Actor-singer Jarrod Spector not only plays Frankie Valli in "Jersey Boys" -- he likes him.
That may be inevitable, given the opportunity offered by such a role and such a successful show, now in previews and set to open Oct. 14 at the LaSalle Bank Theatre."I'm under 5 foot 9 inches tall, I have dark eyes and hair and look Italian," Spector says. "How many roles calling for someone exactly like me are out there?"
Easier, mind you, but hardly easy. Few entertainers boast as inimitable a talent as Valli's legendary, trademark falsetto.
Sure, Spector has a great job. Who would dare apply for it?
LListened as a kid
"When my manager called and told me about a musical all about the Four Seasons, I asked my parents, 'Who are these guys?'" recalls Spector, 26. His parents reminded him he'd grown up listening to such classics as "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" around the house.
"So I started listening to them again, and I called my manager back and said, 'I can't sing this. Nobody can.'"
She told him enough people in show business will say you can't do things. "Don't you say it," she advised.
"So I went back in and worked on it some more, and I thought, 'I can hit these notes. [But] I can't hit them and sound pretty, but you're not supposed to.' Nobody argues Frankie's voice in falsetto is pretty. It's gritty and edgy and glass-shattering. He has a beautiful voice. But those high, piercing falsetto sounds are just that."
"Jarrod is a natural," says Rick Elice, co-author of the show's book. "He's got the voice. He's got the look. And he's got a wonderful wound to him, which makes the guys in the audience relate and the women in the audience want to mother him. That's what makes a great Frankie, the wound."
"We're blessed he exists," agrees co-author Marshall Brickman. "This isn't an easy part to cast."
The idea, the creative team concurs, isn't to come up with just an imitation Frankie -- the Broadway equivalent of an Elvis impersonator. "Jersey Boys" succeeds thanks to its story and performers' skill at convincing the audience they're watching reality unfold.
"Jersey Boys" the blockbuster musical, say its creators, is also an intimate play.
"You have to grow as a character as the show progresses," says Brickman, whose screenwriting credits include co-authorship of "Annie Hall." "He's 15 when the story begins, we follow him for years and he's not, at face value, an automatically sympathetic character. But there's something about Frankie that allows the audience in, and they feel touched. The actor has to have that inside himself somewhere."
Brickman admits that when the show lost its first Frankie, TV familiar David Norona, after a pre-Broadway staging in La Jolla, Calif., "we were panicked." They turned to the runner-up in the audition process: John Lloyd Young, who went on to win rave reviews and a Tony Award.
Success bred more success. "As we gained credibility, people started to emerge," says Brickman, "just as, after 'Les Miserables' hit, actors started showing up everywhere with long haircuts."
"Believe me, these days, if you're under 5 feet 9, you've got black hair and a falsetto, you're working on your Frankie Valli," says Des McAnuff, the show's director.
Sing and move 'brilliantly'
Not to suggest the role of Frankie is ever routine to cast. "You also have to find someone who sings so that he makes the hair stand up on the back of your head and moves brilliantly," says Elice.
As productions multiply, the show now has its own loosely rigged matriculation process called "Frankie camp," at which potential Frankies undergo several days of crash coaching, dance rehearsals and vocal lessons. "Falsetto can harm your voice," warns McAnuff. "You need to know how to warm up and how to warm down."
"I warm up about 35 minutes before the show, and then 15 or 20 minutes after," Spector explains. "I take a paper towel and put it in my mouth and pull on my tongue for stretching in one exercise. It's gotten to where, if I'm running late, I'm literally walking down the street, pulling my tongue, with a paper towel in my mouth. It looks weird, but on the streets in New York or San Francisco, well, I blended right in."
He's well-suited to a show about show business. At age 3, he was on a local Philadelphia TV show, and, by age 6, on "Star Search," that precursor to "American Idol." At 9, he was cast as Gavroche in "Les Miz," playing here in Chicago and on Broadway, until, by age 11, he literally outgrew the part: "You can only be 46 inches tall."
At 15, he was in a TV pilot with Peter Boyle that came to naught, and he'd had it. "I said to my parents, 'Enough. I don't want to do this anymore. I want to play sports. I want to have a girlfriend. I want to be normal.'"
He enrolled at Princeton University, and then spent all his time with an extracurricular musical comedy club. "I was writing and singing and thinking I'd get a business degree as a backup," he says. "Nice theory. Princeton's hard enough when you're dedicated. When you despise your courses, it's Herculean."
Two years in, he left. As an actor, he then trained with the Atlantic Theatre Company, with David Mamet and William H. Macy among his tutors. He had been cast to play Hamlet when he got the call about returning for auditions for the "Jersey Boys" tour. The long break between spells working on Frankie proved beneficial. "Between my initial and later auditions for 'Jersey Boys,' I really needed to grow up, to find more depth as a man and an actor. Rehearsing Hamlet while going back to work on Frankie helped. There are more parallels than you'd think. Both characters have ups and downs, triumphs, anguish and glory. And both directly talk to the audience."
He's eager and warmhearted, quick to ask a stranger for career advice after only an hour's conversation. Truth is, he doesn't need any. His Frankie festers with pain and channels Hamlet.
Brags the distinguished McAnuff, "He really nails it."
"This show has such velocity, and people get so hooked," Spector says. "Before long, they forget, and we are the Four Seasons. For just one night, I'm a rock star."
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