/stories/2019/08/taking-a-chance-on-new-audiences

Taking a chance on new audiences

University of Miami assistant professor Julio Agustin Matos, Jr., choregraphed the Latinx-inspired production of the classic 'Guys and Dolls' musical in Texas last summer. Photo: Melissa Taylor

 

By Deserae E. del Campo

University of Miami assistant professor Julio Agustin Matos, Jr., choregraphed the Latinx-inspired production of the classic 'Guys and Dolls' musical in Texas last summer. Photo: Melissa Taylor

 

Taking a chance on new audiences

By Deserae E. del Campo
Drawing on his experience in a re-envisioned ‘Guys and Dolls,’ choreographer Julio Agustin Matos, Jr., shares his insights on attracting more diverse audiences to Broadway’s Golden Age musicals.

When Julio Agustin Matos, Jr. was living and working as an actor in in Los Angeles, the professional theatre director and choreographer was always asked to play the thug, the thief, or to act more "street" on stage. “Over and over again I said ‘no,’ so for a while I didn’t work because of these stereotypical norms in theatre,” Matos, an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts, recalled.

But Matos, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is no stranger to the stage. He performed on Broadway in the original companies of “Fosse,” “Steel Pier,” “Never Gonna Dance,” “Bells Are Ringing,” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” More recently, he choreographed the Latinx-inspired musical comedy classic “Guys and Dolls” that played at Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) in Houston, Texas. That experience, and his drive to help ensure that theatre reflects today’s changing audiences and entices younger people to Broadway’s Golden Age musicals, is the subject of his peer-reviewed article in the summer issue of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society’s acclaimed SDC Journal.  

“We didn’t want to change ‘Guys and Dolls’ in a way that would offend people,” Matos said. “But we wanted to respect tradition while opening it up to today’s diverse audiences.”

In the article, “Braving the challenges of re-envisioning the classic musical for a new audience,” Matos reflects on the months he worked with the show’s director and crew and observed the creative process from start to finish—through casting calls, rehearsals, community engagement workshops, and planning and preparing for opening night. Culled from the journal he kept at the time, the article identifies four areas—casting, choreography, community engagement, and critical response—that pose challenges to making classic musicals accessible to modern audiences.

 “I’m writing to peers, theatre scholars, and other experts in theatre departments across universities about what is happening and what is shifting in theatre today, and how we can make it better,” Matos said. “This article showcases what worked and what didn’t, and I hope it helps those in theatre to take a chance and not be afraid to transform these classic productions for today’s more culturally diverse audiences.”

When it came to casting, Matos said the “number of talented triple-threat performers of Latinx ethnicity who attended our ‘Guys and Dolls’ invited and open auditions was inspiring.” The choreography was also an important aspect, especially for Matos, who incorporated social Latin dance styles—like capoeira—as well as authentic ballroom and traditional theatre dances. It was, Matos wrote in the article, a way to showcase the “stylistic intentions and shared skills of many of the actors from Houston’s Cuban, Mexican, Honduran, and El Salvadorian communities.”

Matos also examined the theatre’s community outreach programs and the partnerships the company forged with outside organizations, which enabled the production to feature talented Latinx performers from the Houston community. Cast members also held workshops for children, enabling the youngsters to interact with performers who looked like them.

In examining the critical response to the show, Matos said the negative reviews “superseded” the positive responses, but he was not discouraged. “Such contradictory responses confirm the need to continue developing this type of project,” he wrote. “Not every decision will yield solely positive response, but a lack of change simply perpetuates a status quo—something we cannot afford.”