As career-defining moments go, being cast as iconic singer Frankie Valli in the original Broadway cast of Jersey Boys is as close to dictionary definition perfection as possible for the Californian stage star John Lloyd Young.
The US performer had served his apprenticeship in regional and off-Broadway productions before being cast in the lead role of the musical, new to the Great White Way, telling the chequered story of Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons. Little could he have known then – this was back in 2005 – that the role would lead to him winning a Tony Award, performing at the White House, or recreating his performance in the big screen adaptation of the musical directed by Clint Eastwood.
Or, in fact, that it would also bring him to the UK, to London, to the Piccadilly Theatre, to once again hit Valli’s high notes in songs from Sherry and Walk Like A Man to Begging and You’re Just Too Good To Be True in the West End production of Jersey Boys.
We quizzed the American star and discovered some surprising childhood movie favourites, what it was like to work with Eastwood and a pleasingly New Jersey-ish taste in meals.
How did it feel to create the role of Frankie Valli for the Broadway production?
Exhilarating. To step into the shoes of someone who was already a well-known star and to see my own career begin to take off for portraying Frankie Valli in a way that re-engaged his fans and made him (and me) brand new ones was the privilege of a lifetime.
What was it like to win a Tony Award for your Broadway debut?
So many actors say that the role is everything. This role, amongst musical theatre roles this size, is truly rich and full of potential. I was so relieved to fulfil that promise in my first Broadway outing and to have made such an impression on audiences and Broadway insiders, who can be a really tough crowd to win over.
How does performing in Jersey Boys in the West End compare to performing on Broadway?
I’m just beginning my run, but my first impression is that this theatre district is a much cosier enclave than the vast Broadway jungle. Theatre people here are so warm and friendly and the audiences, though equally enthusiastic as on Broadway, seem extra polite at the stage door! But maybe that’s just my American ear, savouring that English accent we all love so much.
What makes Jersey Boys such a popular show?
Simply this: everyone loves a rags to riches story, especially when it’s set in New Jersey! There is something irresistible about getting to see the backstory of something you already love: in this case the music of this legendary group. The fact that the Four Seasons speak to the audience along the course of the story really brings people in and makes them feel an integral part of the characters’ journey.
Which is your favourite song in the show?
It’s a tie: Sherry and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, because they’re respectively the real spine-tingling Act One and Act Two show stoppers.
How was filming the movie with Clint Eastwood?
I was in constant awe being on set with such an American film icon. He is a sensitive and intuitive director who understands music and true grit, albeit this time Jersey-style, not wild-wild-West. His sensibilities served this story beautifully. Most meaningful to me was the respect and trust he showed me in translating my stage performance to the screen. Clint is a surprisingly gentle yet deeply motivating leader.
What does your work with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities involve?
Not surprisingly under the Obamas, with their history in community organising, this Committee is engaged in a ground-breaking initiative called Turnaround Arts, taking some of the lowest-performing public schools and integrating the arts into their curriculums as a way to improve academic performance and school culture. They are using an arts-based approach to teaching across all the subjects and the results in student performance, motivation, decrease in discipline problems and sense of community for students and their families have been astounding. They are expanding the reach of the program to include some new schools and I will take on one of the schools as their sponsor Committee Member. Some other members of the Committee like Sarah Jessica Parker, Forest Whitaker, Yo-Yo Ma and the artist Chuck Close have been working with some of the first schools of the program, and they and the students have really developed a wonderful relationship.
For us, it’s a great feeling to give back to young people; for the students, it’s so important to them that their whole school has been “chosen” by the Committee and that there are accomplished people who care about their progress and want to see them succeed.
What sparked your interest in performing?
When I was very young two of the biggest movies out there were Tootsie and Amadeus. I was obsessed with both of these movies, watched them over and over again, and related viscerally and immediately to Dustin Hoffman’s and Tom Hulce’s characters, which is probably a bit odd for an eight-year-old. But something in me was instinctively drawn to the life of a misunderstood, brilliant and wilful artist. I wanted to become one.
What is the finest performance you have seen?
For pure stagecraft, Dame Judi Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway ties for me with Al Pacino in Hughie.
If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
I don’t really think along these lines, ever. I have always been much more interested in being open to what the universe produces. For example, I never would have expected to work with Clint Eastwood and suddenly there I was working with him. I like to see what surprises life has in store.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions?
Though I’m not generally superstitious, I held over from college that tradition to never dare call Macbeth anything other than “The Scottish Play.”
What is your fondest childhood memory?
The rare trips to the big city to see Broadway shows. I remember the first time I sat in the mezzanine (or what you call the dress circle, here) and gripped onto the cool brass railing eagerly awaiting the curtain coming up.
Who or what has inspired you?
My friend and manager, Dona. She never lets me get away with anything; she challenges me to constantly improve myself. We’ve had some epic battles, but it’s made me a better man.
Where was the first place you went when you arrived in London?
Bed. I had Los Angeles to London jet lag to take care of!
What will always, without fail, bring a smile to your face?
I’ll keep that one to myself.
What book, film or album would you recommend to a friend?
Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman.
What would you choose as a last meal?
What could you not be without?
Do you have any advice for young actors?
The thing early on that you think is “wrong” with you, that makes you not fit in with everyone else, becomes the key to your career as an actor. Start embracing it.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
A lawyer. And probably a tough one.