Matthew Wautier-Rodriguez was used to being told what to do on stage. He’d started acting and singing in seventh grade, and by his sophomore year it was a fun hobby to go with his other passion, football. Then Terry Martin took over as director of the school musicals at Southwest High School in Green Bay.
“He kind of gave us a skeleton of an idea, and then he was like, ‘now go run with it and you decide,’” Wautier-Rodriguez recalls. “I feel like people were kind of just confused and didn’t know what to do because we were never really used to being able to just kind of decide what to do. Then, he just told us, ‘It shouldn’t be my show where I tell you guys what to do. I should give you guys the idea and it’s your show, you guys create what happens.’ So I feel like that was a really key moment in me, you know, finding out this is what I love, when I got to kind of create it firsthand.”
But it was just last year, as a member of the audience, that he decided to make musical theater his career.
“I saw my first musical at the Fox Cities PAC last spring,” he says. “I saw An American in Paris. That is more of a dance show, so it’s not really what I would probably end up doing, but I just fell in love, and I just saw everyone performing on stage and that’s when I knew this is what I had to do for the rest of my life.”
He got a taste of the Broadway life last month as one of two area students, along with Kyra Hietpas of Little Chute, to represent Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s Center Stage Awards at the National High School Musical Theater Awards in New York.
Wautier-Rodriguez earned a Center Stage Award for his performance as Ren McCormack in Southwest’s production of Footloose, a role made famous by Kevin Bacon in the 1984 movie.
“I just loved the character of Ren is because he just didn’t care what anyone else thought, and he was okay being different,” Wautier-Rodriguez says. “I feel like that’s a big thing that teenagers, especially kids in high school struggle (with) if they are different, just being themselves and being okay with that, and I feel like that was one thing that I really loved about Ren that he just didn’t care what anybody thought, and he always stuck to what he believed in.”
Wautier-Rodriguez was then selected to represent Northeast Wisconsin at the National High School Musical Theater Awards — known as the Jimmy Awards after famed producer James Nederlander — along with a little over 100 other high school performers from around the country. The weeklong experience in New York included workshops, lessons from seasoned professional performers and a chance to perform in a group medley on a real Broadway stage.
“I remember during the performance, I was performing my solo in my medley group, and I just remember going across the stage, and it was the first time I really just got to look out at the view and just having the lights hit me on the Broadway stage where people perform eight shows a week, it was really something I’ll never forget,” he says. “It was that special feeling of just pure happiness and satisfaction and like, ‘this is it, it doesn’t really get better than this.’ It was just really cool. There are a lot of words that can’t really describe the true feeling.”
He says that even more than performing on that stage, what he’ll take with him as he goes to UW-Stevens Point in the fall to study musical theater, is what he learned from the professionals he met. One of them was Randy Graff, the famed actress and singer who was the first to play the role of Fantine in Les Miserables on Broadway in 1987.
“Her biggest thing that she told us that as performers, we have nothing to prove and only to share,” Wautier-Rodriguez says. “I feel like that was the biggest thing from the whole week that I will take with me, because you can get so caught up in trying to be the best and trying to show this is what I can do, I have all these talents, I’m the one for the role. But, she said in this industry, it’s really not about proving yourself. Yes, everyone is going to be good, everyone is going to have their talents, everyone is going to be able to do everything. You just have to share what you have, share what you’re doing, that’s all you really can do. There’s nothing else to it.”
He also heard from previous Jimmy Award nominees who didn’t win the big prizes but still carved out careers for themselves in show business.
“They just reassured us that we are on the right path,” he says. “Everyone has their own journey to be successful Your path can go anywhere, but if you stay working, stay with the same passion, do what you can, you’ll get there and you’ll find your own success.”
Currently, Wautier-Rodriguez is in rehearsal for his next leading role as Jack Kelly in Newsies, a character once played on film by a young Christian Bale. The show is being produced by Next Stage, a college-level musical theater experience for high school performers at St. Norbert College in DePere.
“The directors treat us like we’re in college, they treat us like we’re adults,” Wautier-Rodriguez says. “It’s nice because everyone there has the same passion, the same care, the same drive as everyone else so we just get a lot of good stuff done.”
Newsies runs August 8-11 at the Walter Theater in the St. Norbert’s College Hall of Fine Arts.