‘Hairspray’s’ Matthew J. Kelly on Drag Bans, Broadway’s Evolving DEI and Coming Home to the Fox Theatre
Thanks to an arts supporting aunt, Matthew J. Kelly was first dazzled by the Broadway musical “Wicked” as a kid in the audience at the historic Fox Theatre. For Kelly, who grew up in Columbus, Georgia and across the bridge in Phenix City, Alabama, the experience changed his life. “I immediately knew I wanted to do something in the arts,” recalls Kelly. “I didn’t know it was performing yet. But then, when I auditioned for the musical theatre program at my high school and I got in every year, I figured I must be OK at this!”
Now, as the assistant dance captain and a swing on the North American tour of “Hairspray: The Musical,” Kelly returns to the Fox Theatre this week — this time on stage. In an Eldredge ATL interview during a three-week tour stop at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, Kelly discussed getting cast in the show straight out of college, the musical’s more-timely-than-ever message and Tennessee’s new drag ban and the potential implications such laws could have on touring shows like “Hairspray.”
Q: OK, so Matthew, I have to ask: You graduated with a BFA in musical theatre in 2022 and then immediately got this job. Did you book the national tour first or get your degree framed first?
A: (laughs) I got the degree framed first. My mom made sure of that!
Q: Can you walk us through what an assistant dance captain does in a show like this?
A: I watch the show at least twice a week with our dance captain Faith [Northcutt] and we take notes to make sure everything looks good and that everyone is doing their part. We take notes on anything we might want to clean up. We also have new people coming in so we have to teach the show to them in a timely manner of at least two weeks. That way, they get comfortable with us and knowing the show before we put them in the show. In my role as a swing, I cover multiple roles if people get sick, get hurt, goes on vacation or calls out. I cover Thad, Gilbert and Duane, who are part of the [Motormouth Maybelle] ensemble.
Q: The life of a swing is always unpredictable but you had a particularly memorable entry into the show, right?
A: Yes! I made my tour debut the day after we opened the show. I got to theater and signed in and I looked over at our production stage manager Emily [Kritzman] and our tour choreographer Robbie Roby called me over to tell me I was going in. I was so nervous, going over the entire show in my head. I had 20 minutes to run the entire show with the choreographers. They were still sewing the costumes as they fitted me. I just had time to grab some water and my swing book with all of my numbers in it and we started the show. I think I blacked out because I don’t remember it at all! I debuted as Gilbert so I have a very special relationship with that character now. I ended up playing him for two weeks.
Q: I was your age when I saw John Waters’ original film in 1988. At the time, it felt like a fun period piece set in the early 1960s. When we look at where we are in 2023, this musical’s integration and equality themes, these messages feel somehow more needed and more powerful than ever. Is that something you and the other members of the cast talk about?
A: It feels very important to tell this story again, especially with everything that’s happened over the last few years with COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important for us to come back to why this story was created in the first place. There’s a lot of hatred and a lot of cruelty in the world and we need to continue to strive for better and for peace. We need to empower everyone and remind them how far we’ve come. Bringing “Hairspray” back is a reminder that it doesn’t matter what you look like, we are all one.
Q: With Edna Turnblad as one of the most iconic drag roles in musical theatre history, “Hairspray” immediately became a part of the national conversation in March when the Tennessee legislature passed a new law prohibiting drag in public spaces. Now similar laws are being proposed across the country. There’s a real question about whether musicals like “Hairspray” or say, “Mrs. Doubtfire” could be staged in places like Tennessee. How is that impacting you and the cast as you tour the country in this musical?
A: It did scare us a little bit. It’s insane to me how this came about. We’ve been loving drag queens and “Hairspray,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Tootsie” for years. Why is this a problem now in America? Why are they being targeted now when we’ve loved these iconic shows and characters for decades and decades? We don’t really know right now what’s going to happen with shows like “Hairspray” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” going to Tennessee. It’s kind of scary but hopefully people will come to their senses and realize drag queens are not hurting children.
Q: There are so many joyous but also challenging musical numbers in this show. What are some of your favorites to be a part of?
A: “Run and Tell That” is such a powerful, fun and energetic section in the show. It’s people of color celebrating who they are, being together and being one. It’s saying, “This is our place. This is where we get to be ourselves.” It is so joyous getting to do that number. In Act Two, for Gilbert, it has to be “I Know Where I’ve been.” For me, Gilbert has a very big character arc in the show, from where he is in the beginning of the show with Tracy to the end. We see him turning things around with how he feels about Tracy and about integration. He realizes, “This girl is really trying to make a change. She’s the only one really wanting to do this.” He’s never seen this before. He realizes this person actually does care so eventually he gets on board with it. It’s great to get to play that change of heart.
Q: You were in college in an unprecedented time, both in a pandemic and a period of social unrest with the murders of George Floyd and also Ahmaud Arbery here in Georgia, amidst calls for social justice and Black Lives Matter protests. In response, you and your classmates created “Color Cabaret: A Night of Color” to showcase the work of POC students in the UAB’s Theatre Department. What are your hopes for a more inclusive future in the professional theatre community?
A: Creating the “Color Cabaret” was eye-opening. It made me realize, “I really can do this.” I wanted young people of color to see us and inspire them to consider going to the University of Alabama to study theatre and the arts. When I created this with my classmate Devin [Ty Franklin], we wanted to send an important message: “We’re here. Performers of color have been here for centuries and you’re not looking at us. What do we need to do to make you look at us?” Over the last three years, we’ve seen a change in the Broadway community and in the arts in general for lots of people of color. We’re seeing that now on Broadway, on national tours like this and in regional houses as well. We’re seeing more Black playwrights on Broadway, more Black actors and performers who are leading these big Broadway musicals. I really hope they’re starting to look at our talent and that’s why we’re being put up front and not for the sake of the media. We need to continue to see people of color being considered for and being cast in roles that used to be only filled by white performers. It makes me happy to see things moving in the right direction.
Q: It’s impossible to sit in the audience during “Hairspray’s” finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and not be affected. It’s young people dragging the adults into the future, they’re leading the change. What’s it like for you to be up there on stage putting that message out there?
A: It’s such a celebratory moment for me. Just seeing the support and love from everyone on that stage just makes me so happy. We’re bringing people joy, but we’re also making them think and understand. Seeing so many different shades of color on that stage together at the end, it’s so much fun and it’s putting so much light out into the world. This show is about growing and learning from each other. Seeing people get out of their seats every night at the end because they know the song and they love the song is amazing. Getting to do this show, with this message, right out of college is something I will never forget.
The Broadway in Atlanta National Tour of “Hairspray” runs through Sunday, June 4 at the Fox Theatre. For tickets and more info, go to the Fox Theatre website. For more info on Matthew J. Kelly, visit his website or follow him on Instagram.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.