A year ago, John Lloyd Young was an usher handing out programs at a Broadway theatre. As Frankie Valli sang, "close and yet so far." One year later, Young portrays Valli in one of the hottest hits of the Broadway season, "Jersey Boys." What a difference a year makes. Instead of being frustrated at seeing others on stage where he wanted to be, Young is now one of Broadway's rising stars and a hero to ushers everywhere!
"When you're ushering you couldn't be any farther from being the star of a Broadway show. It's almost like rubbing salt into a wound. If what you want to do is be up there on the stage, you couldn't be any farther. As an actor, you're very acutely aware of the irony. So one day, we were doing a benefit at another Broadway theatre on one of their dark nights," recalls John Lloyd Young. "The head usher came up to me and said 'you were an usher right?' and I said yes. He said, 'you're our hero!' That was a Hallmark moment - even better than Sardi's!"
Oh yeah, the Sardi's thing. For those who are unfamiliar, Sardi's is the famous Times Square restaurant that puts caricatures of stars on its walls. When an actor or actress sees themselves adorning that wall they know they've made it.
It took Young less than five months on the Great White Way to earn the honor.
"It was just so unexpected," said Young. "I'm working so hard that it feels deserved, but it felt early. And yet, I think that increases the honor and the value of it for me."
When Young talks about working hard, he's understating it quite a bit. The role of Frankie Valli is probably one of the most demanding roles he will ever play on stage. He does eight shows a week with each show featuring about 27 songs. Add in the fact that his character is rarely off stage and you can see why he compares this role to that of a professional athlete.
"Before when I was doing a play I could go out afterward and have a drink with the cast; I could stay out late, sleep in forever and still get up and be groggy with a crackling voice and do a play the next night and then do it all over again. I could be lax with my physical regimen. Now, this is nothing short of an athlete's life. I have to eliminate everything - all of the vices that everybody sort of enjoys all the way down to caffeine. There's no alcohol, no caffeine - sleep, for me, is like an important business meeting. Seven and a half hours at least, and that's the most important thing.
"I warm up for forty minutes before the show and I cool down my voice for 20 minutes after the show. It really is like an athletic pursuit and so my whole life has to be built around that."
The play tells the story of The Four Seasons from the beginning of the band to their rise and fall. Even though it contains so many songs, the play is more of a drama with music than a pure musical. This is why an actor like Young, who has been in several dramatic works, can do so well with the role.
"I think the reason someone like me who has a background in drama can function so well in this 'musical' is because it functions as a play first," he explained. "The story is primary. It's the dramatic story of the Four Seasons and their rise to to the top. The songs are secondary. When you place the story first you're going to attract actors first and singers second. A lot of people who populate musicals think of themselves as singers first - this is not that kind of cast."
Young says that he knew many of the songs before taking the role because these are such popular hits that it's hard not to have heard them somewhere. While doing research for his role, he read articles on the band and played their records non-stop for months before the first rehearsal. A key move was talking with Frankie Valli's good friend and bandmate Bob Guadio instead of Mr. Valli himself.
"I figured if I talked with Frankie Valli's best friend and lifelong business partner I would get more of an objective view of who Frankie Valli is than if I talked to Frankie Valli himself," said Young. "Often times, our friends will describe us with far more candor than we'll describe ourselves. I think we always have an agenda to protect our own image."
Young never did talk with Frankie Valli before the show started, but he did pay him a visit. He saw Mr. Valli perform live at the Flamingo in Las Vegas one night (unbeknownst to Mr. Valli). At the time, Young had just been offered the role and didn't want to jinx his first Broadway job. So he just watched him on stage and took notes on napkins, gathering more information for his character.
The play had originally made its debut at The La Jolla Playhouse in California the year before. As luck would have it for Young, several of the original cast members of that production were not available for the move to Broadway. Thus, his breakout role became available. And less than two months after landing it, Young found himself on Broadway.com's "Ones to Watch" list for the 2005-2006 Broadway season.
But the crazy ride of the past year was just beginning for Young. Since the show started, the cast and John have been profiled in Reader's Digest; performed at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on live television;appeared on television programs like Live at 5, CNN's Showbiz Tonight, The Today Show, and The David Letterman Show; was nominated for Broadway.com's Star of the Year; and chosen by The New York Times as one of the "Celestial Star Turns" of 2005. And, of course, was added to Sardi's lineup of stars. When asked, he's hard pressed to pick one as more exciting than the others.
"In the beginning, people didn't know what to make of the show because they thought it was going to be another jukebox show," said Young. "And the only people we really had in the beginning were die hard Four Seasons fans, who didn't care what the show would be like, and theatre people who were sort of skeptical because they've been burned so many times in the past by bad catalog shows. And now, the anticipation that you can see on the audience's face when the show starts... I remember a woman in the front row last week that raised her hands over her mouth everytime we would sing a Four Seasons song. She was just so delighted to see this story come alive.
"The buzz is so great about the show now that the audience is more excited than they were when we opened. That's probably been the most exciting thing for me - to see how it's developing into a cultural phenomenon. It's not just a good show anymore.
"I've been in good shows before and it's great to get standing ovations and to have people ask for your autograph and all that stuff. That's always fun, but seeing this show and what we're doing turn into a cultural phenomenon is something else!"
As great as this ride has been, eventually Young will move on to another role. He has six months left on his contract and will have to make a decision then, but he knows that there will be a time to move on.
"I wouldn't like to do it forever!" laughs Young. "I would much rather be working really hard at something I love in a great part than sitting around in my boxers on the couch waiting for the phone to ring for that next big audition; however, I am an actor and my life blood is playing characters and my greatest desire is to play new characters. So there will come a point when I really want to play a new character, but for the time being I'm really happy where I am."
He might even be happier in May when the Tony nominations come out. Something tells me this story has many more chapters to write.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.