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HARD WORK BEGINNING TO PAY OFF FOR 23-YEAR-OLD RESIDENT

Conducting Musical Titanic on Broadway Is Just the Tip of Iceberg for Matt Sklar

By JUSTIN BRIDGE

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

"Always the star." That’s how University of Maryland senior Amy Sklar describes her older brother Matt, who, for the month of August, will be the conductor of the award-winning musical, Titanic.

At 23, Matt Sklar is one of the youngest conductors on Broadway. Although he lives in New York City now, Matt grew up here in Westfield where the Sklar family has lived for 19 years.

Matt has been working on Titanic for the past year, mostly as the Associate Conductor. As Associate Conductor, his responsibilities include teaching the understudies their parts, playing the keyboard, and occasionally conducting.

As far as Matt is concerned, this is what he "was born to do." While growing up here in Westfield, he participated in many shows from junior high through high school as well as the Westfield Summer Workshop productions.

"I’ve always enjoyed playing," he said nonchalantly.

His parents first realized that Matt, the second child of three, had a gift when he was just 2. According to his father, Dr. Talbot Sklar, Matt loved listening to his dad play the piano.

"He loved ‘Jingle Bells,’ so I’d play ‘Jingle Bells,’" said Dr. Sklar. "It got to the point where, when I would stop playing ‘Jingle Bells,’ he’d scream and yell. One day, when I stopped, he climbed up there, and with his left hand, picked out ‘Jingle Bells’ by himself."’

The Sklars said that after Matt’s older sister Lauren would finish her piano lessons, he would climb up onto the bench and repeat the lessons himself. Lauren Sklar, a Media Relations Manager for "Court TV," remembered Matt playing the piano when he was little.

"I remember really struggling with ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ after a lesson. After a while, Matt just sat down and played it right out of his ear."

Matt’s formal piano lessons began when he was 5. It was then that the Sklars found out that he had been born with a perfect pitch. His first teacher, Suzy Hannah, taught piano in Westfield. Susan Sklar, Matt’s mother, claims that when Ms. Hannah discovered Matt’s perfect pitch, "She was very excited."

Matt then came to the attention of Julian Burn, who, according to Dr. Sklar, was a famous pianist. Mr. Burn tried to persuade the Sklars to enroll Matt, who was still only 5 at the time, at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

Mr. Burn also advised the Sklars "not to let Matt play soccer, not to play baseball, because he might hurt his hands."

The Sklars felt that enrolling him in Juilliard at 5 "wasn’t in his best interest." Mrs. Sklar added that she "is a firm believer in having a normal childhood." The Sklars turned down Mr. Burn’s request and let Matt play baseball.

Dr. Sklar, who works as a pediatric dentist in Edison, has always been involved in music.

"I used to play weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I was in a show band that played in the Catskills," he explained.

Dr. Sklar played in the band for about 11 years to help pay for dental school. When asked if she had a musical background, Mrs. Sklar, a teacher working for the Union County Educational Services Commission, answered that she has, "no talent. It all comes from Matt’s father."

Matt realized that he had a love for theater at a young age.

"My thing for theater started between fifth or sixth grade," he said, noting he began to perform in various productions in junior high school.

Matt and his parents felt that the high school years were the right time to enroll in Juilliard. Matt entered into the high school program, which meant that he took classes in New York on the weekends while attending Westfield High School during the week.

He was also a member of the various choirs at Westfield High School in addition to performing in plays and musicals.

Highlights of Matt’s career include winning a competition that allowed him to perform an original song on The Mickey Mouse Club.

Matt appeared on an episode featuring talented young people. Another segment of the show featured future Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi. This was the first time that Matt had received major credit for a song of his own.

According to Dr. Sklar, Matt had written the song for the Edison Intermediate High School graduation at the request of Kristine Smith-Morasso, his choir teacher.

Another memorable moment in Matt’s life was when he had the chance to meet Marvin Hamlisch of A Chorus Line fame, at a Union County Arts Center fundraiser for Rahway Hospital. Matt met with Mr. Hamlisch on the afternoon before the show.

According to Dr. Sklar, one thing led to another, and Matt ended up accompanying Mr. Hamlisch that night at the concert. Dr. Sklar points out that, "Marvin Hamlisch had taught him the song during the afternoon, and he was ready to play it that night."

Matt graduated from both Westfield High School and the Juilliard program in 1991. Shortly before graduating from Juilliard, he won the Composition Competition, a contest where he had submitted his original composition, "Symphonics."

At Juilliard’s graduation ceremony, Matt had the honor of conducting the orchestra, which played his composition at Lincoln Center. A banner from the evening bearing his name and composition is now hanging up in the Sklars’ living room.

After graduating, Matt attended New York University, where he was a musical theater major. At 21, he was either playing the keyboard or conducting some of the biggest plays on Broadway. Over the next three years, he was a part of such plays as Guys and Dolls, Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, and Les Miserables.

At 21, Matt was the youngest conductor of a major production ever on Broadway. Matt joined the production of Titanic about a year ago as Associate Conductor and will be taking over the conducting chores for this month.

When asked who his influences were, Matt shrugged his shoulders and replied that most of the big composers influence his compositions.

"My favorites would have to be Mory Yeston (the composer of Titanic), Allen Menken (of Disney fame), and Steven Flaherty (who composed "Ragtime" and the upcoming animated feature "Anastasia"), he said.

Matt also said that whatever he hears is also influential.

"When you work with another composer, their style rubs off on you," he explained, noting that his experiences in the Westfield school system have also been an influence on him.

"Westfield has a really strong theater program," said Lauren. "I remember watching him in the high school’s production of Chicago and thinking ‘This is amazing!’"

According to Lauren, her brother was nurtured not only by his family, but also by the teachers he had in high school.

As for Matt’s future, he said he would like to create his own shows. The American Stage Company will be performing a musical comedy for which he wrote music.

"I’d like to continue composing and conducting. Eventually, I’d like to do film scoring," he noted.

The Sklars said they are proud of their son, not just for his accomplishments, but because they feel that they have also raised a good person.

Lauren described her brother by saying, "He is a great guy—extremely talented, but down to earth, a real person."

His younger sister Amy claims that she is "so proud" to be his sister "because incredible things are always happening to him."

 
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10/25/97.

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