From a Millburn stage to the Great White Way

01/03/2006 By Amy Kuperinsky for

John Lloyd Young, star of “Jersey Boys,” made his Great White Way debut as singer Frankie Valli in the hit based on the ascent of the Four Seasons, but knew the Broadway scene for a time before then. How far he’s come in just over a year marks his own ascent, from local productions and university plays to acclaim as one of the hottest new stage stars in New York.

One of Young’s favorite moments in the show is when the Four Seasons enjoy their first big hit, “Sherry,” he said, “because of all the struggle that we’ve gone through to get to that point.” All their hard work and belief in a dream paid off, and it has for Young also.

“A year before we opened, exactly a year before, I was handing out programs at ’42nd Street,'” he said. The leap from usher to Broadway star sounds like a nice story, Young admitted. “But the truth of the matter is, I was between acting jobs,” he said.

“I kind of knew even though I couldn’t predict the future, in my soul, that it would only be temporary,” Young said. “If you have the confidence that you need in order to succeed as an actor, you know when you’re waiting tables or ushering in a theater that it is just for now, and not forever, and you’re just waiting for the role to come along that is going to break you out of that.”

At the time he didn’t know what that would be, but believed he was destined to land in the right place sometime.

“You’re wondering if you can be an actor,” he said. “Then there comes a point where it’s not ‘if’ anymore, the question is ‘when.'”

Young, in his late 20s, grew up in New York state but currently makes his home in Jersey City, what he calls “a dog owner’s paradise,” though he doesn’t own a dog. His rigorous schedule of portraying Valli wouldn’t allow for much face time with a pet.

“I can’t drink any alcohol, I go straight home, no hanging out with the cast,” he said. Such are the demands of singing 27 songs in high falsetto eight shows a week, Young said. On a day where the cast performs two shows, Young wakes up, goes to the theater, warms up, hits the stage for the show, warms down, warms up again and does it all over again. Then he signs autographs and goes home. “Sleep is paramount,” he said. “It’s very busy but very fun.”

Young knew he enjoyed performing since the age of 6 when he participated in local theater, but it wasn’t until he started college at Brown University that he made it a priority. He landed a part in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” and started acting classes. “By the time I graduated, I knew what I wanted to do,” he said.

Young got a significant boost of experience from Jersey theaters. He called his apprenticeship with Princeton’s McCarter Theater a “milestone moment” in his career, serving in the adult ensemble of “A Christmas Carol,” which was his first involvement with professional theater outside of college.

“It’s a very impressive place to be stepping on stage, even in a tiny part,” he said, praising his Garden State theatrical roots. “Broadway has to sell tickets or you can’t survive,” he said. “Because they (local theaters) are nonprofits, they can take risks so the shows are better quality.”

Young also starred in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse. “I got some of my first really strong reviews for a New York area show,” he said. “Jersey has treated me well and a lot of very important experiences in Jersey theater have prepared me for this career. I was also doing projects in New York at the same time, it’s just that Jersey called me back.”

Then Young understudied a part in the “The Drawer Boy” alongside “Frasier” actor John Mahoney at Paper Mill.

“I booked ‘Jersey Boys’ right on the heels of finishing that show,” he said.

Young knew he could sing and make his voice work in the way Valli did with his signature sugary, high-pitched sound.

“I had to retrain my voice to sing,” he said. “I spent four months of solid daily training to be able to handle the show. “It’s a lot more work — it’s a lot harder physically and because of that, showing up and doing the job is less fun than doing ‘The Chosen’ at Paper Mill. I have to be much more disciplined. It’s not as fun on that level but the reward is more fun because the audience reaction is over the top.”

For his first Broadway turn, Young used footage of Valli’s performances to research the singer’s likeness. “It’s not like a fictional character,” he said. “What I realized was that playing Frankie Valli, I’m similar to him physically. My voice is similar to his. I found that it’s easier to play a real person if you’re really like them. If you’re playing George Washington you have to imagine yourself how you might walk into a room, but if you’re Frankie Valli you can watch him walk into a room. As an actor, you’re always worried about that, you always want to play the character authentically.”

Young admits that as an actor coming up in the scene, he didn’t have the cash to frequent Broadway shows. “The problem with Broadway is that it is expensive, it prices people out,” he said. “Broadway in general is a little bit older, because they have more money.”

So, Young said it’s exciting to see young people that take advantage of student rush prices, securing seats in the front rows. “It helps us with our energy too,” he said.

Young likens “Jersey Boys” to playing a game of volleyball with the audience, because of the interactive nature of the performances-within-performances. “We feed off the energy of the crowd,” he said. “The roof of the theater could blow off. It’s so fun as actors to play rock stars. It’s fun for the audience to watch it. It’s fun for us to watch the audience watching us. It’s the best theatrical experience.”

New Jerseyans make the trip “every show,” Young said. “When towns in Jersey are mentioned, it’s like on Letterman when he says ‘Kalamazoo’ and someone claps.”

“There’s something, I think, that’s sort of patriotic about someone from Jersey seeing ‘Jersey Boys,'” he said. “Jersey has all these examples of the American dream. Like Springsteen, Joe Pesci, the Four Seasons. That happens in Jersey all the time for some reason. Frankie Valli and these guys are working class heroes.”

On Feb. 23, Sardi’s (a restaurant in the theatre district famous for its celebrity caricatures) unveiled Young’s sketch in its Broadway hall of fame. So Young is relishing his time in the spotlight. ” I certainly want to stay with this show a long time,” he said. “Someday I might get bored. But I can’t see how that could happen anytime soon.”

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