Interview by Scott Dowd
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|(Left to right) Jason Kappus, Colby Foytik, Brad Weinstock |
and Brandon Andrus. Photo by Joan Marcus.
This Thanksgiving, PNC Broadway in Louisville is serving up one of the hottest shows in the world today! The 2006 Tony® Award-winning Jersey Boys is the story of how four blue-collar kids – Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi – became The Four Seasons, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers with hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Rag Doll,” “Oh, What a Night” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Research into the etymology of the term “Jersey Boy” was inconclusive. So I decided to ask Brad Weinstock, a native of the Garden State, who interprets the life and music of Frankie Valli in the production opening November 20 at The Kentucky Center for the Arts.
BW: That terminology was certainly around before this show came out, but I think if you’re born in New Jersey it would apply. To be fair, though, the guys in the show – the Four Seasons – had a much more rough-and-tumble upbringing in the ’50s and ’60s than I did growing up in the suburbs decades later. So while I might technically qualify as a Jersey Boy, I don’t think it carries the same connotations as it would for someone from the Newark area in the ’50s.
SD: Where did you grow up in New Jersey?
BW: I’m from Upper Saddle River in the top corner of the state – Bergen County. It was a wonderful place to grow up. New Jersey gets a bad rap between the pollution, the Turnpike and, nowadays, The Jersey Shore. But being so close – about thirty minutes – from New York City, I got to see a lot of shows. And it is the Garden State, so it was very beautiful.
SD: Are your parents involved in the entertainment industry at all?
BW: Not at all. I must have some recessive gene. My dad is an accountant and my mom is an editor.
SD: When did the desire to perform first manifest?
BW: I was actually at a summer camp that had an emphasis on sports when I was about ten years old. Since I’ve never been that athletically coordinated, I was decently miserable there. They happened to be doing The Wizard of Oz, so I sang “Happy Birthday” and they asked me to play the Tin Man. The director of the camp told my parents that I had a “beautiful soprano voice,” and they were shocked. They had never pushed me in that direction and weren’t even aware that I could carry a tune. After that I spent a few summers at camps focused on the performing arts and did all the musicals and plays in high school and college.
SD: At what point did that turn into a career path?
BW: I think it was around my sophomore year in high school that the choir director and director of the musicals said, “You know, I don’t tell this to many students. But I think if you wanted to pursue this professionally, you could probably do pretty well for yourself.” I had always loved it, but that was the first time I had considered I might be able to make a life out of it.
SD: Eventually you went on to play the character Bok, who becomes the Tin Man in the wildly popular musical Wicked. Was that your first big show?
BW: No, my first break came from being in the right place at the right time. The original team was doing a sit down production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Chicago. I was in college at Northwestern and auditioning for a Senior Showcase, which is an entrée to audition in New York for a bunch of agents and casting directors. One of the adjudicators for the Showcase happened to be a casting agent, who was working on Spelling Bee. So I wound up getting that show midway through my senior year, which put me on the trajectory to get into the Wicked tour.
SD: That must have been exciting!
BW: It was definitely a big deal for me. I was going to classes and doing the show – it was wonderful. I spent about a year with Spelling Bee; and within weeks of leaving the show, I was in the tour of Wicked.
SD: You were just out of college, with some professional experience and on tour. What was that like?
BW: It was a perfect time for me to be on the road since I didn’t have an apartment to tie me down. I was twenty-two and I got to see the country as part of a two-year run of a really popular show. It was a really great experience. Spelling Bee was wonderful, but there were only ten actors in it. Moving from that to Wicked with the huge sets, dancers, chorus and sold-out audiences – it was just very exciting to be part of it all.
SD: Wicked is such a massive machine compared to something like Jersey Boys. Is the experience very different this time around?
BW: Jersey Boys is massive, too, but in a different way. Wicked is so much spectacle and has those blockbuster qualities. This show is a little smaller and a little grittier, even though it has worldwide appeal.
SD: Jersey Boys is, in essence, the four of you on stage.
BW: Yes, it focuses on the Four Seasons; but there are fifteen people in the show. The three girls are running around playing fifty roles among them. But, obviously, there are fewer bells and whistles. In Wicked, I was kind of a cog in a much bigger machine. And now I’m Frankie Valli!
SD: How have audiences responded to you?
BW: When we finish the Big Three – their three consecutive number-one hits from the ’60s: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” – the audience goes crazy.
SD: How long have you been with Jersey Boys?
BW: Between Las Vegas and the tour, about eighteen months.
SD: This show actually goes back to before the group became Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
BW: Yes, they were just The Four Seasons then. Frankie Valli’s iconic voice was certainly one of the things that set them apart in the musical landscape of the time.
SD: Is most of the audience comprised of people who would have been listening to The Four Seasons’ original releases? Or do you get that reaction from everyone?
BW: I think we get that reaction from everybody. The energy in the audience is definitely contagious. Certainly a fair share of the audience is from my parents’ generation, but these songs have a phenomenal appeal for modern audiences. I have sung these songs more than three hundred times now, and it never gets old to me. It’s great music, but these are not museum pieces. People have been “covering” them since they were first recorded – they are omnipresent in pop culture. Young people who came to the show thinking they are unfamiliar with the music tell me they knew every song. Just a few years ago there was a popular R&B cover of “Beggin’.” The first experience I ever had with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” came with the Lauryn Hill version in the mid-’90s.
SD: The creators of the show introduce that idea from the curtain by opening with a cover version.
BW: Right! It starts with a French hip-hop version of “Oh, What a Night” that came out around 2000. It is a bit jarring for the audience, I think, because you’re not expecting a Euro hip-hop number right off the bat. But three of the guys come through the curtain pretty quickly to assure them they’re in the right place.
SD: I’ve seen this referred to in reviews as a “jukebox” musical, but you are also telling the story of how these four guys created a phenomenon that has lasted more than half a century.
BW: Within the Jersey Boys world, we resist the “jukebox” epithet. While that element is definitely there, this show is much more than just a parade of hit songs. What differentiates this show from others that are based around a musical catalog is the story. I think people do come initially for the music and are surprised that the story is just as rich and fascinating, because these are the events that influenced its creators. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice wrote the book for this show, and they did a great job. If you took the music away, it would still be an interesting story – there are run-ins with the mob over gambling debts and other really meaty story material. The story looks at the rise and fall of the Four Seasons and then Frankie’s rise again.
SD: Since you have been doing the show, have you experienced a change in your appreciation of the music?
BW: Sometimes when you do a show as long as I’ve done this one, you can start to think, “If I hear this number one more time, my head will explode.” But with this show, I’ve really only come to appreciate the music more. It’s a vocally demanding role, but I never get tired of singing these songs. Besides that, I think this is one of the best musical theatre scripts I’ve ever read. I’ve been playing Frankie for eleven months at this point, and I make new discoveries in the text at least once a week. For somebody my height, my coloring – I look vaguely Italian like all the other Frankies – this role is really the mother lode. I’m having a blast.
SD: One of the big surprises the first time you see the show is the appearance of Joe Pesci – a character everyone knows, but not in this context.
BW: Actually, I played Joe Pesci in the Las Vegas version for about four months before they brought me up to play Frankie.
SD: Since you played the character, tell me a little about Joe Pesci and his role in getting the Four Seasons off the ground.
BW: I have heard people say that Joe Pesci was one of the best guitarists they have ever met. I believe it was Bob Gaudio who said that if he hadn’t become an actor, Joe could have made it big as a musician and a singer. Pesci was playing with Bob Gaudio in a jazz band in Bergenfield, New Jersey, which is a bit more affluent than the environs Nick, Tommy and Frankie were from. He was helping Tommy DeVito, our troublemaker, set pins at a bowling alley. At that point, Tommy, Frankie and Nick had been going through various incarnations for about ten years trying to find their sound. Joe Pesci was the one who made it all happen because he introduced Tommy to Bob – and that is when everything clicked.
SD: When we think of The Four Seasons today, it’s almost always as Frankie Valli’s back-up group. But everybody contributed to the group in a different way.
BW: Absolutely. Bob Gaudio is a genius songwriter. He was on tour at age fifteen with his song “Short Shorts,” which was his first hit. He was extremely prolific; and all of the songs you hear and love from The Four Seasons can pretty much be attributed to Bob and Bob Crewe, the producer. He wrote a lot of the lyrics and co-wrote a number of the group’s greatest hits.
SD: The show’s creators have taken into account the variety of perspectives involved on the group’s history. How did they translate that aspect to the stage?
BW: That’s one of the most genius things about Brickman’s book. I love the approach they took. They say right off the bat, “You ask four guys, you get four different opinions.” Each of the group’s members gets a “season” to narrate that part of the story and to also give their version of how things went down. Tommy and Frankie certainly differ in their views on the details. Tommy feels he got the group started and without him, it wouldn’t have happened. Frankie is the last one up – he narrates the “winter” portion of the show. He says, “You know, you listen to Tommy he’ll tell you we were really pals. But what really happened is Tommy was paying me 12 dollars a night when he was getting 150 dollars.” That doesn’t come up when Tommy is talking. There are some pretty intense dramatic moments that come up in the narrative.
SD: I think people assume that these four guys were all close friends.
BW: Tommy and Frankie definitely had a major strain on their relationship. Some of that still lingers from the gambling debts. They had to be together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and openings of the show. But I think Frankie took Tommy’s debts and pretty much froze him out after that. But it wasn’t limited to the two of them – there were some major blowouts among all the guys at various times. These were dramatic and passionate men with differing opinions.
SD: They also came from a background in which they were expected to take up for themselves.
BW: Sure. One of the major themes in the show is the idea of family – remembering where you come from, and loyalty to the neighborhood. Being a Jersey Boy involves a pride in your background.
SD: Have you had a chance to meet any of the guys?
BW: Yes, I have. We were in New York
rehearsing “Dawn.” It was a musical rehearsal, so we were just in a room facing out toward the street, and the atmosphere in the room suddenly changed. People were getting squirrelly and I couldn’t figure out why until I saw Frankie Valli standing there. I was a little embarrassed, you know, singing his song in front of him. But he was really nice. He came around, shook everybody’s hand, and gave us some words of wisdom. He and Bob Gaudio are very much the major forces behind the show. Bob was at the opening in Philadelphia and gave us his take on the show and helped us shape our interpretation of the people he knew so well.
SD: That must be a real challenge for an actor. You’re portraying a living celebrity. How do you approach the role?
BW: They producers are pretty clear that they don’t want this to be a tribute act, especially in the singing, because it is so iconic. I’m trying to pay a close homage to what Frankie was doing without impersonating him. I’ve got to deliver on the sound, but his public persona isn’t so established that I can’t bring some of myself to the character. I focus on different elements of him that resonate with me.
SD: Not like being an Elvis impersonator.
BW: Exactly. People who are part of that generation will be taken back to that time in their lives. People who didn’t get to experience it firsthand will fall in love with the music and – if Louisville audiences are like people all over the world – I predict they will be dancing in the aisles by the end of the show. Jersey Boys is an exciting evening of musical theatre, and I look forward to being in Whitney Hall sharing the fun.