he was a surfer, he would be right on top of the wave, and I hope he’s able to continue to ride that wave.”