Urinetown:The Musical
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Once Upon a Dream
Matthew Rego, U-M Musical Theatre Grad, Produces Top Broadway Hits with Araca Group

by Betsy Goolian

 

Back in 1988, Matthew Rego (BFA ’92) arrived in Ann Arbor, in the chilly depths of winter, up from his hometown of Cleveland, to audition for the musical theatre program. A hazy memory all these years down the road, but Matthew’s sure he sang Luck Be a Lady, because that was his go-to song. And there were Brent Wagner, program head, Tim Millett, choreographer, and Jerry DePuit, music director, watching carefully.

 

“It was nerve wracking,” Matthew says now, “but I thought I had done well.” And indeed he was admitted to the program and did well, singing, acting, and dancing with the best of them. But as the semesters progressed, he found himself gravitating toward the entrepreneurial—directing plays and launching, with fellow classmates, what they called Basement Arts, an organization that still exists to this day, in which shows are cast, promoted, rehearsed, and performed by students.

 

“Matthew was always enterprising as a student,” says Wagner, “and had an entrepreneurial spirit. I wasn't quite sure where it was leading at the time, but I knew that this was the field for him.”

 

As a student, Matthew actively sought faculty input. “I wasn’t taking directing classes,” he says, “so seeking out mentoring from key faculty members just made sense. Philip Kerr, Erik Fredricksen, Tim Millett, and Brent Wagner were all great sounding boards. They would come to rehearsals and be real observers; if you reached out and asked for their guidance and consultation, they were more than willing to do so.” While at Michigan, he directed a MUSKET production of Evita, a new play by Hopwood Award-winner Andrew Newberg called Kitchen Help, and a Basement Arts production of James McLure’s Lone Star.

 

After graduation, Matthew moved to New York City to join older brother Michael who had gone through the musical theatre program at Syracuse. After short-term stints as interns here, production assistants there, the two decided to take the high road. Michael went to New York Law School, Matthew to Fordham for an MBA.

 

But still, even with these higher degrees to their credit, the question remained: “Do we get jobs and start climbing the corporate ladder of the arts? Or do we go out on our own.”

 

They did what their forefathers had done. Charlie Araca, their paternal grandfather who immigrated to Cleveland from Sicily in the early 1900s, took the $300 he had won in dice game and invested it in a food stand, with his brothers. That food stand became a grocery store and then a second grocery store.

 

When Matthew’s father, Anthony Rego (“Araca” had been dropped in the 1940s), came of age, he took over the family grocery business. He used the money he had inherited from his father, money he had been holding onto for years, never spending a dime, and built more stores with his uncles.

 

That was the entrepreneurial setting Matthew and Michael had come to know. As boys, they started their own businesses—selling farm fresh eggs door-to-door, starting a lawn-cutting business, making their own movies.

 

So the answer at the crossroads lo those many years later was perhaps pre-ordained. Of course they would venture out on their own. They enlisted longtime childhood friend Hank Unger and two became three.

 

The brothers Rego rented an apartment, a one-bedroom, on the Upper West Side. “I got the bigger room,” Matthew says, “but it was the living room. Michael got the smaller room, which was the bedroom, but he also got a door. I got a Chinese curtain.”

 

In a bold move—one might even call it rash—they rented an office space they really couldn’t afford. To subsidize the rent, they brought in office mate David Stone. “That may have been one of the best decisions we ever made,” Matthew says. “He had a play he was developing called The Vagina Monologues. He asked if we wanted to co-produce it with him.”

 

The prospect seemed risky, even to these adventurous souls, so they sent their partner Hank, along with Hank’s mother, to a Washington, D.C. production. “We decided, if she can handle it, we can do this play. Hank’s mom loved it. It was the first time we went out and raised money from outside the family.”

 

Lucky thing. The Vagina Monologues went on to return nine times its investment. Then came an odd little musical with a funny name:  Urinetown. Even the show’s creator, Greg Kotis, recognized the gamble, describing the three as “upstarts, buccaneering producers eager for a horse to bet on.”

 

“It did seem like the unlikeliest of successes,” Matthew says. “Why would a show called Urinetown that started at the Fringe Festival that no one had ever heard of before be the thing we bet on?”

 

There are risks, and then there are calculated risks. “If you were to ever really look at the show,” Matthew says, “it’s one of the best-written of all time. People look back at musical theatre history:  what’s the best structure, the best music, best book, best lyrics? And of course you mention Guys and Dolls, you mention West Side Story. I would put Urinetown in that same breath.”

 

Moving forward, however, came with an unpopular next step. They re-auditioned the entire show. In the process, they lost the director and choreographer. “They were all young and enthusiastic,” Matthew says, “but they were inexperienced. Our fear was that they just didn’t have the experience and ability for us to go out and do what we wanted to do.”

 

“But I think—I hope—it was done from an altruistic place,” he says. “We wanted to do what was best for the show. It wasn’t serving any kind of ego. It wasn’t because I wanted to hire my sister to direct the show or cast my dad to play Cladwell. I felt like we really had to go out and find the best talent to support this thing and to give it life on Broadway.”

 

They would end up keeping only Spencer Kayden, who played Little Sally in the Fringe Festival production. She went on to earn a Tony Award nomination. They brought in John Rando to direct. They cast John Cullum to play Caldwell B. Cladwell, the villainous lead. “John Cullum was a huge reason why this company of actors and group of creative talents worked so well together. Here was this two-time Tony Award-winning actor doing this show for us, off-Broadway, in a theatre that had one dressing room divided by a sheet—one side for the girls, one side for the guys. And he didn’t complain. Not once. It just made everyone get in line.”

 

Hunter Foster (BFA ’92) was cast in the role of Bobby Strong, the show’s hero. Jennifer Laura Thompson (BFA ’91) played the villain’s daughter and love interest, Hope Cladwell. “It’s funny,” Matthew says. “The first person to audition for the show was Jennifer and the last person was Hunter. I didn’t tell anyone on the team that they were my friends. They had to walk in and they had to earn this themselves.”

 

Jennifer made a big impression. “She sang Julie Jordan’s song from Carousel and it just broke everyone’s hearts. Then Hunter came in and it was like, okay, this is our Bobby Strong. This is our leading man. He nailed it, he just nailed it. Everyone loved him.”

 

The rest is show business history. Urinetown: The Musical was nominated for ten 2002 Tony Awards, in spite of its inauspicious opening date on Broadway, September 20, 2001. And it came away with three:  best director, best book, and best score. It was the only musical in the history of Broadway to win those three and not best musical. A little something called Thoroughly Modern Millie took that statuette instead.

 

“I think people were nervous,” Matthew says. “But in some ways not winning best musical was as big a boost to us as winning; it became our badge of honor. We ended up coining our own phrase:  Urinetown the Broadway Triple Crown Award Winning Show.”

 

After Urinetown: The Musical came Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, and, oh, yes, a musical called Wicked, which also launched the threesome into another realm. “We negotiated to do the merchandising and to do it globally, not knowing that Wicked would become one of the three most successful musicals in the world, along with Lion King and Phantom.”

 

Now The Araca Group—named after grandfather Charlie—has ten Tony Awards and eight Drama Desk Awards in its plus column. Its merchandising arm employs 250 people worldwide. The producing arm continues full throttle, with, Matthew estimates, some six plays and seven musicals currently in development.

 

“We’ve had our fair share of flops,” Matthew is the first to admit. “After those first four—Vagina Monologues, Urinetown, Frankie and Johnny, and Wicked—people thought we couldn’t lose. We had good taste, we worked hard, I’m not discounting that—but we were very fortunate too.”