Every time a Broadway musical gets made into a feature film—which isn’t nearly often enough—a groan goes up in the world of theater lovers as casting announcements are made. Almost without exception, the great theatrical actors who mesmerized audiences on stage are summarily replaced with big names from the world of film and TV whose closest connection to the Great White Way was standing in the TKTS line as kids.
So it was nothing less than a shock wave when the casting for Clint Eastwood’s movie adaptation of Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was announced. John Lloyd Young, who originally starred as Valli on Broadway (and who Eastwood saw when Young returned for a brief stint in 2013), would reprise the role for which he won a Tony. The director also tapped Michael Lomenda, whom he caught in a satellite production, to play Nick Massi, and Erich Bergen to play Bob Gaudio, after Bergen was recommended (by Gaudio himself, according to Young) as the most true-to-life guy who’d tackled that role. The only member of the group not plucked out of a stage cast was Vincent Piazza, who, having played shady roles in Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, had the right stuff to portray the sometimes jail-bound Tommy DeVito.
Parade brought the quartet together with Frankie Valli for this week’s cover story, and here the actors talk about their Four Seasons experience.
John Lloyd Young plays Frankie Valli. (Ramona Rosales for Parade; Wardrobe styling, Deborah Hopper; Styling assistant, Michael Crow; Hair, Terry Baliel at The Milton Agency; Makeup: Michelle Vittone-McNeil for Exclusive Artists)
You’ve all seen the finished movie by now. What was that like?
John Lloyd Young: I had just gotten off [doing the show in London] a week before I saw the movie. And the pace of a movie is different. The stage show is so bang bang bang, swift and slick. The movie breathes and is more real. And certainly Clint Eastwood doesn’t do crazy sequins and Broadway colors. His palette is always muted. So it’s more of a real-life experience than the stage production. I’ve done it like 1400 times on stage, yet it was a completely different experience, even though so many of the lines are exactly the same.
Vincent Piazza plays Tommy DeVito. (Ramona Rosales for Parade; Wardrobe styling, Deborah Hopper; Styling assistant, Michael Crow; Hair, Terry Baliel at The Milton Agency; Makeup: Michelle Vittone-McNeil for Exclusive Artists)
All of you knew the show by heart except for Vincent Piazza.
Young: Can I tell you something about Vince Piazza? He hadn’t done the show, and I really want to thank him. In the theater, you change a line, you can get fined by the union. The playwright is king, and once the script is set, you don’t change it. Vince is a film and TV actor, much more comfortable in front of a camera. So we got to the set the first day, and suddenly he’s improvising these lines that for us were sacrosanct for years.
Erich Bergen: And the other three of us just freeze!
Young: We knew how to mine every bit of value out of the lines as written, but Vince opened us up in ways that allowed us to play our characters [as] more alive. He was the secret ingredient, Vince Piazza.
Bergen: It’s true. Because all of a sudden I was really scared. My character is a little frightened by his in the beginning, because he’s an intimidating presence. When I got to the set, I didn’t have to act!
Vincent Piazza: Thank you, guys. I was honored to be a part of it. Without all of their work in making the musical such a success, there wouldn’t be a film. The incredibly intimidating parts I had to work on were the singing, dancing, and guitar work, and the three of them were all so nurturing. They were the scaffolding that supported me through the whole shoot.
Go behind the scenes of our photo shoot with the actors and Frankie Valli.
Erich Bergen plays Bob Gaudio. (Ramona Rosales for Parade; Wardrobe styling, Deborah Hopper; Styling assistant, Michael Crow; Hair, Terry Baliel at The Milton Agency; Makeup: Michelle Vittone-McNeil for Exclusive Artists)
At one point during the movie’s development, it was put into turnaround and it seemed like it was doomed. Probably only Clint Eastwood could have gone to Warner Bros. and gotten it revived that easily.
Bergen: I think he has a key to the lot. Whatever he wants to do they’ll say okay, because he comes in under budget and ahead of schedule. It was the most calm, quiet set—not “Shhh, you have to be quiet,” just chill. How could you not want to have great movies come out like that—just get the job done and here’s your film—and not have to deal with the usual Hollywood craziness?
Young: It’s hard to imagine another director who should have done it. Because when you look at Clint’s body of work, his sensibility, you see his understanding of true grit. Most of the time you think of true grit as a western kind of thing, and you know Clint Eastwood understands that. But in movies like Mystic River he understands the east coast working-class sensibility as well.
Michael Lomenda plays Nick Massi. (Ramona Rosales for Parade; Wardrobe styling, Deborah Hopper; Styling assistant, Michael Crow; Hair, Terry Baliel at The Milton Agency; Makeup: Michelle Vittone-McNeil for Exclusive Artists)
Michael, how did you come to be in the film?
Michael Lomenda: I started with the original Toronto company for about two years, then joined the first national tour for about a year and a half. I met Mr. Eastwood in San Francisco about two weeks before the tour closed. He showed up at one of our matinees unannounced. [At first] I refused to believe he was actually in the audience, because we would play jokes on people [about that]. I honestly felt the movie was already cast, and I’m a Canadian with zero film experience, so it was so far off the radar for me that I didn’t even think about it. About a month later I got a call to audition in New York; I was in L.A. shortly thereafter for a costume fitting. It was a quick turnaround.
So this is your first movie, Michael?
Bergen: When I showed up to the costume fitting and met him for the first time, there was a look of shock and panic on his face.
Lomenda: I had literally shot [only] two non-union commercials, one for Lean Pockets and one for a six-hour energy shot.
Bergen: Both of which you lived on for the duration of the movie!
Before you got involved in the show, what was your awareness of the Four Seasons?
Lomenda: For me, it wasn’t until I read the script that I realized their songbook spans so many decades and so many different varieties. Ultimately, they underscored your life this whole time. It’s kind of hard to believe that “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry”—the big three—belong to the same group that does “Oh, What a Night” and “Who Loves You.” But I think it’s a testament to how they evolved as artists over the years. They still kept their signature Four Seasons vibe, they just evolved and experimented and took it to school.
Young: I knew all of the songs. I just didn’t know they were all Four Seasons songs. I would guess—and if you guys don’t agree, say it—that for our generation, the song we most know from Frankie Valli is the Grease theme song. Then to open that up further and realize that “Sherry” or “Workin’ My Way Back to You” is also Frankie Valli is a discovery that younger people have when they see Jersey Boys the show, and it’s the discovery they’ll have when they see the movie.
Bergen: Every bar mitzvah I ever went to was, “Here comes ‘Oh, What a Night.’ ” But the coolest thing is that everyone who went to see the show bought the CD as they were walking out. They didn’t want to get home and download it on iTunes. They didn’t order it on Amazon. They wanted it right then, in their car for the ride home. They didn’t come into it that way, but they left that way. It’s some of the greatest songs of the 20th century. It’s perfect pop music. And no one knew it was all the same group.
What’s your favorite Four Seasons song?
Piazza: I like the ambition behind “Big Man in Town.” That kind of drive to get out, which I feel is what the movie is about, is so prevalent in that song. But “Rag Doll” — there’s something so honest and beautiful about that relationship.
Bergen: “Dawn (Go Away)” is a sad lyric, but the melody is so happy and fun. I’m not sick of any of the songs. Even after doing the show for eight years, I still listen to them in my car and at the gym!
Young: I’ve been living with these songs for so many years that it changes all the time, and I gravitate toward the more obscure songs. Right now I’m really on a “Patch of Blue” kick. On stage, “Beggin’” is my favorite, but it’s not in the movie. Overall, it’s got to be “Sherry”—it’s where the group’s struggle comes together.
Lomenda: “Who Loves You.” It’s got a killer groove, and I love that. Also, in the show it brings Frankie full circle, and the guys get to say goodbye and sing together one last time.
I remember walking by the Broadway marquee with someone right before the show opened in 2006. He was convinced it would be a flop, and given some other shows that had bombed right before it was hard to argue otherwise.
Bergen: I did the same thing! I was in New York and I had free tickets to previews. There had been a flop [John Lennon] jukebox show, and then Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys one, had bombed. I remember looking at the marquee thinking, “Why would they make a musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons?” I thought, you know what, I’ll bring my dad. Let me tell you, that night I called a friend of mine who I went to college with for theater—a pretentious, classical theater guy—and said, “I just saw the greatest musical I’ve ever seen. It’s going to win the Tony Award.” I told him what it was, and he said, “You’re kidding—you have the worst taste in the world.” I think everyone thought that. [to John Lloyd Young] I mean, what did you think working on it at first? Did you know?
Young: I knew it was going to be a hit, but I was inside it and I could feel the energy. I was just trying to figure out how to survive singing it eight times a week! Those first few weeks, we had all these naysayers ready to crucify us. They were there with their crossed arms and their scowls, but halfway through the first act it started to melt away, and we were getting standing ovations in previews for songs in the middle of the act. It became a hit right underneath us. It was just an unbelievable audience reaction that I don’t think you get much except at a real rock concert.
Piazza: I think there’s a stigma to some degree about the outer boroughs and Jersey, and whether their stories are worth telling. But the integrity of the movie—of the friendship, of the bonds, of the sacrifice and struggle to achieve something and find an identity—is something that everyone can identify with.
Young: I’ll tell you, too, when the audience thinks of these four guys in the movie who have a real connection to each other, or a camaraderie—we actually [have that] in real life. I was sad when we wrapped the movie. We only had 40 days together. Hopefully if it’s a movie that people really love, we’ll be back together with some wrinkles and gray hair, 20 years from now, reminiscing for the special edition DVD.
Piazza: That’s very optimistic [that DVDs will still exist]. There’ll be some brain download [by then].
Lomenda: Erich will have less gray hair and wrinkles because he’s the youngest.
Bergen: Well, I’ll have a couple of things done by then.
Young: Oh, right—you have your new TV role. [Bergen is a cast member on the series Madam Secretary, starring Téa Leoni, which CBS will air in the fall.]
What was it like having Frankie Valli on the set?
Young: You know when those nature photographers watch animals in the wild, and the animals just forget that the photographers are there? When Frankie Valli was first there, I was like, “Oh no, I’m playing that guy.” But then you just do your job and live the role. It was not nerve-wracking. Most nerve-wracking was the first time I met him, when he came to see a rehearsal before I’d played in front of an audience, all those years ago. I needed adult diapers for that one.
Frankie has always wished the story told in the musical was even closer to the true details than it is.
Young: From my perspective, Frankie the character and Frankie the man both care very deeply about their legacy on this earth. And when you care that deeply, it’s not surprising you would want to shape your story the way you want. I’ve always tried to steal from him that kind of uneasiness with the idea of fame, who you are and how you get to your goal. He’s not always certain that what he’s doing is right, but the people who are a little uncertain are the most interesting. I think we would all say that Frankie has had an amazing American life and career, coming from almost nothing. He should be very proud. And this movie will take care of his legacy for decades.