John Lloyd Young won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Frankie Valli in the original Broadway cast of Jersey Boys (he also picked up Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Awards). In addition to reprising Jersey Boys in a second Broadway run and a West End run, Young has also appeared on Glee, recorded a solo album, and performed in his own solo concert at Lincoln Center and in a concert presentation of Les Misérables at the Hollywood Bowl. Erich Bergen played Bob Gaudio in the first national tour of Jersey Boys and in the Las Vegas and Los Angeles productions. Soon he'll be appearing in CBS' new fall drama Madame Secretary; his other credits include playing Billy Crocker in the first national tour of Anything Goes. Michael Lomenda essayed Nick Massi in the first national tour of Jersey Boys, the culmination of regional stage stints in musicals like Hairspray, Cabaret and Grease. He's also one of the select few to have played James Bond creator Ian Fleming (in the Canadian television project True Bond). We all sat down to discuss Clint Eastwood's film of Jersey Boys—and their history with the play—at San Francisco's entirely apropos Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: Hello boys...!
John Lloyd Young: Did you see [James Franco]'s movie?
Groucho: Palo Alto? Yeah, yeah.
John Lloyd Young: Is it good?
G: I thought it was quite good.
JLY: Oh, it is? Okay. I read some of the stories—they were interesting. He really remembers adolescence. maybe he never left it.
JLY: Actors rarely do.
G: Alright, well, to me one of the most exciting aspects of the material—other than, of course, the music—is the multiple perspectives.
Erich Bergen: Yes.
G: Which is the tag line of the movie as well, right? "Everybody remembers it like they need to." So could you each...speak a little bit to what you worked out about your character's perspective, maybe some of the things that might not be expressly articulated in your monologues, but that you figured out about where your character's coming from?
JLY: You want me to start? Well, one of the things that changed from the stage adaptation to the screen is that Frankie doesn't have as much of a spoken point of view as he does on stage. Very little voice-over, very little narration to the camera—
G: And it's held back longer in the story too, right, before we hear that?
JLY: Absolutely. He comes together with the other guys at the end, and sort of sums it up. But I think for me the experience of Frankie Valli in this movie is less "Here's my point of view," like it is on stage or even that their three characters have—the other three characters actually share their point of view—and it's more about actually observing Frankie Valli and looking into his psychology. So I didn't have as much a point of view. I couldn't dictate my own point of view in this.
G: Right, yeah.
JLY: And that's great. 'Cause I just got to live as the character a little more thoroughly.
Erich Bergen: Bob Gaudio is responsible for—I think Johnny told me earlier they have seventy-one—
JLY: Just heard that on the Today show today: they introduced the Four Seasons; they talked to Clint Eastwood. They said that the Four Seasons had seventy-one chart-topping songs.
EB: Right! Seventy-one songs, in American popular music, which, y'know, I can't even imagine that. I can't even think of the Beatles having it. It just sort of—that's an incredible amount of songs. Of course the other side of that is how in the world did it take this long—how in the world did no one know that they were all by the same band. You have seventy-one songs hitting the charts! And yet...Bob being responsible for at least three-fourths of those songs, it seems as though he's at times prouder of his business decisions than he is of his creative endeavors. And that's so funny to me to be so far removed—not so far removed—but for him to have been prouder of things that we sort of don't care about. It's like "Those songs! Those songs!" but he's really way more into the ideas that he had and sort of the innovative things that they did, especially considering he was sixteen when this all was really getting started. That's, I think, very interesting to me as someone who loves these songs, just as an actor who loves and appreciates these songs. Playing someone who sort of writes them and goes, "Huh, yeah," that's really interesting to me.
Michael Lomenda: I think Nick sort of offered what I kind of think of as "the sober second thought." I think he often talks—well, in the play, particularly, he talks about Gaudio [slips into accent] "looking so far into the future he never saw what was going on under his nose."
EB: He even comes out with the accent!
Michael Lomenda: Yeah. And so I think he's in the background a lot of it but that allowed him to be the observer and to really realize, to say, "Hey. These guys were caught up in it, but this is what was really going on underneath the surface. And I think he offers that sober second thought and says, y'know, "This is the grit. This is the reality of it."
G: And to tell it back to the others, yeah.
ML: Yeah. Absolutely.
G: "Here's what you're not seeing."
G: So an obvious question has to do with your contact with the real guys, minus the late Nick Massi. What, if any, help were they able to provide you and at what points in your journey with this material?
JLY: Frankie Valli offered me much more help than he ever knew. Because I stole from him shamelessly every time I've seen him over all of these years. You can learn something about somebody's psychology more by what they choose to evade, or how they choose to answer, than you can by what they actually say, so I've never listened to actually—no, I've listened to what Frankie Valli has to say, clearly, but instinctively as an actor I've never listened to his words so much as I've listened to why he's chosen to use them. And his outlook on life, which I think is very important to be able to be around, in playing him. He's fatalistic. He's had a lot of bad things happen to him, and yet at the same time he has a talent, and he never gives up. He's like the yin-yang of pop singers.
ML: I think one of the awesome byproducts of Bergen and I touring the show around North America is all these people come out of the woodwork—
G: And tell you stories.
ML: And tell you stories, exactly.
JLY: Everyone's a cousin.
ML: Everyone is a cousin. Charlie Calello, you know. These great stories. I met Nick Massi, Jr., Nick's son. And so although I didn't get a chance to meet the actual Nick, it's, as you sort of say, John Lloyd, you learn a lot more about people based on what other people say about them. You know? And so that was kind of interesting to learn that.
EB: I have a great memory of tech-ing the show, the tour, that we opened here in San Fran at the Curran. And seeing an empty theater, from the stage, but looking out into an empty house, with the exception of one person that was Bob Gaudio himself, sitting in like the fifth row of the orchestra section. And he was looking at the speakers when we were singing a song. Almost like when you look at a dog, and they hear a noise from behind them, but they don't turn their head; they just turn their ears instead? He was sort of like—his ears were hearing things that we weren't even hearing. And he was able to say, "No, that speaker needs to move a little bit more—." He was so involved with the sound that I was getting to watch someone not reflecting on their life but still at work. I mean, I was getting to—it was like this weird meta thing where I'm watching—I'm playing a person onstage, and I'm watching, and he's actually working on my version. It was very bizarre!
G: It's like he was managing himself.
EB: Exactly! Exactly.
G: So Clint Eastwood has a reputation for few takes, which would seem at odds with a musical film. How did that play out? Was it a fast-paced shoot? Was it leisurely? Was it both?
JLY: Maybe, maybe not it would seem at odds. Think about how he cast it: three-fourths of the core group he cast with guys who've done this—each of us have done our roles, respectively, in our separate companies of Jersey Boys, more than twelve hundred times each.
G: Right, right.
JLY: So when you think about how fast Clint works, well, doesn't that fit?
JLY: 'Cause all he needs to do, really, is put a camera in front of something we already know so intimately. We've had more rehearsal—
JLY: Than any other actors he's ever worked with his entire career. And he's actually said that. I mean, "These guys have tread the path in these roles for years and years."
EB: And with the film...in the scenes, he was very involved and right there, obviously, but when it came time to do the musical numbers, we almost didn't see him. He went away and sort of hid in the audience with the cameras and sort of left us in the hands of Ron Melrose, our music director, and Sergio Trujillo, our choreographer. And he filmed those numbers almost like a documentary, where he filmed it from the audience's perspective, capturing live rock and roll at work. He didn't stage them, we didn't rehearse them, we really just did as we'd always done. We got Vincent [Piazza], who had never done these songs...in and comfortable, but then we just did it as we always had and the cameras rolled. And that's why when you watch it, it has that look of a concert at that time. It helps that we're not doing "Seventy-Six Trombones," and none of these songs are coming out of the plot. They're all done within the context of a live concert or a recording studio or things like that.
JLY: It's still a scene. He's shooting a scene of a band at work.
JLY: Either behind the microphones in a recording studio or onstage in front of an audience. So that can go fast, 'cause we already knew our stuff. We didn't have to rehearse it, we never messed up lyrics: I mean, c'mon! You can't mess up on stage; it's a two-and-a-half-hour take. And we know how to do it without screwing up.
EB: But I think we only did "Sherry" like five times in full? That was it.
G: What's an example of a Clint Eastwood direction?
EB: Oh! Well, when he yelled at me, to—he didn't yell at me, but I think he was changing the lens on the camera, and I heard in the background, "Hurry up! Bergen's thinking!"
ML: Or, I mean, "Kick ass and take names." (Laughs.) That was one of my favorite quotes. That's often—I mean, he does a great job of creating the vibe on set of what he wants the feel. So he would—in that particular scene, he'd want us to really hit it out of the park, and other scenes, he's very much more relaxed and creates that sort of feel of, I don't know, just a bit more chilled sort of vibe, so that he almost evokes it by creating the environment.
JLY: We had a little visit in my trailer. There was a complex scene coming up, and I was kind of—I needed —I didn't have to talk to him very often about things, luckily, 'cause I'd lived with my character so much so that I didn't have to bother—well, I don't think he would even have considered it bothering.
JLY: But he came to my trailer one day 'cause I had wanted to talk to him about a scene that was giving me a little bit of nerves, and I didn't know how to kind of keep my performance from stage strong in his milieu, you know? And he directed me a few times via anecdote. In this meeting, he said to get—he told me this story about an actor—I don't know, some famous actor—who had told Clint, when he was a young actor, about Olivier. And Olivier on stage in London was doing a show, and he would rev himself up beforehand, thinking that the audience was his enemy. So that when the curtain went up, there was this feral animal there that the audience couldn't keep their eyes off of. But the reason is because he hated them! They just didn't know it. And I thought, "Why did he tell me that anecdote?" And I realized the only possible explanation was that he was giving me permission, in the scene that we were about to shoot, to dare to let the audience not like me. On Broadway, it's so tempting—the audience is eating out of your hand in this show. You take care of them, you narrate your sections, they're on your side no matter what. In this scene, it could very easily be that the audience would not like me, and I think that he detected maybe I didn't know how to negotiate that. And he gave me permission to be unliked.
G: One of the domestic scenes?
JLY: It was the scene where the band's breaking up.
G: Ah, yeah. To me, that's the most memorable scene in the movie. It really captures that scene in the life of every band. Right? Every band has that moment...
EB: Well, every family has that moment. I mean, we've seen that so much in—I mean, I hate to say it, but it's what we see in reality TV now. Y'know, it's almost become the height of drama is to have a breakdown like that, but in this it wasn't about extraneous things. This was a band at the height of its success that had nothing to show for it. But even if—I always say, if you take the songs out of Jersey Boys, you still have an amazing play and screenplay about four guys growing up together, four brothers who—that's why so many people relate to this, especially men of that generation. There's so much of seeing ourselves in these people. And that scene in particular because it's just written so well that, y'know, even with these guys doing some things that maybe they're not proud of, it's written in a way that we're rooting for them.
G: So something that all Broadway and touring actors have to deal with is the time you are doing that material over and over again, and protecting your voice, the unflagging vocal demands and the essentially unchanging material, and living with that over a long period. So what are your varying methodologies for dealing with a long run?
ML: I think what's so great about Jersey Boys is that we get this ability to connect with the audience directly by speaking to them. And I think there's something about—it's different every single night. The audience has a different identity every single night. So I think what's great about it is being able to sort of suss that out and figure out who this audience is and what your relationship every single night is, uniquely, to that specific audience and almost tailoring your performance to them. I mean, we're all breathing the same air in the same room, right? So that's kind of wild. And so that's...I felt...what keeps it really fresh. And also working with a great group of actors who love the show and are proud of it means that everybody brings their "A" game every single night, and you get to see the different changes, and people want to come and play within the framework of the play.
G: Yeah, subtle little cues that change it up a bit.
ML: Yeah, subtle little cues. And people are willing to sort of experiment and enjoy that. And I think that's ultimately what keeps it fresh.
EB: Mine was to get out of the way of the script. There's very little "acting" in its heightened form that we're doing here. The script is written so well; every last word is important. And it's moving on paper. When you read the script, it's moving. And that's how you know it's good. And that's always been my approach is let the audience hear these words—they already know the song—so they're hearing in their heads what they want to hear. But they haven't heard the script yet, So make sure that they know these words.
JLY: I care very much about an audience when I'm in front of one, like almost like it's my job to take care of them. And so to keep it fresh for me, it feels like I have to consider them. Most of them are new, have not seen it, but they've heard it's great, and how sad would it be, and disappointed in myself would I be, if I allowed them to see anything less than what they heard they were gonna see. So that for me is I'm taking them through the story 'cause I know it's their first time. It's like if I was a tour guide at the Capitol building. I'd know, "This is so exciting for them." So it stays exciting for me. And in terms of just physically maintaining a physical performance over six to eight shows a week, week after week after week, it's like you have to have a very clean life, get rest, and, y'know, not do all the bad things. Especially as a singer: no drinking and no yelling loudly in bars. It's a very quiet kind of life. I do a lot of reading, when I'm working on the show: a lot of reading, a lot of study and stuff for myself, like Rosetta Stone, learning a language or something. And I save my energy all day for the stage.
G: Alright, well, they're going to yank me, so it was great talking to you guys.
EB: Thank you!