Matthew Richards has achieved more in the last few months than many who set off for Broadway. The newly graduated high school student from Layton won the Utah High School Musical Theater Awards held by the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater (UFOMT) on May 10, 2014.
Richards was then sent to compete at the National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York City on June 30. At this competition, he was selected to be a runner up in the top three. This achievement not only gave him a $2,500 scholarship, but also allowed him to make valuable connections with the Broadway world.
“We met a ton of people. I’ve Facebook friended incredibly talented people and that is what’s really cool, is that they are just people,” says Richards. “Multiple Broadway directors, choreographers. I know that there were casting agents there… As we were there, there were people in the business looking at the future business being ‘I like them’ and talking to people.”
He explains that this collaboration continued following the competition at the afterparty. “I’d walk through and talk to people, and leave, and then someone would be like ‘do you know who that was’ and I would be like ‘no’ and they were like ‘that was this person and they’re really big’ and I was like ‘I didn’t know that.’”
Richards was one of 56 contestants, including the Utah female representative Aitana Alapa, trying to win this competition. But all these contestants were more than just competitors, they were friends.
“It took 56 kids who all are from their respective communities and put them all together and we did an opening and a closing number that was combined of all of us,” he continues. “It was really collaborative, and that was what was so fantastic. I love being with all the students that were just like me.
“It was cool because in Utah you’re the weird theater kid who just kind of likes to do it… The majority of them were like ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life’ and that was really cool to connect with them because you had really big parts of yourself in common.”
This commonality led Richards to feel comfortable at the competition.
“I didn’t feel nervous ever for the actual performance because you felt like you had people who really understood you and why you do it; not because it was part of the script and not because it’s how the show should’ve gone, its because they loved being there with you as much as you loved being there with them.”
Vanessa Ballam, the Education Director for the UFOMT, knew there was something special about Richards and Alapa.
“I’ve gotten to know all our competitors that get to go to New York every year,” Ballam explains. “The first year the students were really surprised by the fast pace and they were not prepared for getting put through the ropes, and every year they get a little better at that.
“But these two ate it up, they couldn’t get enough of it. Really realizing this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was a great learning experience…I had a very strong feeling that they were going to blow the judges away.”
Richards explains that the entire experience was otherworldly yet familiar.
“When we were in New York [City] we actually got to perform in the Minskoff Theater which is currently the stage that performs the Lion King… It was cool because it was grander than what we were used to, but at the same time it was really familiar and it wasn’t any different from high school.
“In certain aspects they had more expensive stuff and they were really professional about things, but it was cool because it wasn’t like we were stepping into a new world it was like we stepping into a world we wished we could be in always.”
One of the commonalities was in how the props got treated.
“We were just walking around and on this box there was the puppet for simba just right there. Not marked, not labeled, not in some fancy container just laying there, and I’m like ‘that’s just what we would do: we just kind of put it somewhere, and then get it when we needed it.’”
For him, one of the most exciting parts of the whole competition happened when the contestants first entered the stage on competition day.
“It was so cool because they played the opening number and the music and we all just run out there and the lights come up and everyone just freaks out. We hadn’t said a single word, sung at all, or done anything we just came on stage. It was the most exhilarating thing I have ever done in my life. Like instant adrenaline shot and it was crazy and way cool.”
This opportunity has also kept him close with the Utah Festival Opera company. He participated in the late night cabaret held on July 17 at Cafe Sabor. For this event he sang “If Dreams Came True” from A Tale of Two Cities.
“The talent in Utah is really unsurpassed in the nation.” Ballam explained, “I feel like in musical theater that is especially what I have seen in the past four years… The fact that Matthew did so well and represented us so well. I really hope that it will bring some more recognition to this program because I want to see it continue… As I’ve always been saying, our students are phenomenal and obviously we saw that recognized by the judges in New York as well. So I hope that this will become an iconic part of our state.”
Richards plans on continuing his education at Weber State University in Musical Theater, at which point he may transfer to New York University after two years or finish his degree then pursue musical theater in New York City following graduation.