WALK LIKE A MAN
John Lloyd Young has been rehearsing for this movie for years, writes
BROADWAY is the source of many of Hollywood’s most memorable moments and movies. But the Broadway talent treading the boards of stage musicals rarely move seamlessly across to cinema. A litany of hit modern musicals, including Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Hairspray, Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia! and Les Miserables, have recently been re-imagined for the big screen, sometimes barely, and each time members of the troupes that originally built the show on stage were passed over for movie stars.
That’s understandable, if only for commercial reasons, which makes Clint Eastwood’s decision to cast his adaptation of Jersey Boys with four relative unknowns — three directly from the stage show — all the more remarkable.
Eastwood has gone against type, again, directing the film version of the multiple Tony Award-winning stage show chronicling the life of the American pop band the Four Seasons and its honourable lead singer, Frankie Valli.
The 84-year-old cast several members of the stage production, including Tony winner John Lloyd Young in the lead and Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda in their roles respectively as songwriter Bob Gaudio (who shares executive producer credits with Valli) and bassist Nick Massi. It is a movie aberration seeing Broadway stars reprise their roles on screen.
“I’m glad the aberration went my way, that’s for sure,” Young says, laughing.
Only Young came from the original 2005 New York production; Bergen came from the Las Vegas show and Lomenda from the Toronto and touring productions (the show also played Melbourne and Sydney (2009-2011).
Eastwood also threw in Christopher Walken as the local mob boss who mentored and protected the young Valli, Gyp DeCarlo, and Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza, for a touch of screen cred.
“It’s an interesting configuration,” notes Young, who says he was torn when he heard the film adaptation was in development. After playing the original lead Jersey Boys role and singing on the original cast recording, Young felt “somewhat” that he had “a legacy at the beginning of this thing that became a worldwide hit.”
He was anxious. “I was used to being the original guy, so the idea of someone else doing it was very uncomfortable to me,” he recalls.
“I had to get my head around the idea that someone else might be playing my role.”
And the casting could be fickle. Bergen previously auditioned for the film when Iron Man’s Jon Favreau was set to direct (he went on to direct the smaller Chef instead), but he didn’t get the part. Bergen claimed a casting director called his agent and said, “He’s not right for the role,” to which Bergen’s agent asked, “You mean the role he’s played for three years?”
Young says playing Valli became the pinnacle of his early days in New York after he implemented some kind of career plan. He was always interested in film “but I wanted at the beginning of my career to be the best actor possible and in an old-fashioned way I thought theatre was the best way to be that.”
He’d performed in other stage shows and “after several years of struggle”, his performance as the honourable New Jersey teen, who bypasses a career in crime with some mates to shepherd them through.
Getting to the role of Valli wasn’t all bad though, he recalls. “It takes a mainstream success to get an actor known but you have personal successes before then.”
Fortuitously, years after his Tony Award win for the performance, Young returned to perform in the production just as Eastwood was developing his next project after the disparate run of Gran Torino, Hereafter and the biopics Invictus (about South Africa’s rugby triumph under president Nelson Mandela) and J. Edgar (Young also recently opened Jersey Boys’ West End run in London).
Young didn’t audition for Eastwood. The director cast him after seeing him on stage. “And the next time I saw him was on set.” Young says.
The actor didn’t think twice about the instant audition process.
“I gotta tell ya, the Jersey Boys show and the part of Frankie Valli is quite a feat so I can’t imagine a better audition than being in command of the role in front of thousands of people each night,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing a better performance in a room in Los Angeles full of film people.”
Eastwood’s version is a faithful rendering of the stage show’s book with its writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, also penning the screenplay.
And what appears on screen to be an unconventional move by the director — filming the characters’ asides to camera which reveal their own versions of the truth — comes from the stage show.
But the director aimed for his own kind of movie truth by recording the singing live with additional live accompaniment. That was some ask considering the Four Seasons’ hits, including Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man, mainly used four vocalists, rather than solos, and highlighted Valli’s falsetto, which is a particular stretch.
Young admits “my trepidation about translating the role to screen was larger than it actually happened to be”.
He can say that now because he is the film’s best asset, beside its accessible story.
Young had to play Valli aged 16, when he was
Jersey Boys an energetic if insecure teen who could have followed his mates down the wrong path, to age 56 when the band reunite as they are inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In between. Young’s Valli experiences the highs of pop stardom and the lows of marriage troubles, creative differences and the burden of a mob chasing Tommy DeVito’s bad debts.
Young was confident he could build the character with Eastwood beside him. “I definitely knew he knew filmmaking and he was a safety net for me in every single way,” he says.
Eastwood was equally confident, he told a US press conference last week. “Casting for me is one of the most important things next to the writing,” the dual Oscar-winner for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby said.
“If you cast it properly it takes place very easily, but if you cast it improperly you are fighting an uphill battle.”
The stage held Young in good stead, not that he knew it initially. He laughs at the memory of running an idea by his director. In one moment in the stage show, Young told Eastwood, Valli turns on a line towards the audience, heightening its dramatic moment. Young asked how could he get that on film? Eastwood replied dryly, “Just turn towards the camera.”
“I realised my instincts from the stage I could just take to the set and if something wasn’t working, he would correct me,” Young says. “We worked really well together.”
Nevertheless, Jersey Boys the film is a step up from the stage show. Young says “across the board everything had to go up another level”.
“On stage you’re the master of ceremonies for an audience of 1000 people but on screen you don’t have to worry about the back row of the theatre, so it was a much more meticulous process.”
Broadly, the film is not as fluffy as the stage show and the relationships are given more room to work. And, as Young notes, “It’s a Clint Eastwood movie; his sensibility always brings forth the dark side of relationships, so the underbelly comes through.”
And because it’s a film, everything goes deeper. The recreations of 1960s New York and New Jersey are rich. “Every single element of the environment of these people’s lives is actually portrayed,” Young says. “Just on that level alone, we see so much more.”
And for Young, there’s one lasting legacy: now he can’t separate his professional persona from Valli’s. “And that’s absolutely fine,” Young says. “Like it or not, our legacies are connected for the rest of time now. We’ve been friendly and in touch for years now and we’re very happy.”