Matt Sax, the baby-faced composer-performer whose new show, “Venice,” was dubbed “the year’s best musical” by Time magazine, has a penchant for creating works in which life imitates art.
In 2004, he penned his solo hip-hop musical, “Clay,” about a Jewish teenager from suburban New York who escapes his dysfunctional past and finds his place in life by learning to rap and becoming a hip-hop star. Sax learned to rap to perform “Clay,” which made him, at 24, the first rapper ever to take the stage at the Lincoln Center Theater, for which he was widely hailed as a theatrical wunderkind — the story “absolutely mirroring my own trajectory as a writer and performer,” Sax said.
On Oct. 7, Sax’s new musical, “Venice,” a political fable that has proved prescient as well, will open at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The show was commissioned by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles but premiered at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where the show’s co-author, Eric Rosen, is artistic director.
“Venice” fuses elements of hip-hop, R&B, Broadway musical theater and opera — as well as Shakespeare, Brechtian allegory and Greek tragedy — to tell of an idealistic young leader named Venice, who clashes with his militaristic brother on how to save their city in the aftermath of a 20-year war and ongoing terrorist attacks.
“We started writing ‘Venice’ a few months before President Obama announced his candidacy,” Sax said of how the piece mirrors current events. “He was just this rock-star senator, but we were very inspired by the idea that a new leader could come and shake the world up.”
“We had been inspired by ‘Othello’ to create a play about the politics of the moment,” said Rosen, who wrote the book, co-authored the lyrics and directs the show. “Long before Obama won the presidency, we were writing about a charismatic leader trying to save his people and the love-hate relationship they develop with him.”
At the beginning of the play, Sax, who plays the Clown MC narrator, walks onstage carrying a laptop and begins typing the story of “Venice” as actors bring his words alive. We learn that, on a terrible day two decades ago, “bombs fell on the rising sun” of Venice — which is meant to be a fictional city — as citizens died and children were evacuated to safety in a distant haven.
On the 20th anniversary of that attack, Gen. Venice Monroe (Javier Muñoz) has invited the exiles to return with the slogan, “Venice is for Venice” — words that later will assume a xenophobic twist. Soon a terrorist bombing interrupts the general’s wedding to his childhood sweetheart — the ceremony is meant to double as a peace celebration — and turns citizen against citizen.
“What remains in ‘Venice’ from ‘Othello’ is the idea that the city believes it is at war with someone else, when, in fact, it is at war with itself,” Rosen said. He cites as comparable the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 and the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing religious extremist at a rally supporting his peace initiative and the signing of the Oslo Accords.
The co-authors hail from disparate artistic — and Jewish — backgrounds. Rosen, 39, grew up in Asheville, N.C., with a Jewish father and a Southern Baptist mother who converted to Judaism in an Orthodox ceremony. Sax, now 26, grew up Reform in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where he became a bar mitzvah and was confirmed, but at 13 was preoccupied with hip-hop rather than religious studies. The first rap song he heard was “Suicidal Thoughts” by Notorious B.I.G., which concludes with a gunshot as the narrator kills himself. “Having imagined myself as a theater artist my whole life, I was astounded by how theatrical rap actually was,” he recalled. “I also gravitated toward its lyricism, its ability to tell stories and the intricacies of being a wordsmith and a lyricist.”
As the Jewish son of a wealth manager, however, Sax was initially reluctant to rap, fearing he might be labeled inauthentic; he changed his mind when he began writing “Clay” during his sophomore year at Northwestern University in an attempt to mold his career. “I wasn’t cast in a student production of ‘The Seagull,’ and I was pissed,” he said. “I realized that if I wanted to perform, I was going to have to create something for myself.”
Sax had never previously written a play, nor had he ever rapped, but he taught himself to do both so he could create a monologue about a nerdy Jewish teenager suffering through his parents’ divorce, a seduction at the hands of his stepmother and his mother’s suicide — which so traumatizes the teen that he remains mute until he regains his voice through rapping.
Because Sax’s parents are, in his words, “very nice people” and still married, the story isn’t directly autobiographical. Instead, it was inspired by his own artistic angst, and “a bit of ‘Oedipus,’ of ‘Henry IV,’ of ‘Hamlet,’ ” he said. “I believe that if something is going to be on stage, the stakes must be raised to the level of ‘ghosts and gods,’ ” he added. “And I felt I could take a bit of this and a bit of that, a bit of myself and put it all together to create something new, which in itself is reminiscent of hip-hop.”
Nevertheless, after “Clay” earned buzz at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival several years ago, Sax’s parents insisted he return to Northwestern to earn his degree — which disappointed him but turned out to prove fortuitous. Rosen — then artistic director and founder of Chicago’s About Face Theatre, said a mentor dragged him to see a campus production of “Clay” in a “grungy, graffiti-covered, clublike space, with only a handful of people in the audience. But I was blown away by Matt’s powerful performance.”
Rosen went on to help shape “Clay” through productions at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (where he is now artistic director), in New York and at the Douglas in Culver City.
“Eric and I are very different people, but there are certain things we share — one of them being our Jewish pasts, which is something that connects us as collaborators,” Sax said. Rosen said his complex Jewish background leads him to see direct Jewish influences in both “Clay” and “Venice.” His great-grandfather emigrated from Poland, landed in the American South and, according to family lore, became the first kosher butcher in Appalachia.
“My parents divorced when I was 7, and having a mother who converted and then diverted from Judaism made that heritage even more profound to me,” he said. Rosen immersed himself in Jewish studies as an undergraduate, and part of his doctoral work in performance studies at Northwestern included Jewish folklore and literature. He has visited Israel a number of times and has traveled to Europe to visit the birthplace and haunts of Jewish forebears.
Thus, while Sax sees the Jewish character in “Clay” as a reflection of his self-effacing kind of Jewish humor, Rosen interprets the story, in part, “as a Philip Roth-like narrative of the disintegration of the third-generation Jewish family in the suburbs,” he said
And “Venice,” for Rosen, echoes elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “When I worry about Israel,” he said, “I worry about a society so consumed with fear that it cannot perceive its real enemies.”
For tickets and information about “Venice,” which runs Oct. 7-Nov. 14, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.