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"March of the Falsetto: Out of the Shower,
by Jesse McKinley
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG vividly remembers the first time he heard Frankie Valli's voice.
"I was about 7 years old, and one of those Time Life compilation videos came on TV with footage of him," Mr. Young said recently, sitting at an Italian restaurant in the theater district. "And Frankie Valli singing 'Sherry' and I thought as a wise-guy 7-year-old, 'Why's he singing like a girl?' And the first thing I thought when I got the part was this is my comeuppance for that insolence."
The part in question is the character of Mr. Valli himself in the new musical "Jersey Boys," opening tonight at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway. The show, directed by Des McAnuff ("700 Sundays"), tells the story of the Four Seasons, the doo-wop group that Mr. Valli led with his trademark falsetto, scoring at least two dozen Top 40 hits during the 1960's, including the No. 1 hits "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and, yes, "Sherry."
In many ways, the show is your standard rags-to-riches tale with a modicum of "Behind the Music"-style intrigue. But unlike other so-called jukebox musicals, which often graft extant songs onto a completely unrelated plot (see Abba's "Mamma Mia," Elvis's "All Shook Up" and - gulp - the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"), "Jersey Boys" is a straightforward biography of the four men who became Seasons, complete with their struggles with women, family, gambling and one another.
As such, "Jersey Boys" seemed to demand actors who could sing, rather the other way around.
"The most important thing here is the story," Mr. McAnuff said. "The songs are a wonderful bonus. But they had to be able to act."
Enter Mr. Young, who had only a few Off Broadway roles and had never really done a professional musical, excepting a few small speaking parts in war horses like "Camelot," for which he received his Equity card. (He played Tom of Warwick, a tiny role at the end of the show.)
But while Mr. Young said he didn't really have any musical theater ambitions, what he did have was a voice - or more precisely, a very high voice - that he said he had just occasionally broken out around select company.
"I did have a falsetto but I only used it when I was joking around with friends or to annoy my girlfriends, or in the shower, because no one else was around," he said. "Or in college. I'd go to karaoke bars and sing Tina Turner songs in the original key."
Since he won the part, however, Mr. Young has been having a taste of the star's life, complete with autographs at the stage door and just-this-way-sir service at local restaurants. (This interview was stopped twice by complimentary waiters and a fawning maître d'.) All of which is fairly heady stuff for an actor who had never appeared on Broadway before.
"Right now, this is perfect for me because I get to go out and sing songs and play scenes and neither is compromised," said Mr. Young, who can drop Brecht and Shakespeare references with the best of them. "But I've never worked harder in my life."
Without belaboring the parallels, Mr. Young and Mr. Valli actually have a few things in common, including their physique (not big), their early careers (not perfect) and their backgrounds (not rich). The two men have become friendly, if not friends, during the rehearsal process.
"I think he's as close as I could possibly imagine," Mr. Valli, now 68, said of the performance of his stage alter ego. "But it's still a strange feeling. At first it was very uncomfortable, and then you kind of get used to it."
That strange feeling was mutual, particularly when Mr. Valli showed up at a run of the musical in September just as Mr. Young was getting the part down. "Essentially I was still figuring out how to step with the right foot or the left foot and I've got to do it three feet away - literally three feet away - from the guy I'm playing," Mr. Young recalled. "I made it through, but privately I was sweating."
Figuring out Mr. Valli has been a gradual process for Mr. Young, who is in his late 20's and not a huge doo-wop fan. Like Mr. Valli, Mr. Young was of Italian descent; his mother, who died when he was 2, hailed from Whitestone, Queens, a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood. His father, who named him John Lloyd Mills Young, came from old American stock.
After his mother's death, Mr. Young spent many summers in Whitestone with his grandparents and other relatives, watching "Italian guys riding up and down Francis Lewis Boulevard trying to pick up girls," he said, memories that later informed his performance as Mr. Valli.
"It was a shorthand to understanding a generation's mind-set," Mr. Young said. "I had only a cursory exposure to Frankie Valli himself, his mannerisms, the sort of attitudes that people around him had, but it was similar enough to how I remembered my grandfather, that I could sort of rely on my own life experience."
With his father and stepmother, Mr. Young had an itinerant upbringing - living everywhere from Nebraska to upstate New York - before studying theater arts at Brown University. After graduating in 1998, Mr. Young came to New York and started finding work as an actor, gaining respectable, but hardly flashy, credits, including work with experimental companies like Target Margin and regional theaters like the Coconut Grove Playhouse. His most recent day job was transcribing news interviews for television programs, taking down every word that celebrities uttered. (His favorite in a terrible way was an interview with Britney Spears and Kevin Federline.)
In April 2004, however, Mr. Young had an audition for the original run of the show, at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. He was called in to try out for the role of Tommy DeVito, the rough-hewn guitarist of the original group. (The other Seasons were Bob Gaudio, who played keyboards, and Nick Massi, who played bass guitar.)
Mr. McAnuff decided almost instantly that Mr. Young would be a better fit for the role of Mr. Valli. He was also impressed by Mr. Young's ability as a tenor "to go into his head voice without a break." Mr. Young auditioned once more before, well, coming in second.
Mr. McAnuff opted to go with another actor, David Noroña, for the La Jolla run. Mr. Young's big break came almost a year later, in April, when the West Coast actor decided not to follow the show to Broadway. Looking for a new Valli, Mr. McAnuff called Mr. Young first and was surprised to find his voice even stronger than before. "He'd done work on his voice and was very well prepared for the audition," Mr. McAnuff said. "And he just hit it out of the park."
That sense of discipline has continued. Mr. Young, who lives in Jersey City, said he follows a strict diet and vocal schedule to keep from damaging his pipes during the demanding eight-shows-a-week schedule. He drinks no alcohol, no caffeine, and eats no fast food. He warms up 40 minutes before each show, and warms down - soothing his voice back to a normal range - for 20 minutes after.
Mr. Valli said he had tried to stay out of Mr. Young's way but had given him a little advice about how to keep the falsetto healthy. "I told him to hold back just a little bit, not to blow it out," he said. "Because once you do that, it can take awhile to get back."
So far, Mr. Young hasn't missed a show. And while he's still not sure he wants to be a musical theater star - he might prefer to front a big band, he said, or do "juicy roles" in plays, television or film - he still seems to be reveling in his chance to play a rock star.
"I'm getting entrance applause," he said with
a smile. "But it's not really me getting entrance applause. It's Frankie
Valli. I'm just wearing his shoes."