About Me

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A long-time Toronto-area Actor and Singer, Jeff Madden is now focusing on Teaching acting and singing in the GTA. Jeff starred as "Frankie Valli" in both the Toronto and Australian productions of JERSEY BOYS, winning the DORA award for outstanding performance in a musical by a male actor. Jeff is busy back at school, getting his MEd at U of T's OISE.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Jeff Madden is UnCovered - Broadway World Special Featrure


BWW Special Feature: Jeff Madden is UnCovered

Fri, 11/15/2013 by Jeff Madden

(photo by Pierre Gautreau)

Acting Up Stage, one of Toronto's top musical theatre companies, is kicking off their 10th anniversary season with its annual smash tribute concert in which the songbook of a legendary singer/songwriter or group is re-examined through a storytelling lens. On November 18, in UnCovered: Sting and The Police, ten of Canada's top Musical Theatre vocalists will perform 19 of Sting's hit songs, featuring new arrangements by Music Director Reza Jacobs, backed by a cracking onstage four-piece band and three-backing vocalists.

I'm thrilled to be a featured vocalists at this concert. And, to give you an inside look into how a show like this gets brought to life through the eyes of a performer, BWW has asked me to share some of my own experiences.

This story has a familiar beginning. A long time ago, in a land far, far away...

May 21, 2013. I'm in Australia, where I'm starring as Frankie Valli in the Australian production of JERSEY BOYS. Mitchell Marcus, Artistic and Managing Director of Acting Up Stage emails to ask if I'd be interested in singing at this year's concert.

In typical Mitchell Marcus fashion, his email is warm and full of detailed planning about the concert:
"We'd love to have you back if you are willing."

The first thing I feel is excitement, immediately followed by hesitation. I ask myself, "Can I go there?" The song choices are in their hands. Sting sings really frickin' high. His music is an tricky mix of progressive pop with elements of edgy pop, rock, reggae and worldbeat. I sit on it for a few days. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize I am a good fit for this. My voice is flexible, I can do it. I've known some of these songs since I was a kid - my eldest brother Chris had a bunch of their records. I think I can bring something cool to this. And, most of all, I think it'll be fun.

May 24. I write Mitchell back:
"If you're down, then I'm down."

He replies:
"Amazing! Welcome aboard!"

Then, I take a deeeeeeeeeep breath. Agreeing to do a concert like this is a leap of faith. Concerts of this sort are very different than the typical theatre job. Usually when you're cast in a show, you have a long rehearsal period to feel comfortable with the material, and lock in enough repetitions so that you're not nervous about, oh, I don't know, remembering your lyrics. But in a concert like this, you get ONE rehearsal, and ONE run-through on the day of the concert. That's it. You have to be positive that this scenario will not make you jump off a cliff. Or provoke you into another drunken stupor. 'Cause those don't end too well, am I right?

So, it's kinda scary. But, for me, the fear makes me work harder. I like challenges - they make life exciting. So, when I'm not screeching like Frankie Valli, I start listening to a lot of Sting and The Police. And then after a week or so, I let it go.

August 1. I'm back home in Canada. I still have no clue which songs I'll be singing at the concert. I resist the temptation to call Mitchell and Reza and ask for specific songs. Two reasons - one, that would put extra pressure on Mitchell and Reza, as they have to line up great song choices for the eight other singers, too. And two, not knowing makes it more fun... and scarier. Humph. I let it go.

September 9. I get an email asking me to confirm a date and time for my rehearsal with Reza. It's only a three-hour slot. And, still no song choices. Humph. I take another deeeeeeeep breath. I let it go...ish.

September 30. Finally. Mitchell emails:
"I hope we aren't being too presumptuous, but we are hoping you might consider doing 2.5 songs... Reza and I would love it if you would perform:
1. Message in a Bottle (solo)
2. Every Little Thing She Does (solo)

3. Don't Stand So Close To Me (as a duet with Sara Farb)
Have a listen. If you have any concerns or discomfort, please send Reza a note."

I'm frickin' thrilled with the songs. I already know each one fairly well, but not so well that it wouldn't be a challenge. And singing with Sara Farb - ooh, that sounds good. I bet our voices would sound really good together. I'm happy.

I write Mitchell back right away:
"This is all fantastic. Love the songs, love the ideas, love the Farb. :-))"

October 1. When I first decide to sing a song, I do my research. I listen to the original, obviously, and check out any cover versions on YouTube. I ask myself what the music is saying to me, what images or emotions are evoked from the sounds. I ask myself what the singer's voice is telling me, and also what it's hiding. Then I examine the lyrics themselves. I get them down on paper, and rearrange the structure to make it more like a monologue. Sometimes I'm surprised by what's in there. In advance of my rehearsal, I do this research for my three songs.

The cool thing about the type of concerts that Acting Up Stage do is that Reza Jacobs will create a brand-new arrangement for the band based on our discussions at rehearsal. It's all about supporting the story that we want to tell in the song. It's such a brave and creative move on their part, and I totally embrace them for it. Doing this research ahead of time will only help the process along.

"Message In A Bottle", if taken literally, is the story of a lonely man trapped on a desert island. He sends out his S.O.S. and hopes someone rescues him. But it seems it's all a metaphor for a lonely person searching for love. One lyric stands out in the second verse: "Love can mend your life, but Love can break your heart." There's lots of interesting elements to discuss in there. Exciting.

"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" seems to be saying two very different things. The chorus is a celebration of this amazing love the singer has. But, the verses tell a story of being frighteningly unable to communicate that love to the other person. This song could go in many different directions. I'm excited to see where it goes.

"Don't Stand So Close To Me" is perhaps the most theatrical of the three songs. It tells the story of a teacher and his much younger student and an affair that may or may not have happened between them. I'm excited about their idea to do this song as a duet, and I wonder just what Reza has up his sleeve. How will we break up the lyrics? The point of view of each character is ambiguous, which leaves many options. There is potential for lots of singing in harmony, singing in unison; really the options are endless. The amount of unknowns here is very scary. And very exciting.

October 21. Finally. My rehearsal with Reza. The goals of this rehearsal are many: to make sure the song is a good fit for me, to come up with a dramatic arc that will frame the song, to settle on the key, and to discuss the overall arrangement for the band. Mitchell drops by, too, to help out. Three songs, three hours. GO!

We start with "Message In A Bottle". We sing it through. Then we discuss the story arc; the elements of despair, loneliness, longing, and then action. Why so much repetition in the choruses - is it a mantra, is it frustration, is it anger or desperation? There's time passage in "A year has passed since I wrote my note" - how does that colour things? Then, after all this time, all this loneliness and frustration, the third verse begins with this discovery "I don't believe what I saw - a 100 billion bottles washed up on the shore." Would that bring in joy or celebration? The man realizes he's not alone - there could be some comfort there. I feel like I know where we're heading. This is good. And then, just when I think we're moving on, Reza asks me a question:
"Have you ever heard a Muslim Call to Prayer?"

Maybe I heard him wrong. I mutter back:
"Uh, what?"

And then the song goes off in a whole new territory. We discuss what that might sound like, and how this idea might colour some of the lyrics. I silently accept the challenge. This reminds me of a favorite lyric of mine from "Man", a song from THE FULL MONTY. "I don't know where I'm going, but I know I'm gonna get there soon..." We move on.

"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is next. We sing it through. We discuss what type of person might say these words. We like the idea of a young guy, a bit shy or nerdy, maybe an IT computer guy. Maybe the girl he's in love with works at the office with him. Maybe they've dated, but what if she doesn't even know he exists? What if he's actually never spoken to her at all. This opens up the notion of all this being in his head, the imagined relationship of a mentally unstable young man. Reza's mind spins off in many interesting musical directions, and my ears start to smile. It's inspiring to watch him create on the spot and exciting to think where we'll end up with this one.

Sara arrives and we run through "Don't Stand So Close To Me". I knew it. It sounds amazing. We spend the bulk of the time trying to decide who sings what lyrics. It's shifty. The same line sounds one way coming from me, and sounds differently from Sara's point of view. But which way is better? All the options are interesting, but time is short and we need to settle on a road-map. Why? Because of our conflicting schedules, Sara and I won't see each other again until the day of the concert. Holy crap. I try not to think about that.

We explore some more. "Wet bus-stop. She's waiting. His car is warm and dry." Wait - is the teacher a predator and she the innocent victim? Or is the student a Lolita-type character? This song is like a full three-act play. Reza and Mitchell are super engaged, trying to look at the big picture of story arc, and help us decide which version of the truth we want to tell. Or is there a truth? Maybe, we should leave it a bit ambiguous, for each audience-member to figure out for himself. One thing is certain, this one has the potential to blow the roof off Koerner Hall.

And then it was over. But I couldn't let it go.

In the week that follows I listen to my recordings of the rehearsal and digest the ideas. But I'm left with so many questions. This is the really tricky thing about a concert like this - there are so many options, so many different ways to do things. And virtually no time. Suddenly, Reza's voice pops into my mind, uttering some wise words from our rehearsal:

"One mustn't become overwhelmed by the amount of blank canvas, one must welcome it."

This guy's like Yoda. He's right. I tell myself, "Create. Decide. Move on. Don't look back." I do, then I let it go.

October 31. Over the past ten days, Reza has rehearsed with all the featured singers and backing vocalists to start creating the charts for these songs. Think about that for a minute. 10 singers. 19 Songs. Then, think about this: Reza still must create 19 orchestrations the four band members, and 19 vocal arrangements for the singers. And there's two-and-a-half weeks to go. He may go grey by November 18th.

November 2. Uh-oh. Both my kids come home from school sick. The annual post-Halloween cold. Hooray. I immediately make a list of vitamins and supplements to buy. Colds and crazy singing don't go together too well.

November 8. 10 days until the concert. I'm keeping the cold at bay. I need to interview Reza for another article I'm writing about this concert, so we catch up on Skype. But, we also take the opportunity to share a few thoughts about my three songs.

Most thoughts just confirm the work we did before and ease the mind. But some thoughts inspire us to make some fairly large changes to the arrangements. Key changes are added to one song. Rubato sections are added to another. Melody notes are changed in all three. The artistic process is so fascinating. This kind of discussion happens on a second pass through the material, after enough time has passed for things to drop in. Hopefully, the result will be that much better.

November 11. One week until the concert. The 'keeping the cold at bay' thing is not going so well anymore. I try not to freak out. Instead, I get Sara on the phone so we can clarify the vocal arrangement and the harmonies for "Don't Stand...". Getting back on the same page makes me feel better. Sara is also singing lots of other material at the concert, and is trying to get ready to nail that stuff, too. This process is happening in 20 different living rooms spread across Southern Ontario, as everyone is on their own, focusing in on the final product. At this point in the process, the pressure is high. The creation phase is almost over, and the performing muscles need to be turned on.

November 12. Six days until the concert. The other article I wrote for BWW goes up online this morning. It looks good. I'm happy to help spread the word. Here it is: http://www.broadwayworld.com/toronto/article/Torontos-Stars-UnCovered-Sting-and-The-Police-20131112

November 13. Five days away. I'm drinking throat tea and sucking on zinc lozenges. Reza sends six text messages in a flurry. He's been tweaking the charts a bit:
- "Transition to your verse in don't stand do close will now have three bars not four"
- "That means you will hear the three note pattern four times"
- "Like this."

And then he sends a video of him singing it. I pee myself a little bit.

Later that night, I text him of an idea of my own:
- "I'm thinking of incorporating the middle-eastern thing into the ad lib section over the ending 16 sending out an sos's. (What have you done to me?!?!?)"

He replies:
- "It's the New Terrorism. We're coming at ya via music theatre"

November 14. Cold, go screw yourself.

We're almost there. In a few short days, it will be show time. The 18th is going to be crazy for me. I'm actually teaching three musical theatre performance classes at Sheridan College in Oakville from 1:30-6pm, which I'm going to squeeze in between my sound check in the morning and the concert itself at night. So that should be, um, busy. Hopefully I'll make it in one piece. The pressure is on, but I'm laying low. Thinking positive thoughts.

When you look at the big picture, I'm amazed. What an incredible amount of work by a large number of artists and administrators - and all for a concert that will last but two short hours. About 1000 people will witness its passion, its exuberance, its angst and its joy. Fans of musical theatre will love it. Fans of pop music will love it. People from all walks of life will be brought together in the collective celebration of music, of story-telling, of creation, of daring, of letting go, of accepting challenges, and of the power of the Performing Arts to enrich our lives. It's going to be epic. And then it will be gone forever.

And I'm so proud to be a part of it.

Toronto's Stars UnCovered - live on Broadwayworld.com

Toronto's Stars UnCovered: Sting and The Police
(photos of Musical Director Reza Jacobs and Artistic Director Mitchell Marcus, Acting Up Stage Theatre)

Next Monday, November 18th, Acting Up Stage launches its 10th Anniversary season by presenting the One-Night-Only tribute concert UnCovered: Sting and The Police at Toronto's beautiful Koerner Hall. This annual tribute concert has become known as a "don't miss" event for local lovers of music and/or theatre. This year should be no different, with such notable vocalists as Jackie Richardson, Thom Allison and others (including myself), singing classic hits like "Message in a Bottle", "Roxanne", "Desert Rose", "Don't Stand So Close to Me", and "Fields of Gold".

It's hard to believe, but the Acting Up Stage theatre company is already 10 years old. Thanks to the wise stewardship of Artistic and Managing Director Mitchell Marcus, it didn't take long to become one of Toronto's best, having been awarded with 32 Dora nominations since its inception. I had the pleasure to speak with Mitchell Marcus and his long-time musical director Reza Jacobs in advance of the concert to find out how it all started, and why they think it has become such a smash hit.

REWIND. Some eight years ago, with his company barely off the ground, Mitchell Marcus was suddenly struck with an idea. Inspired by an event in New York City, he wanted to produce a tribute concert featuring well-known Pop songs, but sung by the stars of Toronto's Musical Theatre scene. Having this idea coincided with his meeting Reza Jacobs, freshly back from finishing his MFA in Graduate Musical Theater Writing at NYU - Tisch, who had a similar idea for theatrically re-arranging the music of The Beatles. "That meeting felt serendipitous, and the idea for our first tribute concert was soon born," said Marcus, over the phone from his office.

Since their Beatles concert in 2006, Mitchell has chosen to tackle the music of Paul Simon (a concert at which I also sang), Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and last year's concert Tapestries: The music of Carol King and James Taylor. In Mitchell's words, "the goal was not to put a cover band of Musical Theatre stars together, but rather to take great songs, and give them to great singers who also happen to be great story-tellers".

FAST-FORWARD. This year the concert shines a light on the music and lyrics of the seemingly ageless Englishman Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, aka Sting and his former band, The Police, one of music's most influential New Wave groups. Beyond simply doing a concert of popular music, Reza Jacobs explains exactly how he and Mitchell choose the songwriter to feature in concert.

"It's the perfect union of both of our guts. It has to be something that I respond to musically, and that I feel I can do something with - that there's a reason to re-tell these things. There has to be a theatricality in the writing in order for us to make it work. That's part of Mitchell's mandate - it's a musical theatre company so we want to pick songs that tell stories."

Sting's music has never neatly fit into the Pop/Rock genre, as it features elements of jazz, reggae, world-beat and even classical music. Jacobs feels that for a concert of this type, this diversity is an asset. "I feel great about Sting's music. There's a lot going on in there, and the stories are clear enough that you can do something with the songs. We're always trying to hit that mix of entertainment and story telling, and Sting's songs lend themselves to that really well."

Marcus agrees. "The best material for this are pop songs where there's a character and a plot and a story - and Sting is a great example of that. Many of his songs read as if they were a monologue. And he offers a large catalogue of material to apply this concept to."

For many people, what elevates this night from 'concert' to a 'theatrical event' is the brilliant orchestrations and arrangements that Reza Jacobs creates, and how cleverly they are matched with the incredible vocalists. It may only run one night, but Marcus notes that to make the night as special as it can be, planning starts "10-12 months in advance, when we sit down to choose who the featured singer/songwriter will be."

Jacobs jumps in. "Then, about eight months out, Mitchell and I talk through all the potential songs from their catalogue. We also put together a dream-list of actor/singers, discuss possible matchings of songs with the singers, for example, who would be the right vibe for Sting's music, what kinds of things we might want to do with his songs. Then we give ourselves a long gestation period to let it sit."


Shortly after this meeting, invitations were sent out to their 'dream-list' of actor-singers to gauge their interest and availability. (I can tell you that I received my invitation in May, a full six-months out.)

Then, in early September, after he "spent the summer listing to those songs on my iPod", Marcus met with Jacobs to nail down a set-list of roughly 20 songs. Then, only six weeks before the concert, Marcus "would send a list of two or three songs to our singers as a suggestion. Some people said 'Perfect, let's do it', and others said 'that's not really speaking to me' so we might change it up, by bringing in one of the other songs from the short-list."

How did they match the song with the vocalist? Jacobs breaks into a smile. "It's a huge juggling act. It's finding the songs people want to do, and that are a good fit for those people, but making sure that we leave enough good fits for all the other people, too." Marcus summarizes it this way. "Ultimately, we want to best showcase the skills of everyone we had."

Pre-planning done, it was now time to crank the creativity up a notch. As Musical Director, it falls to Jacobs to devise arrangements and instrumentation that suits the story-telling while staying faithful enough to the original version to keep the audience happy. It's a huge and difficult task, one that he delights in comparing to, of all things, cooking.

"I don't have just one way that I cook. Sometimes it's a question of 'what do I have in the fridge and what can I make?' Other times I'm going to go out and buy specific ingredients to make a specific meal. So, with these concerts, it's a little bit of both of those techniques. I know I want a percussionist, I know I've got a piano. So, what are the other ingredients? A lot depends on the Hall. I've tried going with an amplified sound in Koerner Hall and it doesn't work. That Hall wants acoustic chamber music, so that starts to limit things. Rather than going with a loud electric guitar or an instrumentation that resembles The Police and Sting, I would go with a violin, and instruments that are more chamber music as opposed to a rock band."

Jacobs extends the food metaphor further. "Since the Band will be onstage, this instrumentation also visually creates an expectation of what the show is going to sound like. It's just like eating, right - you start eating with your eyes, even before you take a bite. So when people come into the Hall, it has a classical music vibe. If they see a violin on stage they know right away it's going to sound different - they start eating with their eyes. If they saw a drummer, a bass player and a guitarist, they would think 'Oh, this is going to sound like the originals'."

PLAY. The real fun begins with only four weeks left before the concert when each vocalist comes in for their one - and only one - rehearsal day. With Jacobs chiming in from the piano, Marcus and each vocalist "discuss the character and plot hinted at in the songs they will sing - which doesn't get discussed in a purely pop concert." And after a few hours, the road-map for each of the songs is devised.

Jacobs explains further. "As far as making the arrangements with the singers, it's very collaborative. Artists often know themselves better that I could ever know them. So, I like to rely on intelligent artists like you and Jackie Richardson and the Trish Lindstroms of the world who have good instincts about what's going to work and what's not going to work. It's a true collaboration. We talk, we meet, we jam, then we go away. I throw together an mp3 that has the road map of what we talked about, and send it to the vocalist. Then we'll make some more adjustments. Collaboration is at the heart of the whole thing."

From watching some concerts and taking part in others, one thing I look forward to is discovering how the whole evening fits together. Like the best cabaret shows, which particular songs are chosen and the order in which they are played can provide further emotional resonance and depth to the proceedings. Marcus explains how one of the wonderful additions to this concert in recent years has been the addition of spoken-word, to further highlight the interweaving themes.

"One thing we've found is that integrating the voice of the artist that we're featuring is a really great extra ingredient to the evening. There was an awkward formality to the evening in the beginning, I mean, no artist does a concert of 20 songs without speaking between the songs. So, now we scour through the artist's interviews or memoirs and collect a catalogue of great quotes - maybe they relate to where a particular song comes from, or enlighten a reflection on the scene we've created within one of the songs. Maybe they're funny, maybe they're serious. Either way, it breaks it up for the audience, it adds some insight and depth, and it feels more like a complete package for the audience."

The quotes are delivered by the vocalists, at just the right moment. But don't worry - Mitchell assures us that no one comes out 'playing' Sting and talks to the audience. "No part of this is impersonation. We are all collectively re-interpreting Sting and his words and stories, so why not the quotes too?"

With hits like "Message in a Bottle," "Roxanne," "Desert Rose," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," and "Fields of Gold", and the level of artistic excellence on display, Marcus believes there is something in it for everyone. "It's got a hybrid nature - there's a wide group of people who would be interested in it. Corporate groups bringing clients, Musical Theatre fans, Pop music fans, Nostalgia fans, you name it." Marcus modestly neglects to mention one final reason to get down to Koerner Hall on Monday night - to lend your support to this truly fantastic Canadian Musical Theatre company. Don't miss it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

BWW Interviews: Gabi Epstein, Funny Girl

My 3rd article for BWW.com is up. The link is below.

I put together this interview piece from some email exchanges between myself and Gabi Epstein, the star of the show, and Avery Saltzman, the director of the show. I think it turned out quite well.

Most fascinating to me was Gabi discussion the notion of a 'perfect' role for her, and the discussion of the difficulties in playing a real-life person so closely associated to another famous actor. In this case, Gabi is playing Fanny Brice, but all people will think about is Barbara Streisand.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BWW Interview: The Cast of PIG

Hi Folks,

My second piece for BroadwayWorld.com was live September 18th, 2013. It's a feature interview of the three cast members of the world premiere production of the British play, PIG.

As an actor, I have always found the process of rehearsing a world premeiere to be incredibly difficult, yet incredibly rewarding. Bruce Dow, Paul Dunn, and Blair Williams star in the show and were not only extremely gracious, they were quite forth-coming in the interview. I tried to pry up the floorboards a bit, and see what they all had going on underneath. Turns out there's a lot of stuff under there.

Check it out!


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, Gotta Pitch?

Hi Everyone,

I am now writing some features for BroadwayWorld.com... and the first one is up!

It's called "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, Gotta Pitch?". It's a feature and interview of MLB pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and his love of Broadway Musicals, including Jersey Boys.

Please check it out by clicking the link below, or copying and pasting it into a new window.


 That's Quinn Van Antwerp on the left - he was a Bob in Jersey Boys in Toronto, Broadway and the US Tour.



Wednesday, June 26, 2013

JB Top 5's: Things I Won't Miss

Incredibly, after a nearly four-year run, Jersey Boys Australia will take its final bow in just one week. One of the world's most successful musicals in decades has certainly been a hit Down Under, as it has around the world. And for me, this will mark the third time I will be saying "Bye Bye, Baby" to the show. Will it be for good this time? Who knows.
      Facing another closing night has inspired me to look back and examine my time with this show. And because I think you might find it interesting, I've decided to share some of these thoughts with you. Specifically, my goal is to put into words exactly what it's like to be an actor playing this iconic person in this famous band in this amazing show, in another Country, six nights a week. 
      This is Part 5 of an on-going series of Top 5’s that illuminate what it’s like to play ‘Frankie Valli’ in the long-running show, Jersey Boys.You can find Parts 1 and 2 to the right of this page, by clicking on 2013, then clicking on the heading ‘May’. Parts 3 and 4 are on the right under the heading 'June'.


Doing this show has been the most amazing experience of my career. I've traveled across the great country of Australia. I have had the chance to meet so many incredible people from all walks of life. I’ve been privileged to have several in-person conversations with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio themselves. I’ve met famous professional athletes, sports executives and media personalities. I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of fans after the show who have shown me their appreciation for giving them such a great night out. And I’ve met, worked with, and been inspired by hundreds of the most talented people you’ll find anywhere who populated the show's cast, band and crew during the past five years. It has truly been a gift to have been chosen to do this show.

But all that said, there are some things about this job that I won’t be sad to say Good-bye to. Some you'll find quite silly, and others quite profound. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, here are the Top 5 Things I Won’t Miss about playing 'Frankie Valli' in Jersey Boys.

Today’s Subject: The Top 5 Things I Won’t Miss

      1. Shaving and Make-up.

The Four Seasons may have gone through periods of having long hair and beards, but you’d never know it from watching Jersey Boys. Onstage, the look we’re going for is definitely clean cut, even if the characters themselves are anything but. A big part of that look is to be clean shaven.

Shaving closely everyday isn’t terribly enjoyable. As luck would have it, I am blessed with a very thick beard and sensitive skin. Not a great combo.  Even after a close shave, the powers that be think they can still see a 5 O’clock shadow, which in their eyes, makes me look a bit too old for the Frankie of Act 1. So, to add insult to injury, I need to apply make-up to my freshly shorn skin. There’s nothing better than dragging a razor across your face, then clogging your pores with foundation, then sweating under hot lights for a few hours, then washing it off, and doing it all over again the next day. But, there's only one week left, right?!?

I actually can’t wait to go back to this look (below) for a while. This photo was taken during a publicity event for a show I was doing in Toronto in early 2012.

2. The Baby-wipe.

In Act 1, the scene where Frankie and Mary get together - which we call the ‘Pizza Scene’ – ends with a fairly lengthy smooch. The kiss, nice as it may be, usually leaves my mouth covered with some of Mary’s bright red lipstick. Not a big problem, right?

Well, before the next scene begins, I have exactly ten seconds to exit with Mary into the wings, change jackets, and re-enter the stage pushing on the backseat of the car for the next scene. Oh, and grab a sip of water. And remove the red lipstick. In the dark.

My dresser and I have it down to a science. By the time I exit, she is standing in the wing behind a curtain with a flashlight around her neck, holding out my jacket. I run to her spot, whip off the jacket I’m currently wearing, and toss it on the flat to her right. I then spin around, put my arms down and back, and she slides the new jacket on. I spin back to face her, pick up my water bottle and take a half-second sip, during which time she has picked up the flashlight and ... a Baby-wipe. She then proceeds to wipe off the lipstick, as well as a good percentage of the foundation I am wearing to cover up my beard. (See #1 in things I won’t miss). I’m not sure which is worse – having the lipstick on my face for the next 15 minutes, until such time that I can make it to a mirror and remove it myself, or doing it this way.

But there's a bigger part to this. You know how certain smells can trigger a really strong reaction? Well, being a father of two little girls, I can tell you that I have personally used about 2,500 of those Baby-wipes while changing their dirty diapers. When that ‘baby-fresh’ smell is brought so close to my mouth and nose in this moment, it instantly brings to mind a rather strong negative sense memory (I think you know where I’m going with this…) and one that I’d rather not be reminded of mid-show!

       3. That Dreaded Dance-Break.

You know the one. In ‘Beggin’’. Now don’t get me wrong – I love ‘Beggin’’. It totally rocks. It’s the perfect vibe for how Frankie is feeling at the point in the play. Fed up with Tommy’s lack of friendship and leadership in the group, Frankie takes charge, cashes in his claim check and asks Gyp for help in dealing with Tommy’s debt. I love singing that song, especially at that time of the show. I just, you know, could do without the dance-break.

I don’t know which part I dislike most … Is it the fact that it comes out of nowhere, like I'm being shot out of a cannon from standing still? Or is the fact that it starts with stepping to the right across my body with my left foot? (That just ain't right- try it, you'll see). Is it the spin around, the drop to the floor, the banging of my back knee on the stage, the jamming of my wrists into the floor, the violent pushing up and over to the other side, the other spin around, the long slide upstage to behind the mic? Might be. Um, have I mentioned yet the stretching of all the muscles in the hips and groin to unnatural positions? Maybe it’s just the fact that, you know, I have no real dance training, so doing this type of thing will never feel comfortable, regardless of how it looks? (Moral of the story – kids, you wanna do this for a living? Get thee to a dance class!)

While I’m ripping on ‘Beggin’’, I also won’t miss having to climb up a flight of stairs while singing the first chorus full out. And likewise, walking along that catwalk at a good pace and then jogging down the spiral staircase on the other side while singing the rest of the song – not exactly what you’d prefer to be doing whilst singing a rock song.

Ok – I’ll stop whingeing now. Whingeing is an Aussie word I’ve picked up here. It’s kinda like whining, but for grownups, especially if they’re complaining about minor aspects of their job to people who think that particular job is kinda awesome. So, yeah. I’ll stop whinging now. About ‘Beggin’’ at least – there’s still two more entries on the Top 5 to go…

      4. The Discipline.

In Part 3 of this series, My Top 5 Daily Must-Dos, I ran down the list of things I need to do to play 'Frankie' on a consistent basis. I talked about the need for sleeping, drinking and eating right, the 90-minutes of warm-ups I need to do every day, and the warm-downs after the show, too. It’s not an easy schedule to maintain, especially when it’s compared to the routine that I’ve had on other shows, or even when compared to the routine of other actors in this show. It takes an incredible discipline to stick to this routine, each and every day. You can’t go out and blow off some steam whenever you feel like it. You can’t take a day off from doing the warm-up. You can’t pig out on yummy late-night fatty foods. You have to be disciplined.

But it goes way beyond that. Over the long run, this discipline tends to become your way of life. John Lloyd Young, the Original Broadway ‘Frankie’ who won the Tony award for his performance was famously quoted saying the secret to playing this part is “to live like a Monk”. If anyone would know, it would be John. He is the only guy on the planet who consistently played Frankie 8-shows a week. It was only after his experiences doing it for over a year that the producers decided to switch to employing a 6-show Frankie and a 2-show Frankie, to help get through the grind of a long run. So, for all the thrills of playing this part, it can take a huge toll on your life.

When I first started doing Jersey Boys in 2008, I had an 8-month old baby and a 2-year-old toddler at home. I want you to go back and read that sentence again. Think about the night-time routine of a house-hold like that. Think about the daily duties involved in a household like that. Use your imagination, go for the worst-case scenario. Then double it. It was nearly impossible for me to stick to my Daily Must-Dos. And as a result, doing the show became an epic struggle.

After a few months, I came to fully understand Nick’s rant in the Sitdown scene about living with Tommy on the road; ‘Living like a Monk’ is not a walk in the park, it’s a sentence. At my lowest point, I was so exhausted that I had lost about 10% of my body weight, which, I assure you, I could not afford to lose. Although it gradually got easier as our kids got older and my wife and I adapted – we actually had to move house – the daily routine of discipline nearly killed me. And continuing to do it over the years, it just plain wears you out. Taking a break from this part can be a real blessing.

      5. The Loneliness.

This is a tricky one to talk about. The loneliness goes hand in hand with the discipline I mentioned above. It starts with the warm-ups – they’re unique to the Frankie, so you do them by yourself. You usually get to the theatre early and do them in your dressing room, and people will tend to leave you alone because, well, they know you need to do them. Same thing after the show – you shut the door and do your warm-down. By the time you’re finished, more often than not, everyone has left the theatre.

In most shows I’ve done, the cast and crew usually like to go out after a show to blow off some steam, at least a couple times a week. It’s a great way to develop friendships and bond as a group, which often has the added effect of making the show work even better onstage. But as a Frankie, you have to pick your spots to go out very carefully.

You can’t go to the bar as often as you’d like, because drinking alcohol and speaking loudly over the din of music and conversation can really strain your voice, especially after having completed a show. If you do go, you have to make sure that you’ve done your warm-down first, which means you go to the bar alone. Everyone has already ordered their drinks and picked their seats and started their conversations. Frankie’s are always late-joiners.

During the daytime before a show, guys playing Frankie also have to careful to conserve their energy and voice somewhat. This often leads to more solitary activities. Even on your Monday day-off, you have to be careful about going to a party, or a sporting event or concert. Loud talking, cheering or whooping it up can throw off the delicate balance of your voice for the start of the new week. And if you do choose to go, this constant ‘guarding’ yourself takes away some of the fun of being out in the first place, and since you’re usually the only one doing the 'guarding', it can lead to more lonely feelings.

And then there’s the show itself. Playing Frankie can also be a solitary experience onstage, especially in Act 2. So much of the act revolves around people leaving Frankie’s life, and with Frankie having to keep going forward as the solo act. You’re out there dealing with the struggle and loss mostly by yourself, which for those 30-minutes or so, can be quite lonely. Many of the other actors are backstage or in their dressing rooms, happily hanging out together.

And then there’s the travel. Let’s face it, most actors playing Frankie are not doing it in their hometown. I was so lucky doing Jersey Boys in Toronto for 21 months, living at home and doing the show. But in my two stints here in Australia, I’ve been living mostly on my own. I’m halfway around the world. I'm away from my wife. I’m away from my gorgeous children. I’m away from my network of friends. Sure, there’s Facebook and Skype, but with the different time zones and schedules, it’s never easy to hook up with them. And, no matter how good it is to talk or see the people you love on a computer screen, it’s just not the same as being there. 

Don't get me wrong - the people I work with are great. They've gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome here. We've shared many memorable experiences together, both within the theatre and outside of it. But they have their own circle of relationships, their own family and/or partners nearby. And by the time I joined their cast, they all had been working together for long time, so their behavioural patterns and friendship groups were already established. 

I think it's human nature not to invest as deeply in a new relationship with someone that you know will ultimately end in a few months. This isn't a knock on anyone - I am more guilty of this as any of my colleagues are. But the truth is, there's a 99% chance I'll never see any of my Aussie colleagues again. So, that's been really hard to deal with too, because you know, I like these guys. We get along great. But in a week's time, I'll be 10,000km away. That makes me feel lonely already.

Like I said at the top, I am so fortunate. Sure, it hasn't been easy, but this role has been a blessing. A gift. The best experience of my career. But when it comes to an end next week, I know I'll be just fine. I have so many things to look forward to when I get back. :-)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

JB Top 5's: Liquid Relief

Incredibly, after a nearly four-year run, Jersey Boys Australia will take its final bow in about two weeks. One of the world's most successful musicals in decades has certainly been a hit Down Under, as it has around the world. And for me, this will mark the third time I will be saying "Bye Bye, Baby" to the show. Will it be for good this time? Who knows.

      Facing another closing night has inspired me to look back and examine my time with this show. And because I think you might find it interesting, I've decided to share some of these thoughts with you. Specifically, my goal is to put into words exactly what it's like to be an actor playing this iconic person in this famous band in this amazing show, in another Country, six nights a week. 

      This is Part 4 of an on-going series of Top 5’s that illuminate what it’s like to play ‘Frankie Valli’ in the long-running show, Jersey Boys. Part 1 is the Top5 moments that make my heart soar, Part 2 is the Top 5 moments that make my heart ache, and Part 3 is my Top 5 daily must-dos.

      You can find Parts 1 and 2 to the right of this page, by clicking on 2013, then clicking on ‘May’. Part 3 is on the right, under ‘June’.


Today's Subject: The Top 5 Moments of Liquid Relief

For the next couple JB Top 5’s I want to do something a bit cheeky, to use a common Aussie expression. I'm going to lift the curtain for you a bit, and reveal a few of the fun details about how we make the show work.

I mentioned in Part 3 of the JB Top 5’s that in order to keep my vocal chords in the optimal condition for the onslaught of singing and speaking, I drink a bladder-busting 2-3L of water while at the theatre. Well, I lied – sort of. It’s not all water that I drink. And some of it happens right before your eyes, onstage.

Why do I drink so much? First, there's the two and half hours of highly energetic singing, acting and dancing. But on top of that, theatres themselves are super dry places. In every theatre I’ve ever worked in, the backstage area is a massive space which in itself is hard to humidify. Then, they're blasted with Air Conditioning and filled with tonnes of electrical, sound and lighting equipment, zapping the air of what's left of its humidity. Less humidity equals dryer throats. Not good.

Jersey Boys is the fastest-paced show I’ve ever done, by a whole lot. It’s so fast, none of us have time to run to the water jug and pour ourselves a paper cup-full. Most of the cast are too busy running around, whipping off costumes and changing wigs while simultaneously singing background harmonies to boot. (You think I'm kidding? Think again.) This is why we all have a refillable water bottle positioned at our costume rack, so we can grab a quick drink while changing costumes. We also have a team of dressers backstage to help us do our faster costume changes, and they will often ‘travel’ the water bottle to you if there isn’t even enough time to make it to your costume rack, which you have to admit is pretty awesome, right?

“But wait a second,” you might say, “I saw the show and there’s lots of drinks onstage. Isn’t that enough?” Well, smarty-pants, most of the drinks you see onstage in Jersey Boys are not actually real. It's the magic of the theatre, sweetheart. That 'cocktail' you see is actually coloured water in a plastic glass which has been sealed with a plastic lid. I'm particularly fond of the "on the rocks" drinks we use, with the fake plastic ice cubes are sealed in, too. In other scenes, the ‘liquids’ themselves are not even liquid. For example, Crewe's glass of "milk" is a delicious combination of paint and plaster, and the schooners of 'draft beer' are actually molded plastic - unmovable, unspillable, and unbreakable (not to mention undrinkable).

The reality is that using actual liquids onstage can be dangerous in many ways, especially in a fast-moving musical. A drink could easily fall to the floor, which besides signaling an obvious mistake to the audience, it would make the stage dangerously slippery. Or the liquid could simply spill onto the actors, which could stain and possibly ruin someone's costume or shoes. And if a glass fell to the floor and broke into many sharp pieces, that would surely spell disaster. Nobody wants to see that.

But, in spite of these and so many other reasons, we occasionally take the risk and use real liquids in Jersey Boys. Why? Sometimes, when scenes are 'smash-cut' right into other scenes again and again, we’ll get stranded onstage for long periods of time, unable to quench our thirst before singing a big number. Luckily for us, the original creative team figured out a way to get us some liquids onstage just when we need it most. Here are Top 5 places during the show that I get me some liquid relief.

  1. On Crewe’s Couch.
My first onstage drink occurs in Act 1 during Bob’s season, “Spring”. We're enjoying a celebratory ‘shot’ with Bob Crewe, rejoicing in the fact that we’ve got the money together for our first recording session. The ‘shot’, which I assume is meant to be whiskey (Canadian Club, perhaps?) is a delicious room-temperature Iced Tea, and it perfectly whet’s the whistle for the next section leading up to the Big Three, ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like A Man’. Hmm, maybe drinking the Iced Tea is the secret for hitting all those high notes...

The photo below is of the original Chicago cast - that's Dominic Scaglioni as Frankie and fellow Canadian Jeremy Kushnier as Tommy. A good friend of mine, Jeremy was also the original Tommy in Toronto. In the moment captured below, you can tell he's very upset that he didn't get any Iced Tea, too.

                                                                                                            (Photo by Craig Laurie )

         2. In Gyp’s Basement.
In the dramatic ‘Sitdown’ scene early in Act 2, the four of us head into Gyp’s basement with loan-shark Norm Waxman to broker a deal to settle Tommy’s debt. In a stroke of luck, Gyp has thoughtfully provided us with some nice Italian Red Wine on the table. Unluckily for us, it’s not actually wine, but a very sweet grape juice. Welch's, I think. Whatever it is, it’s a welcome way for me to keep my voice hydrated in the middle of what’s probably a 30-minute stretch of singing and acting without exiting the stage. Hmm, maybe drinking Welches makes me belt better ...

In this tense photo below of the 2nd US National Tour, Nick is asking Gyp for some more Welch's, but no one moves a muscle.

                                                                                                               (Photo by Joan Marcus)

         3. In The Diner.
About 15 minutes later, there’s an awesome scene in a Diner where Bob tells Frankie that he’s also leaving the group, and tries to convince Frankie that things will work better this way. I love that scene for so many reasons. First, it really shows the depth of their relationship and highlights not only Bob’s intelligence but also his understanding of Frankie. Secondly, it shows Frankie having a rare moment of vulnerability, briefly opening up a softer side by confiding in Bob his fears and distressed feelings. And the scene manages all this in a believable way, with a nice dose of humour to boot. One other touch I love (although I only know it exists because I’ve seen it as an audience member – it literally happens silently behind my back) is when the waitress and bus boy overhear us talking and realize that they are actually in the presence of ‘celebrities’. Major kudos go to writers Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and director Des McAnuff for this scene. 

Oh – and there’s one last great thing I love about this scene - I get to drink some more of that delicious room-temperature Iced Tea, just enough to keep the chords moist for the next ten minutes or so. Much to Bob's surprise, it makes me so happy that I get up and do a Happy Dance, which is captured in this rare archival photo below.

         4. On The Spiral Staircase.
Later on in Act 2 during the "Winter-of-my-discontent" section, in a 90-second burst of energy I sing ‘Mary-Ann’, blast out a monologue setting up a scene between Bob and the record company executives, and finally head up the spiral staircase to catch my breath, out of the light. Luckily for me, there is a little ledge hidden near the top of the staircase with a tiny Frankie-sized water bottle just waiting to be used. 

In those few seconds before the light comes back up, I enjoy a nice drink of water and empty my pockets - I place onto the ledge the (fake) microphone that I’ve been singing into and the pack of (fake) smokes in my jacket pocket. The drink is just what the doctor ordered before launching into ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ and ‘Workin’ My Way Back To You’, two of the most challenging songs in the show.

Despite what you may think, this is not a photo of me. It is, however, fellow Canadian Kara Tremel of the Vegas company, playing Mary. Although I couldn't find a photo of a Frankie up there, I thought you might enjoy seeing Kara sitting on the spiral staircase, holding a plastic glass filled with coloured water and plastic ice cubes, complete with a sealed plastic lid. Awesome.

                                                                                                             (Photo by Joan Marcus)

         5. On The Hospital Bench.
After singing those two huge songs and delivering another monologue, we segue into the section preceding ‘Fallen Angel’. I haven't been offstage for about 30 minutes, and at this point of the show – 2 hours in and 21 songs down - my voice is very tired. I finish the monologue, sit on the bench, and a nurse comes out and gives me a nice white box. Although that was very kind of her, I kinda appreciate the Priest a bit more because when he comes out, he hands me a Styrofoam cup holding a few sips of water. Although, I gotta be honest with you, sometimes I wish it was scotch. (Ok, most times I wish it was scotch, but what are you gonna do.) 

Funny thing about this moment - sometimes when I bring the cup to my mouth, it smells ever so faintly of hand sanitizer. This makes me smile on the inside, because it tells me that the actor playing the Priest, Enrico Mammarella, probably just sanitized his hands backstage, and is trying not to transfer any germs on to me. Personally, I’d rather not get a whiff hand sanitizer up my nose before singing, but at this moment, it’s still worth it for that lovely sip of germ-free water.

This is Rebecca Jayne Davies as Francine and Ryan Molloy as Frankie of the London company. Here, she's saying to Ryan, "It's OK, the show's almost over. You'll get offstage soon. Then you can drink whatever you want." (Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)