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By Gregg Shapiro
Matt Murphy has a runaway hit on his hands with Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man. In addition to its long-running off-Broadway production in New York, the show has a touring company that takes it across the country to cities big and small—including Houston in early May. Now based in New York, Indiana-native Murphy is also behind a variety of other productions, including the off-Broadway boy-band parody Altar Boyz and the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis, to name just two. I spoke with Murphy about his career and the success of Sex Tips earlier this year.
Gregg Shapiro: Matt, what led you to become a theatrical producer?
Matt Murphy: That’s a good question! I always wanted to work in theater, ever since I was very young. First I told everybody that I wanted to be an actor, and I acted in grade school, middle school, and high school. Then I realized that I wasn’t very good at it, and that was it. I thought, “Okay, I guess that means I can’t be in theater.”
Then I took a class in college [at University of Colorado Boulder] called Musical Theater History, and the professor there, Bud Collins, was talking about the directors and producers and the writers—those men and women who created the work as the pioneers of the industry, in addition to some of the actors. That was an eye-opening course for me. I realized that that was a job one could have in the industry.
I started pursuing that. I wanted to direct; I wanted to produce and write a little bit. The way I began training myself to do that was by working behind the scenes as a stage manager, a company manager, and a general manager. I always knew that I wanted to be in this industry, and it took me a minute to figure out that producing and writing was something I could be good at, and that I could contribute to the industry [in] that role.
Your production work runs the gamut from adult content—Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man—to the family-oriented Berenstain Bears Live! What are the challenges and rewards of that wide production spectrum?
I like to surprise audiences, I guess. In theater for young audiences, oftentimes it’s their first theatrical experience; you get that immediate effect of awe from kids seeing a live performance. [These days, when] they’re so used to seeing things on their iPads or iPhones, to be sitting in a theater and see actors performing 10 feet away from them—especially actors performing in the Berenstain Bears costumes that they recognize from the books they are reading at home—is an experience unlike any that kids get today. I enjoy being a part of sharing that with young children and their parents. It’s incredibly rewarding to see them laughing and clapping and standing up at the end and dancing along with the music.
There’s something more visceral about family entertainment than typical adult drama. I would say the same thing about Sex Tips—it’s a little more visceral in that it’s audience-participatory. We’re dealing with a taboo subject, but we’re handling it in what I would say is just the right way by couching the sex tips within a romantic-comedy storyline, making it palatable for the audience while at the same time pushing the envelope just enough so that they might walk away from Sex Tips and say, “Hey, honey, maybe we should try that.”
Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man is based on the best-selling book of the same name. What was it about the book that compelled you to adapt it for the stage?
The tone of it is what I appreciated most. It was so inviting and encouraging. I tried to hold onto that tone in adapting it into a romantic comedy. It really is Will & Grace onstage. The character of [Sex Tips co-author] Dan Anderson is written in the book the same way that it’s written in our play. He wants people to succeed. He wants people to try new things. Not because he’s challenging them, but because they will enjoy it. I’m not just talking about enjoying it from a physical standpoint, but enjoying the notion of trying something different. That comes across in every way, shape, and form. He’s funny, witty, supportive—you get that from reading the book. I hope you get that from seeing the play, as well. I think you do, and I think that’s part of the reason it’s been successful. People come to our show, and it’s not like we’re pushing this advice on people. We’re presenting a classic American comedy story. We’re entertaining them with theatrical tricks and props and fanfare, while also serving up a few bits of advice that they may or may not take home with them.
Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man is on the bachelorette party circuit. How did that come about?
I think anything with the word sex in the theater will become a destination for girls’-night-out groups. That wasn’t by design, it just happened naturally. Shows such as Menopause The Musical and other fare geared towards or dealing with issues of interest to women will naturally bring out a female audience. We get a lot of bachelorette parties, birthday parties, and groups of women out for a night on the town.
I have been heartened by the fact that a majority of our audience is couples—women coming with their boyfriends or their husbands. I think a lot of people step into the theater not quite sure what they’re going to get. They walk out with a big smile on their face. They had a good time. It’s a very funny piece of theater. On the way home, they may be thinking, “Up, twist, over, and down—I wonder what that’s like?” Who knows where it goes from there!
The play has been great for gay men, too. Gay men and their female best friends, or just groups that include couples and singles—gay or straight, young or old. I think because sex sells and it’s a universal topic, it really has appeal to a wide demographic.
I’m glad you mentioned gay men. What percentage of your audiences are gay men on any given night?
When we first opened in New York, it was quite significant. But the gay audience in New York doesn’t last forever—once the word is out, the majority of gay theatergoers will come find your show and see it. Then that audience is on to the next thing. But when we go out on tour, the percentage of gay men [in the audience goes back up] again.
I think there are fewer options for gay men when you get outside of major markets. When our play comes to town, it’s a good option. We played Provincetown for a week. The audience there was majority gay men. I think the show is fun for gay men, too, because a gay man is the leading role in the play. He’s handled with respect, he’s charismatic, and he’s not a caricature. He’s an encouraging, supportive man who feels like he has something of value to share with the audience. There’s a message in there for gay men as well.
Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man has a full tour schedule. How does the show play in other parts of the country—say, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Louisville, Kentucky, for example?
We just sold out Fayetteville, Arkansas at the Walton Arts Center, which is heavily funded by the family who owns and operates Walmart. They loved it! The presenter there loved it. We track all the social-media mentions about the show from wherever we are, and everybody in Fayetteville was talking about the show. It was couples in their 40s, couples in their 70s, groups of women, groups of men, all posting “This is hilarious!” “This is a must-see!” “You have to come check this out!” Wherever it goes, it seems to do well.
Are there other upcoming productions, either New York-based or touring, that you’re especially excited about?
Nothing I’m ready to announce in this interview. [Laughs] There are a couple of things brewing that I’m excited about. Sex Tips is still growing in a very big way. We are about to launch a Las Vegas production. We hope to finalize a UK production in the near future. Lots of exciting things.
In addition to your theater-production duties, you also operate Marquee Merchandise, where theatergoers are able to purchase T-shirts, hats, mugs, and other theater souvenirs. Which show currently has the best-selling merch?
What: Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man
When: May 4–7
Where: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Gregg Shapiro also writes the GrooveOut music column for OutSmart magazine.