Hometown: Salem, Massachusetts
Currently: Making a surprise star debut after replacing injured headliner Christian Hoff as cad Joey Evans in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Pal Joey.
The Lollipop Guild: A New England native, Risch felt early on that he didn’t fit in with the kids around him. “At school, everyone was a jock. All those private schools with everyone playing lacrosse? There’s nothing I feared or hated more than playing sports,” he says. The younger of two creative sons brother Dane is a fashion designer and rocker in the Brooklyn-based indie band Salt and Samovar, Risch found his footing in the third grade when he was cast as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. “I was introduced to kids like me and it was like a drug!” Mom, then a flight attendant, and Dad, a businessman and former musician, were “incredibly supportive,” and encouraged Matt to continuing performing in local theater productions.
A Class Act: At 14, Risch applied to the prestigious Walnut Hill School, known for its arts curriculum. “I sang ‘Any Dream Will Do’ from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and did some teenage boy monologue,” he recalls of the “frightening” audition. Once accepted, Risch cops to initially needing motivation. “The head of the department sat me down and said, ‘You’re lazy. You’re really talented, but you better get off your ass and work hard.” The sit-down worked, driving Risch to tackle major dramatic roles such as Trigorin in The Seagull. He went on to the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, where he and former Mary Poppins star Ashley Brown became roommates and fast friends. “To do so much serious work in high school and then go to CCM, which is like a musical comedy nation, was a nice balance,” he says now. “I feel blessed to have gotten a well-rounded education.”
Going Pro: Following graduation, Risch nabbed his Equity card alongside Brown doing summer stock, then joined the national tour of Joseph as country-singing brother Levi opposite star Jon Secada. Soon, he was making his Broadway debut as a dancer in Chicago, a transition that didn’t begin smoothly. “I had been obsessed with the show—I’ll admit to seeing it five times! But I didn’t understand how much improv was involved in the choreography. After the first rehearsal I was so intimidated I went home and cried.” He practiced at home in his “tiny” living room and then confidently took his place onstage at the Ambassador Theatre, working with plenty of stars in his two years with the company. “With Usher, I felt like a back-up dancer in a rock concert,” he says with a laugh. “Every night, girls would come in screaming.”
The Chorus Line: Next up for Risch was a rendezvous with Elle Woods. “Going from Chicago, the only show I’ve ever done where you never smile onstage, to doing Legally Blonde, where everyone was my age, was like going back to college,” he says now. Throughout both productions, Risch also performed in BC/EFA’s annual Broadway Bares benefit, resulting in some very public photos of the now-leading man in next to nothing. When asked about his revealing participation, Risch just laughs. “I have NO regrets, ever! I love the cause. But I don’t know if I’ll be doing it again this year.”
American Gigolo: Before Blonde closed, Risch was cast as the understudy to Tony winner Christian Hoff in Roundabout’s revival of Pal Joey, Rodgers & Hart’s tale of an ambitious, two-timing charmer who woos a rich woman for money. When Hoff was injured two weeks into previews, Risch assumed the role for two performances. Then came the shock: “I got a call one Sunday night that Christian wouldn’t be healed in time to open—and they were offering me the part. My jaw literally fell open.” Risch still has mixed feelings about what could become his big break. “No one wants to be starring on Broadway through the demise of someone else,” he says, calling the offer “bittersweet.”
In the Spotlight: Speaking a week before opening night at Studio 54, Risch says he’s up to the challenge of playing an iconic musical role. “[Director] Joe Mantello has really helped me transition from chorus boy to being the star of the show,” he says. “Joey is a punk, a street rat who just vomits up charm, which is SO not me. So that’s challenging.” But Risch is having the time of his life. “I’m out there sometimes going, ‘What am I doing screaming at Martha Plimpton and making out with Stockard Channing right now? This is insane!’” As for the pressure to carry a show? “If I let myself think about it too much I get anxiety-ridden. I’m just working, learning to own it, and trying not to let the bullshit get to me.”