Their clean cut image belied a bad boy back story. Katy Wheeler speaks to the leading men of Jersey Boys as the show prepares for its Wearside debut.
What do you get when you cross the bada-bing charm of The Sopranos with one of the best musical scores out there? The Jersey Boys, that’s what.
Forget jazz hands and juke box musicals, this is a show which takes the gritty true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ rise to fame from the wrong side of the tracks and punctuates the narrative with hit after hit.
I thought I was too young to know any of the group’s songs. Boy, was I wrong.
Songs that still fill dancefloors today – Beggin’, Oh What a Night, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Working My Way Back – they’re all there.
Eye-watering levels of debt, prison, links with the mob, the death of a daughter, the back story to the Four Seasons is anything but dull.
Yet, still, the band managed to emerge as clean cut 1960s pop stars who were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and sold 175 million records worldwide – all before they turned 30. Eight trucks will bring the Tony, Olivier and Grammy award-winning show to Sunderland next month on its first UK tour.
I went backstage on the tour’s run in Edinburgh to meet the actors who are stepping into the shiny brogues of Frankie and Co.
Sam Ferriday, who plays songwriter Bob Gaudio, said: “You come off stage each night and there’s this huge adrenaline rush. People ask if it’s like being in a boy band and it is.
“People knew The Four Seasons, they know the songs, but they don’t know the guys themselves.
“It’s a rags-to-riches story. We’re going to these industrial cities, like Sunderland, on the tour and I think it’s a story people can relate to – not that they have been in the mob themselves.
“You can just sit back and enjoy the songs if you want, but the story is a true story, it’s not just a jukebox musical with a fake story.”
Sam’s had the pleasure of meeting the real Bob, who’s been involved in the writing process of the show. “I’ve met him and Frankie and they are both lovely, humble guys,” he said. “It’s a very special thing to be telling their story and they get to have a say in the show, especially in the US. To be playing these guys give you a real sense of pride.
“Bob is not as gangster as the others, but in preparation for the role I watched shows like The Sopranos, to get the accent right. I also looked at his musical influences, listened to tracks on Spotify.
“It was amazing to meet the man himself, but I didn’t want the role to be an imitation. It’s 50 per cent the character and 50 per cent what we, as actors, bring to the role.”
Unlike most musicals, there are only three female roles. It is the men who dominate the spotlight.
“It appeals to guys who don’t usually like musicals,” explained Sam. “It’s a different dynamic. You have these four guys on stage, in tailored suits, looking slick and sharp. I can guarantee if I went to the pub and convinced guys to see the show, they’d like it.”
For North East actor Matt Corner, who is the alternate actor for main man Frankie Valli, the Sunderland date will prove extra special.
The Darlington actor manages to pull off Valli’s distinctively powerful falsetto voice with aplomb, piercing the theatre with vocal precision on hits such as Sherry and Big Girls Don’t Cry.
“I’ve been to the Empire now and again as kid. It’s a great venue and it’s a real honour for me to be coming back to the North East playing this part.”
Speaking of how he honed his voice to perfect the unmistakable Valli vocal, he said: “It’s a voice I didn’t even know was in my armoury. I’ve always sung high, but my voice has always been rocky.
“This was a new challenge for me, I wanted to get into the psyche of Frankie, not just be a tribute act.”
Each night, Matt dons a sharp suit to belt out the band’s greatest hits, which span the decades. The songs, which you’d be hard pressed not to recognise, come thick and fast: Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Who Loves You? and more.
“This has to be one of the best books for a musical I’ve ever heard. I think of it like a play with brilliant music.” said Matt. “The music complements this blue collar story of four working class guys who made it. Hopefully people will connect with these guys who, if they didn’t have music, would have been things like a barber, in Frankie’s case.
“They didn’t have shows like the X Factor, they did it themselves. Their music stands the test of time, they’ve been covered by many other artists over the decades.”
Lewis Griffiths lends his husky tones to the role of bass singer Nick Massi. Like his fellow actors, his passion for the show is palpable.
“I love it, it’s a dream job for me,” he said. “I was in the audience for the show in the West End six years ago and I said to myself ‘I have to be in this show’.
“I actually auditioned for the role of Bob four times then, half way through, they noticed my deep register and asked me about playing Nick instead. I’m so honoured to be the first Nick on the UK tour.
“It’s definitely a man’s show. I was in the first London production of Priscilla, which obviously has a big male cast. That was raking in the pink pound, but this musical is completely different. It’s a musical for guys who’ve never seen musicals before.
“This isn’t a clean cut story, it’s no Disney. But it’s a story that’s meant to be told, which is our job. And we want to do it justice.”
The lads have been bonding on tour, hanging out, going to whisky tasting sessions, so they can build a camaraderie like their characters.
“The chemistry is key,” explains Lewis. “These aren’t four individual artists brought together for X Factor, they grew up together, they have a bond like iron. They grew up on the streets and if you didn’t succeed, you fell apart.
“You don’t have access to them as people as you would with artists now. There’s a few 1960s black and white videos of them singing Walk Like a Man, but it doesn’t tell you anything about them as people.
“So this is a way of telling the story of their music and them through their eyes. Nick isn’t alive anymore, but his family have seen the show and they’ve said ‘that’s our Nick.’”
He added: “This show peels back the veneer of the music. People expect these four guys in red suits, but what happens in the story isn’t what they expect. It gives them the street lamp and the doo-wop, but it also gives them these wise guys saying ‘this is who we are.’”
*Jersey Boys is at Sunderland Empire from November 25 to December 6. Tickets are priced from £18.50 in person at the box office in High Street West or from £22.40 by calling 0844 871 3022 or booking online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.