Smash hit musical Jersey Boys is in its fifth year at the Prince Edward Theatre and is still a huge audience and critical favourite. It follows a group of working class boys from the wrong side of the tracks who go on to sell over 175 million records worldwide - the story of rock and pop band Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. We spoke to Jon Boydon who currently plays Tommy DeVito in the show.
The show has been wowing the crowds pretty solidly since it opened at the Prince Edward in February 2008. What's it's secret?
It's the perfect musical! Not only do you have the best selection of music, but an incredible true story about the boys and their rise to fame and fortune. It's a rollercoaster of a show that really takes people on a journey, back to New Jersey in the 1960s and up to the present day. I think the majority of people buy a ticket as a fan of Frankie and the music; but it's the story and the characters that keep them coming back again and again.
There are those who bemoan the so-called 'jukebox musical' shows that feature the back-catalogue of a singer or group that seem to be all the rage in the West End, saying they are unimaginative. The plus-side of course is that the crowd knows that they are going to hear a string of hits they already know and love. What's your take on the phenomenon?
I think theatre is an ever changing art form; and there is room for everyone. The classic musicals will always have a special place in people's lives, and the rock/pop musicals are equally as important to the landscape of the West End. There are people coming to the theatre to see a jukebox musical that would never have dreamed of watching a West End show - it's an introduction to professional theatre for them, and they might then be spurred on to then see something different. Let's not forget that theatres are businesses, they need to adapt to the demands of the market in order to survive; and the performers are part of that process; if the audience wants rock and pop, then we all have to look at ways of bringing it to them. The shows that are done right, the long standing ones in town, are fantastic, and are more than just a thoughtless, money-making, rush jobs... There are places for high art, and there are places for easy entertainment - perhaps it's the critics that need to use their imaginations!
Speaking of hits, Jersey Boys really does take some beating with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons' impressive catalogue - Big Girls Don't Cry, Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Beggin, Working My Way Back To You…the list goes on. Do you have a show favourite?
All great songs! My favourite within the context of the show is "Sherry". Up until this first hit for the band, the audience have been observers, with all the action playing to an onstage crowd in a bar, a club or a studio. "Sherry" is the first point in the show (some 30 minutes in) where we turn out to our theatre and play to the crowd. From there the show just builds and builds to the dizzying heights of success at the interval.
Were you a fan of the group before appearing in the show?
I was brought up on brilliant music, so I would say I knew a third of the songs as Four Seasons hits, a third as covers by other people, and the final third were completely new to me. The thing about this band is that they were battling it out with the Beatles at the time, and of course, over here we knew all about our beloved John, Paul, George and Ringo; and whilst people loved the songs and the sound of the Four Seasons, they probably knew less about Frankie, Bob, Tommy and Nick. But the show sets all that straight!
To capture the magic of the original group and to harmonise and blend as actors portraying the roles we assume that chemistry is key with a show like this. Did workshops form part of your initial casting or is that magic something you can develop in the rehearsal process with complete strangers?
Casting is key. But there are a lot of considerations in putting the band together - looks, musicianship, height, vocal range, sound blend... It must be a nightmare for the creative team! I guess it's part design and part luck. When I joined the company, Ryan Molloy and Stephen Ashfield had already been with the show for two years; so Eugene McCoy and I were joining an established family. It was through working together and becoming friends that the bonds were made; and the 'old' guys were able to feed off our 'new' guy energy and enthusiasm, and the next phase in the life of the show began. Since then, Stephen has left and we had Matthew Wycliffe join us, and the process started over again. But we are all good friends and have a lot of fun both on and off the stage which I think helps to bring the group to life.
You appeared in a Scandinavian tour of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2005. Did you catch any of the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber TV search?
Not much. I was pleased to see the musical theatre boys taking control of the 'reality' process and making sure that if there are jobs to be had in the West End, then the people that are trained to do it should be at the front of the queue. But let's be honest, it's just one big advert for the show!
You graduated from Loughborough University with a BA in Drama and the University Drama Prize. As a trained performer, what are your thoughts on these show-winners and other celebrity stunt-casting to ensure bums on seats? Are they taking away roles from those who have grafted and learnt their craft or is anything that keeps a show on stage good for everyone in the long run?
Actually, my degree course was academic - so I trained along the way by working, my apprenticeship if you like. If the people that win these competitions can do the work, consistently, then fantastic; we have discovered a new star. I think it's a shame that the general public are starting to get to place where they look down the show listings for 'who's in it' rather than 'how good it is'... And producers feel the strain too, if the show next door has somebody well known, and theirs hasn't - even if it is the greatest production ever staged - then they will worry. But a love of theatre has been rekindled by these TV shows, and the West End as a whole will always reap the benefits, which is good for everyone in the long run. And thankfully, there are still producers out there who know when real ability and craftsmanship is required over celebrity status, and they put their faith in the production.
You've performed in The Rocky Horror Show, We Will Rock You and now Jersey Boys - all rousing shows with cult followings who love the show so much that they will see it more than once. Are you drawn to these upbeat shows and do you ever recognise returning audience members?
I guess my lack of training (and natural disposition for rock/pop singing) has meant that they have all been obvious choices for me. I admire the vocal ability of those who perform in the more 'legit' shows; but it's never really been the way that I sing. Thankfully the jukebox generation of shows has given me a place to hone my skill and show my talents. I think all shows in the West End have their devout supporters, and yes we do see the same faces popping up on the front row. What is nice is when you recognise someone from years ago who is still supporting your career regardless of the show you're in.
You've been part of the Jersey Boys family since early 2010 - any plans to move on and if there's a West End role you'd love to get your teeth into, what is it?
This is without doubt the best job for me right now! Two and a half years in and I still love being a part of this show. It may be the last musical I do for a while - I'd like to concentrate on some film and TV stuff - so I'd better make sure I get my fill whilst I can!
How would you sum up Jersey Boys in three words to someone who's never seen the show?
Story, Passion, Soul
Jon has recently released his debut album "Three Four", which is available to buy at Amazon and iTunes.
Book tickets for Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward Theatre here