Behind The Mask. Matthew Billman is The Phantom.

Posted by: Pia Haas on Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 12:00:00 am

We asked Matthew Billman to give us a glimpse of the actor behind his mask... Here is what he shared with us!

To fully credit everyone who led me to where I am would fill a novel (this is probably true for the rest of the cast, as well), and claiming the record to be comprehensive would probably be a lie. I'll do the best I can to keep things short, but IN short - I'm the product of one heck of a village. 

I moved around a bit. I was born in San Diego, CA, and lived both there and in La Mesa until my 12th birthday. Then my family moved to Minnesota, where I spent Middle School and the first two years of High School, at which point we moved to Poway, a small city just north of San Diego. College was at Stanford University in Northern California, then I moved to NY!

My mother is a harpist and speech therapist, and my father is the director of medical safety for Rady Children's Hospital and a pediatric pathologist. I was raised with a dual passion for art and science, and have always been actively involved in both. My parents were and are the chief supporters and inspiration behind everything I do. 

I began singing at 4 years old as a boy soprano and joined the St. Paul's Cathedral Choristers just before 7 (they had to bend the rules to let me in - thanks Mr. Billups!) - St. Paul's got me involved in the San Diego Opera Children's Chorus, where I got to see what music on a large scale looked like (though honestly at that age I was more interested in the card games we played backstage, and the giant sword the executioner used in Turandot). 

When we moved to Minnesota, I joined the Minnesota Boychoir, which toured and collaborated with professional orchestras and choruses around the world. By the time we'd sung in the Lord of the Rings Symphony, I was completely hooked. Around this time I started doing the school musicals, and by the time I moved to Poway I had started singing solo; the musical population in Poway really supported me, and I started singing everywhere around the city - national anthems, graduation, competitions, fireworks displays. The public support there planted the seed that would ultimately lead me to do music in NYC.

At Stanford, I studied Human Biology (concentrating in Bioinformatics and Applied Stem Cell Science); outside of my studies, I joined the A Cappella group Fleet Street. Fleet Street focuses on writing and performing original a cappella music, usually comedic (but not always), as well as performing sketch comedy and producing short films to go with our twice-annual shows. The Fleet Street creative ethos massively transformed the way I saw art, music, and the obligations of creative individuals - I cannot overstate how much they informed who I am as an artist today. I joined the Stanford Ram's Head Theatrical Society, where I was lucky enough to play two awesome roles (Jean Valjean and Che - both under the direction of the incredible Sammi Cannold, who's now doing stuff on- and off-broadway). Sammi's family encouraged me to make the jump cross country to NYC, and... I did!

Besides all of the above who are inspirations, Edgar Billups and Martin Green at St. Paul's and Mark Johnson at the Minnesota Boychoir share the credit for solidifying my passion for singing. Without St. Paul's, I'd have never learned music in the first place, nor been exposed to the grandeur of classical and liturgical music; without the Minnesota Boychoir, I would have never experienced just how much modern classical music has to offer the world, nor the sense of community and purpose a single piece of music can engender in literally thousands of people in one moment.

Fleet Street absolutely was the principal influencer in the purely creative aspects of what I do. One of Fleet Street's music directors, who helmed the group in my Sophomore Year, summarized my credo best: 'Don't just consume resources and then die. MAKE something.'

Wendy Hillhouse was my voice teacher at Stanford, and she pushed me to look beyond my interest in Classical Crossover/Popera music and into some truly great modern composers. She pushed me into the world of competitive singing, which definitely helped convince me to give this whole 'professional singing' thing a shot! She's been the driving force at Stanford behind legitimizing and institutionalizing the (heretofore wholly student-led) musical theater scene, and I'm glad to have worked with someone so devoted to keeping music relevant in today's fast-paced, high-tech world. She's brilliant. 

After my Senior year at Stanford, Wendy convinced me to join OperaWorks in LA for their advanced summer program. OperaWorks teaches a hybrid of musical improvisation, classical technique, yoga, and acting. They instilled in me an appreciation for spontaneity in the creative process - in making art, there are no mistakes, just opportunities! Ever since I've incorporated some aspect of improv in what I do - it's amazing how much it can inform pretty much everything.

I was aware that there was another "Phantom" musical out there, yes - because I had accidentally auditioned for the one at Fireside Theatre thinking it was the ALW production! I sang 'Till I Hear You Sing' and everything!

I think both shows are great. I think the music in Yeston's show is much more varied, even more intricate in spots, and on the whole most of the Phantom's numbers (and most of Christine's) hold their own against ALW's, in some cases (here's looking at you, 'My Mother Bore Me') surpassing them. The Operetta format and style (as can be best seen in the opening number(s), the Count's song, the Phantom Fugue, and The Bistro) harken strongly back to older golden age theatre, even Gilbert and Sullivan, which can be refreshing, particularly to my parents' generation. Yet for that same reason, I worried early on that Yeston's Phantom might struggle more than ALW's show to connect with a younger audience. Thus far that's proven unfounded, and I've been surprised how many of my NYC friends already know about the show, and how many have said they even prefer it to other versions, ALW or otherwise!  

On the whole, I think the two shows compliment each other. Go see ALW if you want a more mystical, darker, supernatural Phantom; come to OUR Phantom if you really want to get to know the man behind the mask.

As a newcomer to WBT, I can say that the cast, crew, and production team are all amazing! Seriously, this set - and how quickly it's going up - is incredible. The tech team is KILLING the game. I'm blown away by how integrated all aspects of production are here. It's really amazing, and I appreciate so much the work the backstage crew put into the show every day.

My dream role? Short answer: there's no way I could narrow it down!  Long, incomplete answer: Notre Dame de Paris (the French-Canadian one, not the Disney one); Sunday in the Park With George; though cliché, Dear Evan Hansen (musically interesting AND a popular feel!) and Hamilton (just plain revolutionary); Eric Whitacre's Paradise Lost; The Great Comet, and more. 

I'd love to play ALW's Phantom as well! Also: Gringoire in Notre Dame; Robert Kincaid in Bridges; Pierre in The Great Comet; and if they ever do a Josh Groban Jukebox Musical, I'd like the lead in that. Someday I'll do Sweeney Todd :)

When not on stage, I run an independent production company, CONSTRUCT (@constructnyc), which specializes in producing original music and music videos for up-and-coming artists while eliminating the barrier to creative capital all new artists experience (making art is expensive). I write and perform music through that group, and function as chief technical officer (CTO).

I'm a programmer, and in my spare time (when I have it) I develop machine learning algorithms (popularly known as AI, though the term is misleading) that augment the creative process (currently I'm ideating a project timeline for a music video generating AI). 

I'm listening through Anaïs Mitchell's 'Hadestown' and I love it! Other artists on my phone at the moment: Snarky Puppy, Jacob Collier, Becca Stevens, Robert Glasper, BadBadNotGood, Josh Groban, Hiatus Kaiyote, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Radiohead, Nightwish, and Dream Theater. 


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