Matthew Gardiner’s first exposure to Stephen Sondheim is a vivid memory. He was 5 and remembers his mom watching “Into the Woods” on PBS. He was supposed to be in bed but hid behind the sofa watching it unbeknownst to her.
“His lyrics are unlike anybody else’s who writes for musical theater,” the 27-year-old gay College Park, Md., resident says. “His music is spectacular and he’s an amazing wordsmith.”
Gardiner is directing “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which runs through June 12 at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. It’s a revue of the gay composer’s early works that features music from “West Side Story,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and more. Gardiner changed a couple of the songs — with Sondheim’s blessing — and tweaked the between-song patter, but says the simple presentation is intrinsic to the show.
“There’s no reason to clutter Sondheim’s work with excessive spectacle,” he says. “His words are what you want to focus on.”
Gardiner is also directing “Art,” another current Signature production. Eric Schaeffer, whom Gardiner calls “my mentor and teacher” slated him for both productions — it’s the first time Gardiner knows of that a Signature director has helmed simultaneous productions.
Gardiner and his twin brother grew up active in the arts. He studied ballet for years but eventually wanted to find something that would allow him more creative input so he pursued directing. He joined Signature after going to school at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. And though he has a group of friends with whom he enjoys exploring new restaurants and activities in Washington, the theater, he says, is his life.
“I’m a workaholic and I’m doing what I love and I love the people I do it with,” he says. “So it’s not a job for me. It’s what I want to be doing. I have a wonderful group of friends and we do lots of stuff together but I enjoy the theater most so I spend a lot of time doing it.”
Gardiner is single and lives in Arlington. (Photo courtesy of Kristina Sherk)
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
Since I was 18 but it took a while to have the conversation with my parents. They probably knew since I was 5 when I begged my mother to buy me all the Judy Garland albums. Was it hard to tell them I was gay? No. They knew. But is a conversation about sexual preference with your parents a bit awkward. Sure.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Socially: Harvey Milk. Artistically: There are many. But presently, Arthur Laurents, who recently passed away. He was a giant in the theatre world (the writer of West Side Story, which in my opinion is perfection) and an open and proud gay man.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Ali’s Bar at Signature Theatre
Describe your dream wedding.
I don’t think I’ve ever given that much thought. I guess something simple and intimate, with close friends and family. Something personal, that speaks to my relationship with that other person.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
What historical outcome would you change?
Everything happens for a reason. But I guess the election of and the re-election of George W. Bush.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Being in an elevator with Al Pacino.
On what do you insist?
110 percent. Will you always achieve or get from those around you? No. But I strive for and expect it from those around me.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
I enjoy sharing YouTube videos. The most recent was a video of Anne Reinking, Donna McKechnie and Chita Rivera singing “Let Me Entertain” you on a television special in 1987. Look it up. It’s amazing.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
The tooth fairy… definitely the tooth fairy.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
I have no advice, except to keep on. I am amazed daily by people who dedicate their lives to fighting for their rights and others.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
My parents and brother.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
Well the whole “show queen” stereotype … oh and the word “twink.”
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“Philadelphia.” That scene with Tom Hanks, listening to the Maria Callas recording, it does a number on me every time I see it. Also “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but for very different reasons.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
If by customs you mean etiquette then I think nothing is overrated. Shaking hands, opening the door for others, saying please and thank you. I’m all for social etiquette and good manners.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Positive feedback on my work from my brother. Is that corny? OK, my “Most Improved” trophy from a bowling team I was on in elementary school. I was awful.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
Have confidence and don’t worry what others think of you and your decisions. I still have to remind myself of this.
Because it’s my home. I grew up here. And because it is one of the most exciting theatre towns in America.