Directing the big-screen version of “Jersey Boys,” Clint Eastwood sang and danced all over the musical drama’s set to demonstrate what he wanted from his actors, right?
No, no he did not.
“For the songs, he really stepped out of the way,” says Erich Bergen, reprising his role from the musical’s first national tour as Four Seasons songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “He really just put the cameras on like it was a rock concert.”
Says John Lloyd Young, returning to his Tony Award-winning role as singer Frankie Valli, “We can sing live. We did a thousand times in this role. Clint probably cast us for that reason.”
That’s absolutely why it was smart for the Oscar-winning filmmaker (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”) not to choose big-name Hollywood stars who couldn’t sing live for “Jersey Boys,” opening Friday. The film is adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway show about the founding and dissolution of the Four Seasons, who took off in the mid-‘60s behind widely-known songs like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” Michael Lomenda, who also played bassist Nick Massi in the play’s first national tour, says the poppy lightness of the songs mixed with the band members’ blue-collar, New Jersey grit (guitarist and band alpha-male Tommy DeVito, played by Vincent Piazza, has ties to the mob) is part of what makes the story so attention-grabbing.
In some ways, the film echoes the stage production. The songs get audiences to root for the musicians, the 38-year-old Young says, “even after your character’s been a complete bastard.” The characters periodically speak to the viewer, much like the stage actors address the audience. The “cinematic” direction and natural acting of the play, Bergen notes, required few adjustments on screen.
Some necessary changes did stand out, though.
“A kitchen that was represented by a table and two chairs on stage,” Bergen, 28, says, “all of a sudden you went, ‘Look, there’s a sink! And it works!’”
He also had to drive, a challenge for a New Yorker not accustomed to a vintage car with a manual transmission—especially while being overseen by an auto aficionado like Eastwood.
“I promise you, you have never been more scared in your life than when you see Clint Eastwood running, and I actually mean running, down the street yelling, ‘Why isn’t it working?’” Bergen says. “Last night at the screening, my parents were there, and any time you saw a shot of me driving, [they] applauded.”
Playing Gaudio on stage made the actor want to write songs, leading to an album about a breakup. (“It sort of worked. She responded for a minute, and then not so much.”) Locally, Bergen worked a few weeks at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and performed a new musical called “Hero” at the Marriott Lincolnshire. Next he co-stars with Tea Leoni in CBS’ upcoming drama “Madam Secretary.” Toronto native Lomenda performed “Jersey Boys” at the Bank of America Theatre and has appeared in regional productions of “Grease,” “Hairspray” and more.
The California-born, multiple award-winning Young, who sang on the Grammy-winning “Jersey Boys” cast album, was pretty much a no-brainer to continue playing Valli. But the others had resigned themselves to believing that the parts in the movie would go to bigger celebrities. Bergen still is getting used to the idea that the movie and the subsequent promotional opportunities are even happening.
The guys rave about Eastwood resisting micro-managing and leaving the actors to do their jobs, which Lomenda compares to being allowed to scat during a jazz performance. Young recalls a time when the director, a man of few words, left makeup artists in suspense while not indicating whether he was happy with the prostheses necessary to make the actors look like older men.
“He likes to keep things close to the vest,” Young says. “And he likes to keep you guessing.”
The film’s star, a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, has the rare distinction of working with both President Obama and the conservative Eastwood. He quips that he “didn’t sign up to be the go-between” for the two and that fortunately Eastwood was more accessible than President Obama.
The Four Seasons’ material has broad appeal with nothing to do with politics, though Bergen has met people who don’t like the songs. Young has heard from folks who’ve grown to like them. Lomenda, however, recognizes the variety and quality on display and struggles to imagine someone disliking the assortment of classics.
“I’m curious what kind of ears you have,” he says. “Honestly.”
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