SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL
At 19 years old, Canadian actor Jake Epstein made (what most felt to be) a risky decision to leave the cult TV teen drama "Degrassi: The Next Generation" to attend the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. Epstein's "Degrassi" character, Craig Manning, put down his guitar during the show's fifth season (only returning for minor guest appearances in Seasons 6-8), and theatre was Epstein's new focus. Following on-the-road stints in Spring Awakening, where he starred as radical teen Melchior Gabor, and American Idiot, where he played alcohol and drug-addicted youth Will, Epstein landed his first Broadway gig in the high-flying musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.
After a fair share of angst-ridden teens and comic-book nerds, Epstein takes on songwriting icon Gerry Goffin in Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, where he journeys from Goffin's high-school days — and meeting collaborator Carole King — to riding the top of the Billboard charts and his breakup with King, the center of Broadway's Beautiful.
What did you learn about Gerry Goffin when you first read the script? I find him to be such an interesting character in Beautiful — he straddles the lines of good guy and bad guy. Audience members can't decide whether to love him or hate him.
Jake Epstein: When I first read this script, I was attracted to the part of Gerry because of all that! [Laughs.] I found it so interesting. I couldn't figure out whether he was the villain or he was sort of the misunderstood hero or he was this artist or he was someone with real mental issues. I think he's all those things… And, the more I've learned about him, the more I'm a huge fan of his. He wrote some incredible lyrics, and his story at that time, I just find really, really interesting.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Where did you begin to create your character? Did you meet Gerry Goffin beforehand?
JE: No… I have met him, but our director, Marc Bruni, and our writer, Douglas McGrath, made the decision that we weren't going to imitate these people because firstly, people don't know Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil [and] Barry Mann as people — they know their work. People know Carole King, so they felt like what was more important was to tell their story — to be completely inspired by their story. But…it's a musical, so it's about being "truthful" to what happened. Our writer, Doug McGrath, spent a lot of time interviewing all these guys, so [there were] a lot of conversations I had with him… We talked a lot, especially because Gerry is such a complicated character to understand why he was doing what he did — why he made these decisions. And, it was very important for Doug not to portray him as the villain. Tell me about finally meeting Gerry Goffin.
JE: I've met him twice. Each of the times, it was very brief, and — without going into too much [detail], he has good days, and he has bad days — when I met him, it was difficult for him to communicate on those days, so I got to speak to him very, very briefly, but he was a big fan. He really liked it. He was aware of everything going on, and to be honest, he made these mistakes when he was younger. He was the one who wanted to tell this story. He wanted to tell it as truthfully as the musical could do and not just sugarcoat it because he knows that he made mistakes back then.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Your character goes from being in high school and meeting Carole King all the way through his adulthood, which is very different from other roles you played in Spring Awakening, Spider-Man, American Idiot and "Degrassi." Your character has a very big arc in Beautiful. Is that gratifying to play as opposed to an angsty teen?
JE: For sure. I mean, I knew when I took this part it was my first sort of "adult role." I wasn't playing a high-school kid anymore. Yeah, I feel like a man on stage! [Laughs.] … For the first time! Is it satisfying to go through that whole arc? I don't think about it. We keep getting encouraged to get lost in the story every night, and for me and Jessie [Mueller] to kind of get lost in each other every night and see where it goes, so night to night, it's always very different, and I love the story. I love the arc of the story. It's difficult, sometimes… You were talking before about [how] the audience likes you or doesn't like you… Night to night, it's a little bit different, and sometimes — when I can feel the audience really rooting for our love story, and I know what's going to happen — you can feel everyone's disappointment. [Laughs.] I used to call it a "Wall of Hate" because it's a very strange thing to be up there on stage — on Broadway — and have like a thousand people in the audience kind of hating you in a moment. It's a lot of energy to take on. And, so that's been a big challenge for me — dealing with that and doing it eight times a week and being as honest to the story as possible without being so concerned about whether you're liked or not liked.
Tell me about leaving "Degrassi" behind to pursue theatre school. You gained quite a following from that show!
JE: I did "Degrassi" for five years in Toronto, and I made the decision to quit the show to go to theatre school, which a lot of people thought I was really crazy to do, but it was one of those major decisions in my life that I haven't regretted — hopefully I won't! I really wanted to go to school. I was almost embarrassed by the kind of attention I was getting from this show, and I wanted to feel proud of the work I was doing, so I made this really scary decision to go to a theatre school, and it was amazing for me. I started writing, and I learned so much. From school, teachers of mine cast me in productions in Toronto, and then from there, I went to an open call for the Spring Awakening [first national] tour and eventually got cast on tour as Melchior. That was my first introduction into the Broadway scene, and then eventually I got my Green Card so that I could go to New York. Literally, the day after I got my Green Card, I bought a plane ticket, flew here and started auditioning… It was five weeks of being in New York before I booked Spider-Man.
|photo by Doug Hamilton|
The decision to leave "Degrassi" was a bit nerve-wracking?
JE: Yeah, I mean… I was 19 at the time, and I was so unhappy, and I knew that I was too young to be that unhappy. I come from an academic family, [so] if you do something, you go to school for it. It was always encouraged to go to school. I never felt like I was leaving the film world behind. I needed to go and feel good about what I was doing and learn something and kind of come back to it on my own terms. Tons of people thought I was completely nuts, and I didn't know if I was just running away from it. I didn't know if it was the right decision or not, and I just really wanted… One of the things I love about theatre is how raw it is. There's no faking it… I really wanted to have a base in theatre, and that kind of opened up all these doors for me.
Tell me about making your Broadway debut in Spider-Man and flying over an audience.
JE: Terrifying! [Laughs.] I mean, there's just nothing funnier or crazier than that — doing your Broadway debut as Spider-Man in Spider-Man the musical. It was like the last thing I could have ever possibly imagined happening. I mean, I would tell people I was playing Spider-Man, and people would just break out laughing because it was so ridiculous! [Laughs.] But, it was such an amazing gig. To be able to lead a musical like that — of that size…! As a kid, I was a huge comic fan. I related so much to Spider-Man, and I felt like I was an outsider in New York City as a Canadian [and also] as somebody who didn't really do musical theatre… I sang in bands all of my life, and all of a sudden I was starring in this big Broadway musical. It was so scary going into it! I always felt very safe, but all the flying was definitely freaky. I remember my parents came to see my first show, and I didn't know where they were sitting. You know how you fly around the theatre in the end — you land in the first balcony? I, at the end of the show, was just so relieved… I took off and flew around, and I landed in front of my parents, who were sitting in the front row, and my mom started crying, and my dad just started laughing. I kind of high-fived my dad, spun around and kept going. That was just an amazing moment. That was just a thrill! It was such a thrill. It's like a legend in my family now.
PUTTING THE BOMP (IN THE BOMP, BOMP, BOMP)
Longtime Jersey Boy Jarrod Spector began singing professionally at three years old. The actor, who made his Broadway debut in the long-running musical Jersey Boys and played Frankie Valli for 1,500 performances, started performing on a local Philadelphia TV show called "Al Alberts Showcase," where, he said, he would sing, tell a joke to "Uncle Al" and have to learn a new tune for the following week. At age six, Spector sang on "Star Search" and, a few years later, made his Broadway debut as Gavroche in Les Misérables. All grown up, Spector originates his first leading role, songwriter Barry Mann, in Beautiful, where he stars alongside Anika Larsen as his collaborator and love interest Cynthia Weil. Spector, who finds comfort in the styles of the 60s, will return to 54 Below for his solo concert A Little Help From My Friends, tracing the legacy of great male singers, March 10. The star talked about his vocal influences, affinity for the classics and creating a new voice for Barry Mann.
What is your special attachment to the music of this era, the 1960s?
Jarrod Spector: Well, you know, I seem to specialize in bio-musicals of the '60s and playing real-life musicians from that time period. [Laughs.] I do have a special attachment to that music for one reason or another. I mean, I was brought up listening to a lot of Motown. My parents raised me on Motown and Bobby Darin... I love Bobby Darin, believe it or not, a little more so than The Rat Pack. That's not to say that I didn't listen to [Frank] Sinatra and Sammy Davis, [Jr.] and those guys growing up, but it was a lot of Bobby Darin, Ray Charles and Motown… In this style of music, it was James Taylor I listened to growing up — much more so than Carole King. Again, it's not to say that I never heard a Carole King song because I know every song on every album she's ever done, but in sort of an auxiliary way because, to me, "Up on the Roof" is a James Taylor song, "You've Got a Friend" is a James Taylor song, and "Natural Woman" is an Aretha Franklin song. Of course, then I go back and listen to Carole, and it's amazing to hear where it came from — to hear the soul with which she sings those tunes and to really understand why people have such a deep and visceral connection to her and her music. I know all these tunes, as a lover of music, especially music of that time period — because I think [with the] '60s-'70s, you're really talking about the Golden Age of music in the United States and really in the world, in terms of modern music — but, nonetheless, I didn't grow up then.
What's really wonderful about doing shows like Beautiful — and Jersey Boys as well — is women, particularly, of that era [are] coming up to you after the show. And, to see them in the audience — they're crying because of their connection to the music, what it means to them, what that time meant to them in their lives. We all sort of look back nostalgically at our teens and 20s, and this is that time for so many of those people, and it really brings them back there.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
There's something about Carole, in particular, beyond the music itself. All of these songs in the show are amazing, and we can all appreciate them, but there's something about Carole — the way that she sings, the lyrics of her songs… They're so simple, and yet so profound. It's just a girl at a piano, singing about her feelings, and there's something so incredibly vulnerable about that. Women of that generation relate to her in such a deep way — and men, too. We can all listen to a girl singing about "You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart." I mean, it's hard not to just fall in love with the woman who sings those words. So, there are so many ways to feel connected to the songs of this period, specifically to the music of Beautiful, and it's just an honor, really, every night to go out there and represent this music. Would you say that your voice is influenced by this kind of music? Besides Beautiful and Jersey Boys, your 54 Below concert spotlights tenors of this era and of years before.
JS: May I just nerd out with you here for a second? [Laughs.] Four-generation families would come after the show to talk to me — and that includes my own, by the way: my nine-year-old niece, my 40-year-old sister, my 61-year-old mother and my grandmother. This is four generations spanning 70-80 years of life — and this is not an uncommon occurrence — all having loved this show and having loved this music, and that's a really rare idea. There just aren't that many things in the world that link generations in that way. If you look at them objectively, only the 60-year-old grandmother really would have been a Four Seasons fan. The woman closer to my generation — the mother — would have been a Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, etc. fan. The kid probably listens to Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, The Script, etc. And, the older generation probably listens to guys older than Frankie [Valli], like Little Richard and spanning all the way back to Enrico Caruso, who I cover in my show as well. The link for all of these generations is that style, that sound. All of those guys are basically doing the same thing, just in each generation, so the [54 Below] show is really tracing the legacy of this archetypal Frankie Valli-style tenor. Having been in [Jersey Boys] for so long, you get put in a box: "Well, he's a Frankie Valli type." Well, sure, but if you're a Frankie Valli type, then you also get to be Little Richard, Freddie Mercury, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Enrico Caruso, Bruno Mars and a million other guys who sing in that same way. It's a little bit of railing against that stereotype and saying, "Sure, I'll live in that stereotype, but guess what? That stereotype is so big and massive…"
That's sort of the concept of the show. I did four [concerts] in October-November. Starting on March 10 — and doing the 23, 24 and 31 of next month — I'll be back at 54 Below. Broadway Records and 54 Below approached me and said, "Hey, we'd like to do a Live at 54 album of your show," so all four of those [previous] shows were multi-track recorded, and they're right now in the process of mixing, editing and getting artwork together. March 10 is supposed to be the album release concert.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Tell me about creating Barry Mann. With Frankie Valli, his voice is so iconic, but we don't really know Barry's voice as much as we know his music. What kind of research did you do? You're playing a character who is based on a real person, but you also have the freedom to establish his voice.
JS: It's definitely different. I don't carry the same obligation I did playing Frankie Valli or that Jessie has playing Carole King. It's not the same. People in the industry and music aficionados know the name Barry Mann, but most people don't know what he sounds like. They might know what he looks like, but I look enough like him, so I don't have to worry about that anyway. [Laughs.] So, it was more of a chance to create a character from scratch. I approached it like I would any character, really, in the beginning, which is to [take] the script and do what I thought was most appropriate given the words on the page. I trusted that our book writer Doug McGrath did the job that I know that he did — a really thorough job of getting to know the four characters and really channeling them into the page. That said, Barry has certain character traits that are easy for me and some that are — not necessarily a stretch — but that I have to sort of latch onto things in my past as a viewer of TV and film and theatre and say, "Oh, I can snag this" and "Oh, I can do something like that."
As a baseline, he's a Jewish kid from a northeast city, and he's a musician — that's not a big stretch for me. That's who I am, right? But his neurosis and his hypochondria — some of that has to come from other places, and I don't know if I did it consciously at first, but certainly — as time went by, and I did more research — I realized I was pulling from a few characters in my viewership past. One is very obvious — our book writer Doug McGrath was partnered with Woody Allen for "Bullets Over Broadway," and they're close friends, so of course, there's some Woody Allen in his writing, and especially in my character. I've seen "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" and "Bananas" and "Play It Again, Sam" about 8,000 times, so pulling Woody Allen-isms and using them in the show felt very natural. I also am a huge Paul Reiser fan, so of course there's some Paul Reiser in [my character] as well. There's some George Costanza [from "Seinfeld"] in his "becoming so irate so quickly." I pulled mostly from TV… It actually felt more natural to say, "He's more like these sitcom or film guys that I grew up watching, and this show is really written as a micro-drama anyway. It's very much a kitchen drama about these two couples, so it makes sense to approach it in that way.
In terms of the singing, I really am singing the way I want to sing — which is really nice — while still honoring the style. I'm not doing anything modern because I'm obviously representing a guy who was in the '60s, but I can sing the way I want to sing, which is great. Barry was the original singer in "Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" — which is a wonderful little piece of trivia — but he didn't sound that dissimilar from Frankie Valli when he sang that song, so this isn't outside of my comfort zone. I'm singing The Animals' song ["We Gotta Get Out Of This Place"] more like The Animals than I am trying to imitate Barry Mann, and then I'm putting my own twist on it because people don't know what Barry sounded like, so it offers me a little bit of freedom, which is nice.
What was it like after meeting Barry Mann? Did he infuse your performance?
JS: Well, the first time I met him was at a reading, so you don't get the comfort of someone sitting in a dark audience and not being able to look at them. It's a reading — it's a rehearsal room; it's completely lit. We're all right there. They're all five feet away, sitting in chairs looking at me, and it was really the first time I had met him, so that was a little bit of pressure there. That can be a little bit awkward. When I met him afterwards, he was very polite and very sweet, and then I was subsequently cast in the show [officially]. Once I had gotten through some rehearsals and some previews, we really got to sit down and talk… Anika [Larsen, who plays Cynthia Weil] and I got to speak with Barry and Cynthia, and the first thing that Barry said to me was, "You know, I never knew I was a hypochondriac until they all told me that I was." And, I thought that was hilarious! It's such a telling character trait that he didn't know he was a hypochondriac. He's just actually, genuinely and earnestly concerned with many things, including his health at all times, and there's something charming about that. Nothing is put on. He is very genuine, and it makes him charming and funny, and he's very self-effacing… They told me stories about the first time they went to L.A., and I guess he had an allergic reaction to the smog or the different histamines out there, and he couldn't breathe, and they called 911, and the ambulance came [and said], "Is everything okay? Who's having a heart attack?" And, Cynthia answered the door and said, "No, I think he's got some congestion." [Laughs.] This is how these people lived their lives. I got to know them a little bit more and started adding some Barry-isms into my portrayal of the guy, which is great because I got to establish a base really based on script analysis and table-work with the writer and the director and the principals and then got to add some Barry afterwards, which was really nice.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.) Watch highlights of Beautiful: