Interview for Actor’s 2006

03/02/2006 by Joanna Parson for

Since we first interviewed you, you opened as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. The show is one of the biggest hits of the season, and the reviews for you have been stratospheric– The New York Times said that the real thrill of the show is “watching the wonderful John Lloyd Young cross the line from exact impersonation into something far more compelling.” So, what does it feel like to achieve this kind of success?

Well, if you go back and look at my [first interview] with, what I was seeking at that point was some greater visibility for my work. I knew that without that visibility, a career cannot easily progress. When you’ve worked really hard and gotten great reviews and done a great job in more modest productions, you quickly realize that the next step is to take that work into a larger arena so that more people can see what you do. It’s like the tree falling in the woods — if nobody’s there to see it, does it make a sound? So the kind of widespread visibility that happens with a hit Broadway show is exactly what I was working toward, and doors are flying open. Certainly I’m elated on a personal level — that’s a no-brainer. But I’m equally elated on a business level.

You are the lead in this musical– recreating the music of the Four Seasons depends largely on the unique sound you create as Valli, and you take the last bow at the end of the show. What’s it like having the responsibility for carrying a hit on Broadway?

Well, perhaps surprisingly, it’s just like playing any other leading role. I don’t take it any more seriously just because it’s happening in a bigger arena (and I didn’t take prior roles any LESS seriously). I’ve had leading roles in the recent past that were also very challenging, and you have to give them your all or else you can fail in front of hundreds or thousands of people. A lot of what ends up on Broadway fails, and rarely can you blame the actors; I had the script of JERSEY BOYS and the material in front of me, a great cast and creative team. I knew the show was good. So it was actually EASIER, emotionally, because I could just concentrate on my role (which was a formidable task, by itself), and not worry that the other elements wouldn’t come together.

How do you take care of yourself, physically? Is your physical routine different than what it used to be?

My physical routine has completely taken over my life. But that’s not a bad thing. With every role I’ve ever played, I’ve had to do what was necessary to steer the ship into the port successfully. In this case the physical challenges of the role are overwhelming, so I’ve had to completely overhaul my life to accommodate them. I’ve completely changed my diet so that it resembles your first grade nutrition handbook, which means a balanced diet of basic, nutritious foods. I can eat a hamburger, but one I make myself at home, not the fast-food version. I absolutely must get at least 7 1/2 hours of sleep in order to sing the show 8 shows a week, and I guard that time with my life. I drink no caffeine, no alcohol and take no medicine that could interfere with my own perception of how I’m feeling. So no pain killers, for example, unless it’s night time and they’ll have worn off by the time I wake up. If I take Advil for a headache and sing, I can’t feel as well whether I might be hurting my voice. I need to be in touch with everything that’s going on physically because I’m constantly checking in with myself to be sure that everything’s functioning properly. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, affects your singing voice. If you do too many reps at the gym, and you’re tired, your singing is affected. The more rest and well-being my body has, the better my voice. I get two massages a week (one the morning after each two-show day), train vocally with my teacher once a week, stretch every day, swim every Tuesday, warm up 40 minutes before each performance, warm down vocally 20 minutes after each performance with light vocal exercises… So I’m super-sensitive to health, diet, rest, regimen and exercise, now, whereas before I could afford to be more lax about all those things.

Are there people who you consider instrumental in getting you to Broadway? What role did they play? Was choosing to be involved with the people you have around you part of a careful plan, or the result of following each opportunity?

I have always been extremely meticulous with my career strategy and with setting goals for myself. Every acting job I’ve ever had I’ve taken for a reason: there’s something to learn, there’s an opportunity for greater exposure, an acting challenge that will add further strength to my skill set as an actor. I can look back and see that I often sabotaged myself in auditions, to my own personal financial peril, no matter how much I needed the money, and I can see a pattern of booking and taking interesting projects and challenging roles, no matter how modest the venue. I’m starting to discover that building a career and finding success has much more to do with your own stubborn persistent effort to nudge the happenings of your life into the most compelling STORY you can fashion, instead of just blindly allowing yourself to just fall into anyone’s lap who’s willing to offer you a paycheck. I turned down lucrative chorus contracts at regional theatres in my very earliest years in New York and instead did avant-garde plays downtown for nothing more than a travel stipend. I certainly couldn’t AFFORD to do that, but something in my soul told me it was the right thing to do. And I had to bust my behind temping in the most demoralizing and boring office environments you could ever imagine; I certainly didn’t have the privilege of making such choices because I had unlimited personal income.

By forcing your life by hook or by crook into the shape you want it to take, you eventually find that you’re in front of the people you want to work with and for, and suddenly everyone in your life shares your values, everywhere you look you’re surrounded by the people and opportunities that suit you. An unfortunate lesson you have to learn, (well, at least for me), is that your life is the people in it, and, as such, if you want a positive life, it is your obligation to eliminate negativity. Unfortunately, sometimes that negativity is people, and you can get sucked into a vortex that is so strong that you have no mobility. Your mom was right when she said “choose your friends wisely!!”

The simple answer to whether anyone was instrumental in my getting to Broadway is yes: Tara Rubin and Eric Woodall, the casting directors for JERSEY BOYS. I was playing a New York type (a Hassidic Jew in the play, THE CHOSEN) at Paper Mill, Eric Woodall saw it, and when the first auditions for JERSEY BOYS happened, they called me in.

I also have to mention Katie Agresta, who though she wasn’t instrumental in getting me cast, I couldn’t have played Frankie Valli in this show without her expertise and guidance. Katie Agresta is probably the best voice teacher for rock singers in the world, and that’s no exaggeration. She is an earth-mother, a calming and soothing soul and everything she tells me to do WORKS. With students like Jon Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper, (Twisted Sister, even), I couldn’t imagine anyone better-credentialed. And of course I have to send kudos out to our musical director, Ron Melrose, who recommended her.

Take us through the audition process– how’d it happen for you?

I was up for the regional production of JERSEY BOYS at LaJolla Playhouse in San Diego. They had me prepare the audition material for Tommy DeVito, the guy who started the Four Seasons. Only a few seconds after I started to read, Des McAnuff, the director, said “Go out and look at the Frankie sides.” So I came back in, read cold, sang a little bit and Des said, “You can play this role. Don’t take any jobs without calling us first.” I had another callback. I came in second to an actor in L.A.

There was no talk of Broadway, yet, and like all the other close calls, I forgot about it, went away and continued to pursue my career, just as I had before. A year later I was out at the Paper Mill Playhouse again, this time understudying in the three-man play, THE DRAWER BOY, starring John Mahoney from FRASIER. Suddenly, one day backstage I read in the trades that JERSEY BOYS was Broadway bound but without its Frankie Valli. Well, to me it was a no-brainer: I had come so far the first time, and with a role this specific, this difficult to cast, they were bound to go back to the drawing board. I was on the phone with my agent, immediately, telling her to get me in there again and to find out anything she could from the casting director about what I could improve on from the last time. I got into voice lessons for the first time, ever, to begin to work on the songs. I had two lessons under my belt when the phone call to audition again came, and I snuck up to the rehearsal room at Paper Mill over those next few days, bleating out that artery-busting Frankie Valli falsetto while my cohorts downstairs did their quiet play. Five auditions later I got the offer.

Many people feel that Jersey Boys is one of the best-written biographical musicals of all time– certainly better than recent juke-box musical disappointments on Broadway. Did you know, reading the script, that it was special?

The first time I read the script way back for the LaJolla version, I thought, “This show has Broadway written all over it.” And I remembered that a year later when I was up for it again. The good script really motivated me to seize the role. I just knew the show would be successful from the script alone. And my part had an arc and was a challenging role to act. That is EXTREMELY rare in a catalogue show, so I knew no matter what, that I’d be able to bring some true acting skill to the table.

It’s a cliche that the book of a musical is blamed if the show doesn’t work and ignored if the show does work. But in this case, everyone’s talking about the book, because it’s so obvious it’s precisely why this show works. I don’t want to jinx them, but if Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice take home a Tony this year for Best Book of a Musical, it’ll be one of the most well-deserved wins in decades.

Did you always know you could produce the Frankie Valli sound with your voice?

Yes and no. If I was driving somewhere and Chicago or Supertramp or some other group with high falsetto singers came on the radio, I could always sing along with them. But no one was ever there to hear it and certainly no one ever said, “Wow! That’s amazing. YOU should do that.” It was really just a party trick or some skill I never thought I’d have any use for. I was an actor pursuing acting; I had no ambitions to be in a cover band for Supertramp. It’s one of those freak accidents that the key to my career-making role was essentially just a party trick. I was busting my hump in storefront plays on Ludlow street, when all along what was going to make my career was the fact that I could sing along to the Bee Gees!

What type of research did you do for the role? Both before the audition, and during the rehearsal process?

I didn’t have any time to do much research during the rehearsal process. I rarely have time for much research during rehearsals, outside of our few days of dramaturgy and table work. I find that the blocking (and in the case of a musical) choreography and music rehearsals along with rehearsing the scenes and building the psychological beat-by-beat life of the character is all-consuming. I always do my research BEFORE rehearsals begin, while, of course, allowing for the dramaturg’s and director’s insights during rehearsal.

I had four months of lead-time between the offer and the first day of rehearsals. I went to the Museum of Television and Radio here in New York and watched all the footage I could get together of the early Frankie Valli. I bought DVDs of the older Frankie Valli in concert. I listened to the body of the Fours Seasons’ work on a loop day-in, day-out for three months, and then abandoned the recordings a month before rehearsals when I started working on the score myself and to find my own way to vocally evoke Valli without simply imitating him. I read interviews with Frankie Valli and articles about him at the library at Lincoln Center, and I snuck away to Vegas to watch him perform live and took notes. By the time we started rehearsals, I had a wide palette of physical and vocal vocabulary for the role to choose from. Then Des was able to enhance or edit what I brought to the table.

Were you able to meet The Four Seasons? What did you ask them, and what responsibilities did you feel in recreating the persona of a real person?

I’ve met the three surviving seasons, Tommy DeVito, Frankie and Bob Gaudio. They’ve all been very supportive and surprisingly and respectfully hands-off with advice. I had lunch with Gaudio before rehearsals began and asked him questions about Frankie, his friend and lifelong business partner. And that lunch served as a nice review and validation of all the research I had done to that point. It was also a reinforcement of the conclusions I was able to draw from the script as to what Frankie’s behavior was like. Brickman and Elice really put these guys on the page. You could fake it and do no research at all and get pretty close just by playing what’s on the page. The most useful thing Bob told me was his first impression of Valli: “He was a little man with a big heart.”

At first, I felt trepidation at playing Frankie because he’s so well-known. But there wasn’t much room for fear, and I had been successful at playing real, fleshed-out, very-different-from-myself characters in the past, though, so I knew if I researched him the same way I’d researched those roles, I’d be fine. In many ways, it’s easier to authentically play a real, still-living person, because there’s more there to study. One can only guess, for example, how George Washington might have entered a room. One can WATCH Frankie Valli do it.

Tell us about the rehearsal process. Did you feel that you had as much creative input as you would have if the show were bound for an Equity showcase in a church basement?

I think each Broadway rehearsal process is different. This is my only Broadway show so far, so I can only guess that each show can be very different. But in our case, the show was already built out at LaJolla, so in most ways, this was just a re-mounting for a bigger theatre. The majority of the cast had already done it, and THANK GOD I was completely off-book, because I literally just had to jump in like it was a running locomotive. Des just started at the beginning and continued to work meticulously piece by piece through to the end. But it was done at breakneck speed, because all the staging was already there. For me, it was like a month-long put in. There were only a few faux pas here and there with people saying, “(The former Frankie) David (Norona) did it this way.” But it was moving so fast that I really didn’t have any time to get upset about that. And at any rate, in my mind, I was just learning the skeletal show; I’d get to do it “my way” soon enough.

There was also the added onus of having the cast album recorded only two weeks into rehearsal. So to save my voice, I wasn’t singing during the rehearsal days so that I’d be able to do a full day’s recording of the album. I’m sure this made some of the cast nervous on the “can he actually sing the part?” level. But I had to ignore any skepticism because I had to be able to do that recording. We did one day as a cast, and then because the extent of my material is so vast, I had to go into the studio three more times at night after a full-day rehearsals to finish it. So that had been another week of no singing during the day. Paradoxically, however, all that agressive recording really put the score into my voice. And on the other end, I was singing it with much more ease than I ever had. Much easier to sing a song once through, when you’ve recorded it phrase by phrase over and over again for hours.

Previews were exhausting with rehearsals during the day and performances at night. And with a role as big as this one, there was a lot of internal editing going on, even during the evening performances. I’d do something, know I’d need to fix it, make a mental note, go on to the next moment and so on and so on. It was a few weeks before I was able to play the role without the director’s and choreographer’s notes running through my head on an incessant loop. I got one or two minor rewrites here and there, and a new speech, but other than that there were no really big changes to the structure of the show during previews. Previews were the most useful in that, because I am playing a rock star, the audience was finally an element. That element of the performance, a rockstar playing to an adoring audience, grew throughout previews, which of course, naturally it would. The other three guys had done it at LaJolla, so they had some sort of expectation of the actor/audience interplay: I, of course, was learning it for the first time.

What are you doing now to maximize both your career momentum and the economic side of things, to prepare for the future?

I’m taking the phone calls and the meetings and listening to the ideas. There are lots of doors opening, but I’m contracted to this show for at least a year: all I can do is listen and consider, I can’t really commit to much. Not yet, anyway. What is exciting is that the actor’s dream of being able to choose future projects is beginning to morph from nebulous, abstract concept into distinct, attainable reality.

They say that success is opportunity meeting preparation. What aspects of your training and experience are you most grateful for now, having prepared you for what you’re currently doing?

I think that saying should be amended to read: “success is opportunity meeting persistence.” You can have the most prestigious and thorough acting training known to man and be an EXCELLENT artist and actor, but if you don’t get out there in front of anyone after they hand you that MFA, you’re essentially worthless. Because it doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t apply it anywhere. I’m most grateful for the experience of time and again seeing that persistence pays off. It takes a little bit of obsession to stay at the plate even as you strike out over and over again, sure. But we’ve got one shot, here on this planet: if you know what you want you’re a coward if you don’t go for it.

In your last interview with Actorslife, you had a lot to say about marketing yourself– your goal was to have more name recognition within the industry. You’ve certainly achieved that! Is there anything more about marketing yourself that you’ve learned since your Jersey Boys experience, that you didn’t already know?

What I’ve learned and am still learning is that you’re the only one who can tell your story. You’ve got to edit it, shape it, choose the right way to say things to give it the most dramatic impact. Because our stories are all that we have, and no one’s going to do a more careful job of shaping it than we will ourselves. What is the best possible version of the truth? I read somewhere that that’s what good PR is, the best possible version of the truth. It’s like assertiveness or confidence training: take the compliment, don’t make an excuse for yourself or put yourself down. If you made a mistake in the past, in your “story” recount what you learned from that mistake, not that you’re some dolt who screwed up. If you want to achieve the best, canvass your past for the best of your achievements and give the best spin to your failures. We have to find a way to move forward, and it’s hard if you get caught up on the negative. So find the positive, shape the most compelling story you can for yourself, and get it out there into the world. Even if you don’t believe your own story, if you get it out there and they DO believe it, well you’ve forced yourself to have to live up to it! Great. We’re a culture that thrives on stories: inspiring stories. JERSEY BOYS in and of itself — my role in it, my road there, is an inspiring story. And that’s the best “marketing” there is: to find yourself (or PUT yourself) at the center of an inspiring story.

This show is going to have a long life, spawning road and regional productions. What advice would you give actors auditioning for Jersey Boys in the future?

The role of Frankie can eat you alive if you don’t respect it. I trained vocally every day for four months specifically for this high-falsetto singing, swam to build up my lungs, changed my diet and entire regimen before I even TOUCHED the score. You can’t just roll out of bed and sing a show like this, so if you think you’re right for Frankie, start training now! Believe me, if you do, you’ll have an edge on most everyone else out there. There are simply not dozens of people who can sing for 2 1/2 hours straight, 27 songs a show in high falsetto 8 shows a week just waiting in the wings. (and if there are, amen for the casting office) TRAIN.

You spoke in our last interview about your love for communicating with an audience. The matinee of Jersey Boys that I saw was full of proud New Jersey-ites, elated that their hometown heroes were up there on the stage. Is it rewarding to validate that kind of local pride?

To play a working class hero like Frankie Valli is to take the American dream up onstage and validate it for everyone in the audience. You can bet your behind that’s rewarding.