Doo-wop (that thing): talking with the cast of 'Jersey Boys'

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On a high note: Erich Bergen, John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, and Michael Lomenda croon in Jersey Boys.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. pictures

The backstage musical that turned the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — known for 1960s doo-wop ditties like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," and a zillion more; you will recognize all of them — into Broadway gold ascends to the big screen Fri/20 thanks to director Clint Eastwood, a seemingly odd choice until you consider Eastwood's own well-documented love of music. 

Jersey Boys weaves a predictable tale of show biz dreams realized and then nearly dashed, with a gangster element that allows for some Goodfellas-lite action (a pre-fame Joe Pesci is a character here; he was actually from the same 'hood, and was instrumental in the group's formation). With songs recorded live on-set, à la 2012's Les Misérables, there's some spark to the musical numbers, but Eastwood's direction is more solid than spontaneous, with zero surprises (even the big finale, clearly an attempt at a fizzy, feel-good farewell, seems familiar). 

Still, the cast — including 2006 Tony winner John Lloyd Young as Valli, and Christopher Walken as a sympathetic mobster — is likable, with Young in particular turning in a textured performance that speaks to his years of experience with the role. I spoke with Young, Michael Lomenda (who plays original Four Season Nick Massi), and Erich Bergen (as Bob Gaudio, the member who wrote most of the group's hits) when the trio made a recent visit to San Francisco to promote the movie.

SF Bay Guardian This must be a crazy time for you guys.

John Lloyd Young It's a very exciting time for all three of us, and including our fourth colleague Vincent Piazza [who plays Four Season co-founder Tommy DeVito]. This is our first major studio feature film, and we got to be directed by Clint Eastwood. 

SFBG Did he ever break into song on the set?

Michael Lomenda [Laughs.] It was very interesting, actually, to see him between takes trying to capture that Frankie Valli falsetto. I think it was an ongoing challenge for him the whole 38 days that we shot, to try and figure out how to manipulate his voice in that way.

JLY It was a tongue-in-cheek challenge, because it was all playful. He knew he wasn't gonna sing like Frankie!

SFBG Few can! Though, you've been able to do it for several years. How do you keep your voice in shape to hit those notes?

JLY Well, you either have a falsetto or you don't. If you have it, you just keep it in shape the same way any singer does. Obviously, singers, there's certain things we can't do. We can't go out and yell all night in a bar. We shouldn't smoke, we shouldn't drink. The voice is very delicate. Those are very delicate muscles. Anything you do that's not good for your body in general won't be good for your voice. But, basically, just living a clean life. And Frankie Valli himself will tell you the same thing.

SFBG It's interesting that you bring up clean living. I hadn't seen the stage show, and I didn't know much about the group before I saw the movie. But in every show-biz biopic, there's always some kind of vice (usually drugs or booze, as in Walk the Line) that threatens to ruin the performer's success. Here, it's the mobster subplot — mobsters are not the typical vice.

Erich Bergen I think that's one of the things that's very interesting is that Frankie didn't get into [drugs or alcohol]. That's sort of the reason why he's still around and he's still on the road, because he's been able to preserve not only his gift, but his life. Of course, he went through some harsh things in life. He went through a couple of marriages and divorces, and obviously he lost a daughter. Actually, and we don't go into this in the movie, but he's lost two daughters. He's lived a very hard life. He didn't need drugs or alcohol; that hard life came to him naturally. 

I think that's what makes this story so interesting: we're watching someone whose life is hitting him in the face. And we sort of identify with that. I don't know about you, but for me personally, when I watch a lot of biopics and they start to get into the drugs and all that type of stuff — that's where I sort of lose them a little bit, because that's just sort of the generic story at this point. What makes Jersey Boys work is that we really connect with these guys because we identify with them. It's written in a way that even when they're not at their highest point, when they're doing things that aren't so great — especially the character of Tommy DeVito — we still root for them, and we still want them to succeed. 

SFBG The movie really shows how hard they had to work to be successful. It's a stark contrast to the music business of today, where someone can become famous overnight thanks to a YouTube video.

EB That's exactly what we talk about when we're asked the question, "What makes this story so interesting?" If you look at the groups of today, whether it's a One Direction or a Justin Bieber, before we actually know their songs, we know what they had for breakfast. But [the Four Seasons] really came at a time when you were trying to hide your real story and project out a shiny, clean image, because that's what everyone wanted. That's why Jersey Boys can exist today, because the story was never known. 

JLY I have a thought about that, too, which is that nowadays — without naming anyone by name — a lot of successful music acts are created as an idea in a marketing boardroom first, and then they find someone to fit that image. You know what I'm saying? It seems like the marketers are the stars nowadays. The more you can get an audience to feel there's something really exciting there, and then get them there, then you've won. But when they get there and they don't have a great experience, well, you already got their money, so who cares?

But I think at the time of Jersey Boys, to succeed you had to work really hard. There were only three networks, and there were very few print outlets. If you actually got on the cover of a magazine, or you got on a network, you made it. But you had to have something to show for it. You had to have talent, and especially that generation of Baby Boomers — the biggest generation we've ever had in American history. That's a lot of people competing for which of the talented ones among them would become known. And the Four Seasons had the talent, but they also had that special, very distinctly East Coast, riveting-to-an-audience kind of thing, with that Mob connection that makes their story unique among that era of bands.

SFBG The movie makes it clear that they had to succeed, because they didn't have anything to go back to.

ML It's true. These guys are from the wrong side of the tracks. You have some choices. You can go in the army, you can get mobbed up, or you can become famous, as they say in the film. We also sort of say that they did two out of the three. But I think their music spoke for itself. They broke when their music had to speak for them, and that's what made them successful.

EB The proof of that is that everyone knows these songs, but not the band. There are so many songs we don't even get to in this movie, because we'd run out of time! That tells you how much talent they really had as performers, writers, producers — all of those things. Their catalog is endless, and yet nobody knew they were all by the same group.

JL I just saw Clint Eastwood on the Today show, and when they introduced him, they said the Four Seasons had 71 chart-topping hits. 71! I think that's incredible for that band, coming out of that decade.

SFBG They were also commercially savvy. The songs were so catchy. No wonder people liked them.

ML I think that's they key to why their music has stood the test of time. Maybe it's commercially viable, and it is good pop music. But if you did a little deeper into some of the lyrics — for example, "Dawn" is one of my favorite songs, and they're singing, "Dawn, go away, I'm no good for you, think about what the future would be with a poor guy like me..." It's that kind of lyric that brings depth so what initially could be perceived as just pop, bubblegum music. It spoke to an audience that I think was sort of the fabric of America.

JLY Their early attempts at marketing are sort of outlined in the movie. You got [producer] Bob Crewe giving them advice on how to get their songs out there. You have Bob Gaudio figuring out how to get his songs out there. I know, and am friends with, the real Bob Gaudio, and it's funny, he's a hugely successful songwriter, but he almost seems more proud of his business successes than he does of his songwriting. He gets pumped by being smart in business as he gets pumped by writing a good song.

SFBG As actors, does it present a particular challenge to play a real person, a famous person, particularly if that person is still living? Or were you able to put your own stamp on the characters?

EB I think John had the most pressure out of all of us, because he's playing someone that's so well-known, and John can tell you about that experience. But for the rest of us, we really did invent these characters. Even though they were real people, and while we wanted to pay respect to these people, and their families, we did have the luxury of not having to play John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They're not well-known to the public. So we did get to use our skills as actors and create characters from the ground up.

JLY One of the benefits as an actor approaching the role of Frankie, even in the beginning in the original cast, is that he is known. People know what he looks like and they know what he sounds like. He did some talk show stuff, so they kind of know how he moves. So I knew that I needed to get his physical attributes down. I needed to evoke his sound, look like him, talk like him. But outside of those physical things, the internal life of Frankie Valli, we don't really know. We didn't know. 

When I was researching the original Broadway show, all I could find were maybe 12 minutes of footage of him at the Museum of Television and Radio. That was, like, the year before YouTube broke, so now there's footage of him everywhere, but I didn't have the benefit of that. But now I have seen a lot of YouTube and everything. So I thought, as long as I get those physical characteristics down, the story of the Four Seasons, the story of Frankie Valli, is still largely unknown to audiences. So I had free reign to kind of build the psychological reality of the character using my own imagination, and the cues that I had from the script. And knowing Bob Gaudio, Frankie Valli's real-life best friend, and the things he told me about Frankie, and knowing, of course, the man himself. 

But I didn't feel pressure so much. The pressure I felt was to honor the people who put this movie together, which was Frankie and Bob, and to portray the character in a way that was compelling and riveting to an audience so that we'd have as successful a show as we could have. And now, I think that I feel very proud of what we've accomplished with this movie, and I think it's an enhancement, actually, of what has been out there all these years, with the successful stage musical across the world. 

SFBG How true is the movie to the stage production?

ML It's actually very similar. We were lucky to work with [screenwriters and musical authors] Marshall [Brickman] and Rick [Elice] on the film, which I think we were all very grateful for, because it meant that we didn't have to learn too many new lines. [Laughs.] But it was great. I think when I first found out that the movie was being done, I was really concerned that the final product would be true to the stage, because the script is so fantastic. But beauty of film is that you get to flesh out certain relationships, and certain storylines. I think fans of Jersey Boys are going to love a lot of the scenes that they loved from the stage version, but they're also going to go crazy over the other stuff, the extra stuff that is put into the film.

The stage production is directed in a very slick fashion, but logistics dictate that you have to move from scene to scene very quickly to keep up the energy going in the two-and-a-half hour show. But what Mr. Eastwood does so beautifully with this movie, and with all of his movies, is create a real environment that's rich and tangible, that you can really sense in the theater. I think Jersey Boys fans are going to love that as well.

JYL If people love the stage show of Jersey Boys, the movie is going to give then a much deeper, more thorough, and much more detailed experience.

SFBG I did not realize, until I was reading up on the movie, that there were Jersey Boys superfans who have seen the show hundreds of times.

EB Michael and I opened the national tour of Jersey Boys in San Francisco, and six years later Michael closed that tour in the same theater. This was my first discovery with anything remotely like that. I remember seeing these fans come in over and over again. At first I thought, "What are they doing?" and "Where are they getting the money that they're buying such great seats three times a week?" I remember I got a letter one time, we all got these letters, from a fan who said, "I know you probably think it's crazy that I'm here all the time, but this is the first time I've felt happy in 10 years."

When we get things like that, we don't really know what to make of that. But we are so thrilled that it's had an impact. I don't know if it can be explained. People often ask us, "What is it about Jersey Boys that keeps people coming back?" I don't know if I know. I don't know if anyone knows. I know that when people come to see the show, they're affected by it for whatever reason. It moves them, it changes them. They are really passionate about it, and we're just sort of lucky that we got to be a part of that somehow. I don't really know what else to say about it!

JYL I have something else to say about it, and that is: if a person has seen the stage play of Jersey Boys 100 times, let them know, please, on our behalf, that for the price of one Broadway ticket, they can see this movie 10 times! [All three laugh.] So we hope that they decide to make their investment in 10 tickets for the movie. 

SFBG What's up next for you guys? More musicals?

ML I think we've all been bitten by the movie bug. To start on a Clint Eastwood set, we've been a bit blessed and totally spoiled. So, I think certainly, we would all like to dive further into this genre and explore it.

EB I agree. My album comes out next week, some new music that I just recorded down in Nashville, and I'm in a new series on CBS this fall called Madame Secretary. I will also be hosting lots of Jersey Boys viewing parties once the DVD comes out. [Laughs.]

JLY I have a new album that I just released, My Turn — it's R&B hits from the 60s in my voice, not Frankie's, and it's on iTunes and Amazon. I'm also a recent appointee by Barack Obama to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. So I'll be working with kids in the lowest-performing schools, re-inserting arts into their curriculum to increase their school performance and their school culture. The actor Kal Penn and I will be sharing a school district in Des Moines, Iowa. I'm really looking forward to it.

JERSEY BOYS opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

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