THE LEADING MEN: Frankie & Johnny

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01 Nov 2005

John Lloyd Young
John Lloyd Young
Photo by Ben Strothmann
These three "Leading Men" have plenty to be thankful for this November: John Lloyd Young (Jersey Boys), Manoel Felciano (Sweeney Todd) and Rubén Flores (The Latin American Songbook).

Jersey Boys, the crowd-pleasing new musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, stars John Lloyd Young as the leader of the pack, and audiences "can’t take their eyes off of him." The adorable 5-foot-7 actor from Sacramento, CA, not only "walks like the man," but he sings like him. He’s "just too good to be true," and Valli says, "John’s a fantastic performer and singer, and his falsetto is remarkably close to my own. I couldn’t be more pleased with an actor portraying me."

Young, 30, is joined by Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer, and this fantastic foursome plays the blue-collar kids who became the 1960s pop sensation with No. 1 hits like "Big Girls Don’t Cry," "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man." Directed by Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys has a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe. It officially opens Nov. 6 at the August Wilson.

As a Jersey boy, Young was in A Christmas Carol at the McCarter in Princeton, NJ, and got raves for The Chosen at the Paper Mill in Millburn, NJ. There, he also met his girlfriend, Alison Franck, Paper Mill’s casting director. She says, "John does a ridiculous amount of research. Even before he got Jersey Boys, he flew out to Vegas to see Valli perform. John’s gonna be a star, and he’s an amazing boyfriend." He adds, "She has two cats and I’m allergic to cats, so I’m indebted to Clarinex."

Young graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in drama, and one of his teachers, Mark Cohen, says, "John’s got a gorgeous voice, enormous concentration and a low tolerance for B.S. in acting." Cohen recalls doing an acting exercise with Young: "John was struggling and I tried to raise the stakes of the scene by 'killing off' members of his family and giving him horrible diseases. Nothing worked. I said, ‘What’s most important in your life?' A gleam came into his eye. He disappeared and came back as if someone lit a fire under him. He was great. I asked ‘What happened?’ He said, 'I went back to my dorm and found someone had tacked all my musical theatre CDs to the ceiling.'"

Question: Congratulations on making your Broadway debut!
John Lloyd Young: Thanks. It’s really exciting. I auditioned for [Jersey Boys] a year ago for the La Jolla Playhouse production and thought I got it. [David Norona played Valli in its tryout in Southern California last fall.] There was enthusiasm in the room, but as in the case of so many auditions, the phone call didn’t come, so I moved on. But I remembered thinking this show had Broadway written all over it. The book was really strong, and the songs were seamlessly integrated.

Q: What’s it like playing Frankie Valli?
Young: It’s a privilege. The backstory of his career is unknown to most people, so we’re really creating their legacy. He’s been so great to me. He’s full of advice about how to maintain your voice because he’s done so much touring. And he told us: ‘No one can ever change what you bring to the table no matter how many times they slam the door in your face. That’s always there.’ And that’s their story. It’s also been thrilling to play a superstar because there’s so much affection for you before you even walk onstage. I’ve never heard so much applause in my life. I’m new, so I know it’s not for me. They’re excited for the group. A lot of our audiences are boomers, and this is their music. I hope we’re transporting them back to when they were 16.

Q: Why do you think these songs are still so popular?
Young: Everyone can relate to them. These are songs you play to your girlfriend when you’re trying to make up when you’re 14, or songs you used to serenade your first girlfriend. My favorite is "Beggin’" because I didn’t know it before. Among the ones I knew, you can’t beat "Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You."

Q: Your co-star, Daniel Reichard, says you came into rehearsals at a huge disadvantage because you didn’t get to do Jersey Boys in La Jolla, but "it’s been amazing to see John really grow into the role and now he owns it."
Young: I prepared for four months before I showed up for rehearsals. This is the most challenging part I’ve ever had. I was off-book. I knew all the songs. I’m a baritone, but I’ve never had to sing like this, so I trained for this like it was the Olympics. I swam to build up my lungs. And I haven’t had caffeine or alcohol for six months.

Q: What’s it been like working with the other guys?
Young: Great. Everybody brings something different, but together, it’s astounding. Des directs like a football coach. It’s a team effort.

Q: I heard that Billy Crystal came to see the show.
Young: He’s a friend of Des, who directed him in 700 Sundays. He really enjoyed the show and asked how I was still standing. I actually picked up a pointer from Billy that he doesn’t know about. I hear he ordered this Yogi Comfort Tea by the case when he did 700 Sundays, so I use it, too, and it’s magical.

Q: In the blog on your website, it was only a year ago that you wrote about "staring straight in the face of poverty."
Young: It’s true. I had no place to live. I was crashing at a friend’s mother’s house in Jersey and taking survival jobs. I was an usher at 42nd Street for Dodger Productions, which is producing this show. I was eating out of cans and having lots of lentil soup. I asked my parents to send me Omaha steaks or gift certificates to restaurants. My early twenties were full of ups and downs, mostly downs. You can work regionally and do a great job, but it’s only for two months, and then you’re back to knocking on people’s doors. I’ve always felt that if I kept my expenses low and soldiered on, there was something on the horizon, and it turned out to be Jersey Boys.

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If you attend the tale of Sweeney Todd in John Doyle’s daring revival, which officially opens Nov. 3 at the O’Neill, you’ll find it’s literally set in a place where "you could drive a person crazy": a London asylum. And the first thing you’ll see is Manoel Felciano, who plays Toby, a young man in gray striped pajamas, strapped into a straitjacket. In the original Broadway staging of this "demon barber of Fleet Street," the 5-foot-10 actor from San Francisco says, "Toby disappears into the catacombs [of Mrs. Lovett’s bakehouse] and returns with his hair turned white. He’s babbling and goes insane. I think this production shows what happens to him years later in that asylum. He enlists other inmates to put on this play and relives this story over and over."

Starring Michael Cerveris as Todd and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, this Sweeney is a cutting-edge reworking of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical thriller. A cast of ten is onstage at all times, playing all the characters and all the instruments. So not only does Felciano, the show’s dazzling discovery, sweetly sing "Not While I’m Around," but he toots the clarinet during "My Friends," plays a violin solo during "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and tickles the ivories during the judge’s "Johanna." He says, "It’s like a musical relay, especially at the keyboard. At one point, I have one half of my butt on the chair, and Ben Magnuson [who plays Anthony] has his butt on the other half because he has to jump up and go, ‘Johanna, marry me Sunday.’ I take over the piano in mid-measure. That’s one of the things that makes the show exciting. It’s the challenge of staying in character and still playing beautifully. Working with John [Doyle] has been a gift. This is such a brave reinvention of my favorite show and I just love this cast." In return, LuPone gushes, "Manoel is totally handsome, incredibly charming, extremely talented and a joy to be onstage with."

To play Toby, Felciano researched post-traumatic stress disorder, and his dressing room is plastered with photos of inmates from the real Bedlam Hospital. He first did Sweeney Todd at Yale and played the violin in the pit: "I never saw a musical until I went to Yale. The first show I saw was She Loves Me, starring Melissa Errico, and the second was Sweeney Todd, starring Asa Somers."

Felciano’s Broadway credits include Brooklyn and Cabaret, but he worked for over two years on Wall Street at Citibank before he was discovered at the Sidewalk Café with Errico. She recalls, "A casting director called me about Mano and I said, ‘He’s a great singer and he’s a great actor,’ even though I’d never seen him act. But I knew he could." Felciano says, "Melissa set me up for this audition for Whistle Down the Wind and I said [then] that I hate musicals. She said, ‘Shut up. You don’t know what you want to do with your life.’ They needed a high rock tenor, so I went in with my guitar and sang ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ by the Police. I had no headshot, so they took a Polaroid. Later I auditioned for Hal Prince and got cast." Errico wisecracks, "And he never paid me a commission."

Felciano, who’s Portuguese-Swiss and not related to José Feliciano, says he grew up playing Bach with his composer-father at the keyboard. "Then puberty hit and it became clear that playing [the violin] was not the way to get girls, but playing pop songs on a guitar was." Somers says, "Mano is amazing; he can pick up any instrument." Years later, Felciano learned the bass for their alternative pop band, Generica. Somers said they also roomed together in a drafty loft in Hell’s Kitchen that was so huge that "you could rollerblade in it, and we’d throw debauched parties for 200." Felciano adds, "I’d make Asa sing parts of Sweeney to me late at night. My favorite thing was the Act II ‘Johanna.’ Now I get to play that in the show. It’s all come full circle."

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