You wanted to hug one and smack the other! Now, Joseph Leo Bwarie and Matt Bailey – who are wowing DC audiences and critics alike for their performances of The Four Seasons falsetto-voiced Frankie Valli and bad-boy Tommy DeVito in the national tour of Jersey Boys – talk to Joel Markowitz about their roles, their training and careers, their auditions for Jersey Boys, and performing at The National Theatre.
Joel: Tell us about yourselves.
Joseph: I am not from Jersey. I am a native Californian. In fact, the four actors playing the Seasons in the touring company are all west-coasters. Matt, Steve, and I all hail from California and Josh is a Colorado native. And as far as vocal training and theatre experience, I have had my fair share, and have enjoyed every step of the way.
Matt: Born and raised in Palo Alto, California, I didn’t really get into “formal” stage performance until I got to college (at the University of Arizona). I always loved to sing, and have always had a passion for music, but it wasn’t until I was about 19 or 20 that those things took on a life of their own. I started to take voice training from the opera department, and began performing in a comedy and improv group, which I think is responsible for immediately ridding me of stage fright. Something about having to be on your toes at all times during short sketches and improv games really whips you right up into focus. From there, I entered the Acting and Musical Theatre program (I wanted to do both), and the rest you could say is history. I’ve been working out of New York for almost 6 years now, and I’ve had the pleasure of performing all over in the country in plays and musicals. You wouldn’t know unless I told you that not only are my ears different (though I’m no Stephen Colbert) but my feet are a size and a half different as well. My mom would just say I was “one of a kind”….ha.
Joel: What is Jersey Boys about from the point of view of your characters?
Joseph: Frankie’s point of view is just that – his recollection of the accounts that define his life has a performer and a person. Each original member (Tommy, Nick, Bob, and Frankie) takes a turn at telling their side of the story – their version. So, it is all fact, but the facts are chosen by who is speaking.
Matt: Jersey Boys is Tommy’s way of not only telling the mostly unknown tale of the Four Seasons and their history, but also setting the record straight from any tall tales people might have heard about him or any of the guys. Tommy is concerned with the band getting credit for what they deserved. They worked so hard for so many years, and got lost a little bit in the shuffle of popular music because of the Beatles, and a lot of what was going on in the 60’s. They weren’t as glamorous or decorated as many of the bands of that time (in fact have still only won few awards to this day), but finally were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a no-brainer if you look at their discography and hit list. Tommy is concerned with getting that respect in the end; that they were ultimately one of the greatest bands of their day, even if they weren’t able to flaunt it at the time.
Joel: How much of Matt and Joseph are in the way you play Tommy and Frankie?
Joseph: Joe is in every role I have ever played – some aspect of me. I think it is inevitable. Are Frankie and Joe alike? When it comes to the die-hard passion for music, and singing the song in the most honest, emotional way – yes. So, the struggle that Frankie the performer goes through is something that Joseph Leo the performer goes through.
Matt: It’s impossible to play a role outside yourself, I can only bring to the role what is inside me. However, that’s not to say that Tommy DeVito and I have ANYTHING in common other than playing the guitar 🙂 Every Tommy in every company of Jersey Boys will be different, because the traits I instill into him are mine – MY sense of humor, the way the music feels in MY body, the way that MY Tommy swaggers when he walks, etc. Every actor will bring out those things in Tommy differently.
We are all blessed to have such wonderful text to work with (thanks to Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman), and a lot of the character of who Tommy is in the show is right there on the page, before I even open my mouth. We all have a distinct voice in the show. Tommy is a leader, and he’s never afraid to put himself in the middle of everything and make his opinion known. He wants to be in control of his own fate, which often times comes out as him being mean or manipulative.
I can’t say I have as short of a fuse as Tommy does, but I think I can relate to the controlling part of him because – in the business of acting (and ultimately the business side is a larger chunk than we’d like to admit) – we want to be in control of our careers and where they are going. Because entertainment is not an industry where you get things by sitting on your hands, you have to be a go-getter and have the drive and will to keep going to succeed. So in that respect, I know EXACTLY how Tommy must have felt as he struggled to get gigs early on in his career and playing empty bars for no money. Everyone has to start somewhere!
Joel: How did you prepare for your roles?
Joseph: Life is the biggest factor in understanding this role. All my experiences leading up to this role created a great foundation. This show is about honesty and simplicity. It is not about a “performance” (barring the performed musical numbers). In researching these men, I found myself researching the time and place and music scene. It is not all about “how does Frankie walk” and “how does Frankie talk.” It is about knowing life without cell phones and computers. Knowing that being on Ed Sullivan on a black and white TV while America watched from their living rooms was (and still is) a monumental achievement. And knowing that a man at the peak of success is more fragile than when he is just starting out. And with that came volumes of technical research as well.
Matt: I’m still preparing to this day! I am lucky enough to have a lot of resources to pull from – not only the great dramaturgy package that was so well prepared by the original creative team, but there are countless web resources – everything from videos of Tommy fiddling on his guitar in his living room to the Four Seasons performing on television. I also am lucky that I got to see so many different actors play the Four Seasons over the last few years, and got a chance to see so many wonderful varied takes on very character. That has allowed me to expand my vision of the role deeper rather than just copying one person’s interpretation. It’s an honor to play a real person, but it also comes with great responsibly knowing that these guys were real people, with real needs and lives, and they deserve justice in the performing of them.
Joel: What is the most difficult scene to play in the show, and what song is the most vocally demanding for each of you?
Joseph: For me, in the Frankie role, the show is one big scene. It’s one huge arc of this man’s life. I get a break at intermission. And that is a good thing because his life is complicated. When it comes to difficult scene work and demanding vocals, the answer is, “yes.” But the art of theatre is that it never appears that way to the audience.
Matt: I can’t say that there’s always one scene in the show that is difficult. All of act one is a challenge for Tommy, it’s like being fired out of a canon. There’s one little towel-off break in the middle but it goes by quick.
Joel: Do you do anything special to rest your voice?
Joseph: Yes. I don’t talk. Well… I try not to, but the problem is that I am a “talker.” I like to hang with friends, and try new restaurants with people visiting from out of town. So, the challenge for me is to try to speak correctly. So, I dig deep into some of my Emerson College acting training where I worked with the voice goddess herself, Kristin Linklater. So, if you see me after the show at “Old Ebbitt’s” we might have to just write notes back and forth.
Matt: Sleep, water, warming up (and down) and not talking. Those are really the only remedies that work for me.
Joel: Tommy has 12 costume changes, and Frankie has 15 costumes changes. How do you and your dresser(s) accomplish this?
Joseph: What the audience sees every night are 15 actors and a few musicians live on stage. We sing all the songs live. The music is all live every night. The actors play their own instruments. We never lip sync (to dispel that rumor). What they don’t see is the real fascinating part, in my opinion – the backstage and the men and women who make Jersey Boys happen every night. I personally could not get through the show without these guys. For me, I depend on 4 main guys: David (head of props stage right), Glenn (props stage left), Jonny (our awesome sound mixer), and the man of the hour, Tim Kerber (who deals with everything from having a water bottle ready for me and assisting all my costume changes – some of which are only a few seconds long).
Matt: Quickly….no, it’s really not too bad for me, for the most part I have time to change, it’s the girls and the supporting characters that work their butts off backstage, and frame the rest of the show so well.
Joseph: That being said, we are lucky to work with the finest of people in all depts. What the audience doesn’t see are the men who run the automation, the guys who are on spotlights, the hair and wardrobe team that deals with thousands of pieces of costuming, the running crew and the brilliant stage management team, not to mention our conductor Andrew Wilder and his musicians – amazing. That’s how we get through Jersey Boys. And backstage is as choreographed as on stage. It has to be when hanging over our heads 20 feet in the air is the full grand piano (when it’s not on stage).
Joel: How do DC audiences compare with the others on your tour?
Joseph: Every audience is different. Every city is different. It is always interesting to see how the reactions vary from Cleveland to Denver, to Vegas, to Boston, to DC, and all the stops in between. Some cities love the music and leap to their feet mid-show with ovations. Some cities really “get” the comedy and the wit and wisdom of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. And some cities are much more reserved. What I call “the listeners” – the audiences who are leaning forward on the edge of their seats in anticipation for what is to come next. But what is universal is the explosion of energy and cheers at the finale. DC is sort of unique in that some nights they are all about the songs, some nights they are partying through the whole show laughing and cheering and some nights they fall into the “listening” category. All interesting. All wonderful.
Matt: I would say DC is one of our more sophisticated audiences. You can’t slip anything by them. They catch everything, and that’s always great to have as a performer, especially when there’s so much smart humor in the show.
Joel: When did you first get the “theatre bug”, and what was your first memory of being on the stage?
Joseph: I have been doing this my whole life. If you count the living room at my parents’ house in Sherman Oaks, I have been performing since, well, forever. For me, it’s the entertainment industry that bit me. Whether it was my turn at Highway to Heaven or Mama’s Family, or singing on the Academy Awards at age 13, or singing in the studio with The Manhattan Transfer, or playing George M. Cohan in high school, for me, that was when I was in the zone. And it ain’t too shabby to act opposite Anne Hathaway in Princess Diaries 2 – yup, me and Princess Mia Thermopolis!
Matt: I have always loved playing the fool. Several of my childhood injuries were from dancing on top of the various tables around my house as a kid, and I have the scars to prove it! I remember when our elementary school started to put together shows, I got so excited for them – and was equally disappointed if I had to stand in the back and be scenery. As Nick says in the show, “Everybody wants to be up front.” I would make the most of every opportunity, even if it was only a few lines.
Joel: When did you audition for the show, what did you sing at your audition, and how long after did you get the offer to play Tommy and Frankie?
Joseph: My Journey with Jersey Boys began in May of 2007, and here we are in November of 2009. I auditioned in Los Angeles. I had a series of callbacks in LA and NY, and was hired in July of 2007. That is the fast version. What did I sing? You name it, I sang it!
Matt: I auditioned for the show several times before getting it, over the course of about a year I think. I sang an old 50’s style version of “In the Still of the Night.” After my 7th audition or so, I got the call a day later.
Joel: Talk about performing in the National Theatre space.
Joseph: Our show is like nothing else. That is fair to say. Our genius director, Mr. Des McAnuff (who has quite the awards collection so you know he knows his stuff) was just in town and he said it best, “Where else can you see a touring show that rivals the design of the Broadway production?” In fact, he thought he liked certain design elements from our show better than Broadway. So, that being said, we bring it all with us, the floor the walls, the grid we hang the lights from, and the speakers we pump the sound from. And because of that, we are in our element in every theatre we play. Like the Shubert in Boston, the National is smaller than the huge houses in places like Atlanta or Dallas. This gives us a chance to become more intimate in the way we play a scene, or tell our story.
Matt: I think the National Theatre has been my favorite place to play so far. It’s close to – if not the smallest house we’ve played since I joined the tour, and I love having the audience close. You can feel them when it’s in a more intimate space, and they act as one unit, and for Tommy, I think his relationship with the audience is of the utmost importance.
Joel: Joseph, how would you describe Frankie Valli’s voice and yours?
Joseph: Frankie Valli is famous for singing falsetto, much like Jackie Wilson, or Smokey Robinson, the Bee Gees, or the Beach Boys. It is a sound that we love to hear. Michael Jackson did it, and Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke still use that technique. Some guys can sing in a falsetto, and some can’t. I can. I always could. I have been hired to sing “up the octave” many times. What makes Frankie’s voice so special and so unique is that he doesn’t rely on the sweet, pretty sound that most falsetto is based in. He digs in and almost cries out his notes, giving them an edge and a power and an emotional context that has made him a music icon and legend. I use my voice to emulate that signature sound, and have success from what people across the country have said. That is a huge compliment.
Joel: Matt, How would you describe Tommy DeVito’s voice and range?
Matt: Tommy was never a front man, and I’m not sure he ever wanted to be. Not that he didn’t want the spotlight, but he knew he wasn’t the next Sinatra, and was gonna need some help. Tommy’s voice and range were of the supporting quality. It was his drive, ambition, musicianship, and being a fine guitarist that were his strong suits for the band.
Joel: Joseph, you have co-created 6 musicals. Tell us about them.
Joseph: When I am not on stage speaking in a Jersey accent, I am working on developing new material for the young family audience. Produced “Pre-Jersey” at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre, my partners and I developed a series of original musical and non-musical stage productions that are bringing a whole new generation of audience members to the theatre. Our goal is to bring those titles to theatres across the country and to the big screen. So keep your eyes peeled.
Joel: Have you met Tommy and Frankie, and what did they say to you that you will always remember?
Joseph: I have met the remaining “Four Seasons”: Frankie, Tommy, and Bob Gaudio. Very different guys, just like Jersey Boys shows. You want to know Frankie’s big advice? “Never walk alone in Vegas.” Valid, I think. I played in the Vegas Company for “JBOYS” for a few months, and there were a few times where I had to walk alone. Don’t tell Frankie.
Matt: I have not had the pleasure of meeting Tommy yet, but I still hope to sometime in the future.
Joel: Were you a Four Seasons fan when you were growing up?
Joseph: I don’t know that at age 8 if I was a “fan”, but I knew the songs from the Oldies station in Los Angeles. And even at age 8, I knew I liked singing along, so I guess I was a “fan in the making”.
Matt: I can’t say that I was a fan, but when I joined the show I didn’t realize how many Four Seasons songs that I already knew. Here I was thinking that all of these different bands were singing in the style of the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys, and then come to find out that it was just those two that I knew! So songs like “Dawn” and “Ragdoll”, which I had certainly heard on the radio, I came to find out that they belonged to the same guys that did “Sherry”, etc.
Joel: What’s your favorite Four Season’s song?
Joseph: That is a tough question. My favorites to sing in the show are “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Workin’ My Way Back To You.” But, I really love the originals of “Marianne” and “Beggin’” And I always enjoy the covers of their hits like Lauryn Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and Madcon’s “Beggin’”, which was on CSI and So You Think You Can Dance? last week.
Matt: I really like “Dawn” and “Ragdoll”. “Dawn” for its lyrics, and “Ragdoll” for its sound and arrangement.
Joel: What is the strangest thing that has happened during a performance?
Joseph: Live Theatre is like any sport. You can practice and rehearse and know every word backwards and forwards, but it is a very complex, technical event. And every night, though I have been playing this role for 2 years, it is different and new and fresh and exhilarating. That being said, every night also brings the element of the unexpected. And though things might go “wrong” to those of us who are on stage and off stage, the audience doesn’t really ever know. Well – there was that one time the gigantic chain link fence began to fall, and we had to take a quick break.
Matt: My guitar has fallen off a few times, but the strangest thing recently was running into this fan at the stage door who loved the show SO much that she said that she really wanted to throw something onstage for us – a gift of her appreciation – but all she had was a box of Ho Ho’s, which she said she almost did throw!
Joel: Why do you think audiences love this show, and why does Jersey Boys continue to sell out houses all over the country, when other similar-type musicals have faded into oblivion?
Joseph: Jersey Boys is not a jukebox musical. The book is Tony nominated. The music is multi-platinum. The direction from all departments is seamless. Jersey Boys will be going strong, playing to sold-out houses, and breaking records for years to come. I am so proud to say that I am a part of something that has changed the way musical theatre is looked upon.
Matt: There are a couple of reasons the show does so well. One is how well the story is written – a classic tale of rags to riches which we always love to hear. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s high energy, and people are surprised by how much they get carried into the story. It’s not just about reminiscing about the music (which people enjoy nonetheless). It’s about more than that – it’s about caring for the four guys and reliving their history and their relationships – through the story and music of their lives. The story isn’t falsely fabricated around some songs that don’t really fit together – which is the downfall of most jukebox musicals – it’s woven into their real lives as they happened, furthering the plot through history and action, which is much more exciting to watch.
Joel: Where does the show go after DC, and what’s next for you after the tour?
Joseph: Detroit in the winter! So, this California boy will be having a Jersey Christmas in Michigan. I am constantly working on projects (film, theatre, writing) while on the road. It helps keep things in balance, creatively speaking. This February, I am in the film, ‘Valentine’s Day’. My scene is not with Julia Roberts, or Jessica Alba, or Jamie Foxx, or Queen Latifah, but I like to tell my friends that it’s full of big stars… and me.
Matt: We head to Detroit and Memphis after DC, and then on from there. As for what I’m gonna do after the tour, I’m not quite sure. New York can wait! I’m not done riding this ride just yet!
Joel: What do you want audience members to take with them after seeing Jersey Boys?
Joseph: I will tell you what people tell me. They are grateful. They are happy. They are emotional and bursting with energy. I meet grown men who are in tears because of the trip down memory lane. I give hugs to 65-year-old women who tell of the dress they wore to the dance at the gym when “Sherry” played. I have been told countless stories of folks who can describe in detail when they saw the real Frankie and the real “Four Seasons” in Miami Beach, or Jacksonville, or Pittsburgh, or Jersey or Vegas. It is the story of the American Dream. Not that it is all perfect, because it is not. And people seem to unanimously want to sing and dance in the aisles. They are celebrating youth, and love, and music – about a time that maybe was better, or at least a time when a song about a girl at a party in a red dress -changed the way people lived.
Matt: Well, obviously everyone takes something different from the show every night, but I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me on the street after the show, and at the stage door, and told me that they just saw the best show that they’ve ever seen in their lives, and that they’re coming back as soon as possible!