Here’s the thing about having a long, busy acting career: one moment a performer finds himself at the extreme margin of agony, trudging the stage with Cordelia in his arms, and the next he’s having a moment of blood, sweat and glory in Rocky Balboa’s corner.
Dakin Matthews, one of Southern California’s most admired stage actors – including a 2010 turn as King Lear with the Antaeus Company, the North Hollywood classical ensemble he co-founded in 1991 – is headed to Broadway as Mickey, the crusty trainer played by Burgess Meredith in the first three “Rocky” movies, in “Rocky the Musical.”
“I’m making my Broadway musical debut at the age of 73 – it’s a kind of interesting career arc,” Matthews said in an amused tone from his home in North Hollywood.
Matthews said he’ll be reporting to the gym – make that the Winter Garden Theatre – on Dec. 18 to begin rehearsals for the show, which is scheduled to begin previews Feb. 11 and open March 13.
In addition to readings with the Antaeus Company, Matthews has appeared this year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in “The Nether,” Jennifer Haley’s drama about a virtual reality sex enterprise, and at the Geffen Playhouse in “Yes, Prime Minister,” Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s stage adaptation of political television farces they wrote for the BBC.
Matthews is accustomed to carrying plays by Shakespeare, Shaw and Moliere, and he once played Alfred Hitchcock at South Coast Repertory. But singing roles?
There have been a few, Matthews said, but none he could recall in Southern California. The most recent was a 2011 off-Broadway turn in a revival of “Where’s Charley?” a seldom-staged 1948 musical by Frank Loesser.
“I’m an OK singer,” Matthews said.
In “Rocky,” with songs by the “Ragtime” team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and a book by Thomas Meehan (“The Producers” and “Hairspray”), he said his big number will be “a sweet ballad” in which Mickey, trying to persuade Rocky to take him on as trainer for his seemingly hopeless bout with the invincible Apollo Creed, lays out his own underdog’s story of disappointments and missed opportunities in the fight game and in life.
Matthews said he loved “Rocky” when the first of six films about the Philadelphia pug came out in 1976, and admired the underdog story of Stallone himself, an unknown who shot to stardom by writing his own vehicle.
But he admits he was beyond skeptical two years ago when director Alex Timbers, for whom he’d previously done a reading of another play in New York, invited him to play Mickey in a two-week workshop of “Rocky.”
“I thought, ‘That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard, how can you make a musical about that?’ ” Matthews recalled. “Then I did the workshop, and it worked.”
Primarily backed by Stage Entertainment, a European theater production company, “Rocky” was originally written in English, then translated into German for its initial stage iteration. “Rocky: Das Musical” opened a year ago in Hamburg and is still running, having knocked out critics as well as audiences.
Andy Karl and Margo Seibert had previously been announced as Rocky and Adrian. Along with Matthews, Danny Mastrogiorgio, playing Adrian’s brother, Paulie, and Terrence Archie as Creed were announced Tuesday in the other principal roles.
The Hamburg staging will lose its original Apollo Creed when Archie moves to the Broadway cast. Until now he’d been best known for playing the titular strutting professional wrestler in Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” including a 2011 run at the Geffen.
In addition to being announced Tuesday for the “Rocky” cast, Matthews notched a separate Broadway credit from a distance of 3,000 miles. He’s the dramaturg for a new production of “Macbeth” that began previews Tuesday, starring Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff as the murderous Scottish lord and lady.
It’s the latest fruit of his long run as director Jack O’Brien’s go-to guy for tackling Shakespearean plays – as an actor, dramaturg or adapter. Matthews did all three while winning a special Drama Desk award for his Broadway turn with Hawke, Kevin Kline and Audra McDonald in O’Brien’s 2003 production of “Henry IV.” Matthews cut the text of Shakespeare’s two-part history so it would work as a one-evening show. It won Tony Awards for best revival of a play and best direction of a play.
Director Daniel Sullivan tapped Matthews as dramaturg for a 2005 Broadway production of “Julius Caesar” starring Denzel Washington as Brutus.
Matthews’ other previous Broadway roles have been opposite Frank Langella in a 2008 revival of Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” and in last year’s revival, “Gore Vidal’s Best Man,” starring Candice Bergen, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury. His recorded voice was heard in the Broadway production of “QED,” primarily a one-man show in which Alan Alda played physicist Richard Feynman.
During the 2011 workshop for “Rocky,” Matthews said, he learned that he has quite a following in Germany, thanks to his recurring role in the hit early 2000s sitcom, “The King of Queens,” playing the father of Kevin James’ title character.
“One of the German producers came to the final presentation and said, ‘They told me there were going to be stars in the workshop, but we didn’t know you were in it! ‘King of Queens’ is a really big show in Germany, we never miss it.’ ”
Matthews said he’s been leasing an apartment in New York the last few years to give him a foothold for acting roles there. If “Rocky” enjoys a long ride on Broadway, he still expects to have outlets for his immersion in classical theater -- he’s writing books about Shakespearean verse and “The Winter’s Tale,” while continuing an ongoing interest in translating 17th century Spanish plays into English.
Matthews said he’s also talked to his friend James Houghton, who doubles as artistic director of New York’s Signature Theater Company and head of the Juilliard School’s drama division, about helping to train acting students by day before reporting to the Winter Garden to train an underdog puncher by night.