Many Broadway musicals have become so popular and successful from their runs on stage that it’s made perfect sense for them to be used as the source for feature films, attempting to translate the magic created on stage for a wider audience of moviegoers.
With a screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, writers of the original book from the Broadway show, Jersey Boys is one of the more successful “jukebox musicals,” one that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and how they came from out of the crime-ridden streets of New Jersey to become one of the hottest musical acts of the ’60s and ’70s.
The movie version of the musical is directed by none other than Clint Eastwood, his first music-based film since 1988’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird, and he took a logical but somewhat unconventional approach to casting by bringing on board John Lloyd Young, the Tony-winning actor who originated the role of Valli for the musical. Also coming from the touring production of the musical is Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, who was brought into the Four Seasons later–by no less than Joe Pesci before he became an actor–not only to sing and play keyboards, but Gaudio was also became responsible for writing some of Valli’s biggest hits and helping to create their distinctive sound.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Bergen a few weeks back to talk about his feature film debut and the transition made to bring the role of Gaudio from the touring stage musical into a Clint Eastwood film. And we were quite pleased to learn what great taste Bergen has when it comes to websites he reads!
ComingSoon.net: Hey, Erich, how are you doing?
Erich Bergen: I’m good. It’s so funny to see your name. I go to your site like everyday.
CS: Nice! We definitely like hearing that from people we speak to. I really wanted to talk to you because while I haven’t seen the musical, I do have a history with Frankie Valli, and you have an interesting role as Bob Gaudio, the member of the Four Seasons who wrote the songs. Everyone knows Frankie Valli but not as many people know the other three Seasons. That must have been one good reason to play this character in the movie.
Bergen: Well, you know, Gaudio is such an interesting character because he is responsible for so much of the songs that are pretty much standard now of American popular music, not only the whole Four Seasons catalogue, but he went on to work with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross and Streisand and then all of the Neil Diamond albums. He produced the music for “The Jazz Singer” and “Coming to America” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and all that stuff. It’s quite a career of music, and yet, he’s so, so humble that when you meet him, you think, “You can’t possibly be the guy that wrote all these songs,” because he’s just sort of this calm, handsome guy, but you just don’t get that vibe of “rock star” from him. I guess that’s sort of why he quit the band. I mean, he was never comfortable with that. The music really just lived inside him. He didn’t want to be the one that was on the road performing. But it’s interesting to play him, too, because I come from such a world of being an entertainer, and it was a struggle at first with “Jersey Boys” all those years ago, doing it on stage because I had to find a way to make him interesting and captivating to audiences. I’m still on stage doing this, but to still keep him at bay and restrained to make sure that he didn’t come across as one to steal the spotlight from Frankie.
CS: He’s an interesting character mainly because when you saw The Four Seasons perform in old footage, you probably didn’t realize the keyboard player also wrote these songs, something I didn’t know until I started reading up on the musical.
Bergen: Yeah, there’s so many things. I mean, of course, that’s one of the things that makes “Jersey Boys” so great, is that you come in knowing these songs and you don’t realize all of these little factoids and and then the big picture story, their attachments to the mob and things like that. But it’s just sort of chockfull of information that you don’t see coming, and then, of course, there’s all this stuff that we don’t even get to in the movie because we don’t have time. They have just as rich of a history as The Beatles, and then some.
CS: You kind of answered one of my questions before, so you actually met the real Bob Guadio while touring with the show?
Bergen: I launched that first national tour right after the Broadway company won all those Tonys. I was part of the first next cast and I was 20 years old. When putting together that tour, Bob and Frankie were around all the time. We worked with them in the rehearsal process and getting to know them and they’re both big in making sure we left our musical theater voices behind and really sat in the pocket of this music that is more than anything rooted in R&B and doo wop. Again, with their process in putting together the Las Vegas company that I did, so I’ve worked with them a couple of times. Bob was not on set for the film, but Frankie was. Bob sort of wanted clear eyes and ears for when he got his hands on the sound to do the soundtrack. I just got to hear the soundtrack yesterday and this thing just rocks, so he’s at it again.
CS: I assumed Frankie was involved with the musical and with the movie. I had no idea whether Bob or anyone else had any kind of input.
Bergen: Oh yeah. Bob produced the cast album that won the Grammy, and he’s adamant that this sound be? it’s one of the reasons that when we did it on the road, we never really performed live outside of the stage show. We didn’t do a lot of performances on talk shows or anything like that unless they could really accommodate all of our sound requirements, because there was this trick that they used to create “the sound of Frankie Valli,” which is actually how it was advertised on the back of those old albums. It said, “The Four Seasons, featuring the sound of Frankie Valli.” That was a trick that Bob Crewe thought up, which was to double Frankie’s voice, and it sort of pioneered that sound that many other groups went on to use, but to recreate that on stage required all these tricks of backstage singers and certain sound effects and things like that. It was all live, it wasn’t lip syncing, but it required so much tech in the sound department. That’s why we couldn’t do a lot of live performances in other places. For the film, we strived to get that too by singing it all live and then doing a little bit of work in the studio afterward to fix some things. But Bob has his ear right there.
CS: “Jersey Boys” is an interesting choice for Clint since it’s his first musically-based movie since “Bird” and that was a long time ago. And it’s rare these days when they make a movie based on a musical to use some of the original cast.
Bergen: I know, yeah.
CS: What was the process as far as auditioning for Clint? Were you always kind of the first choice or were there other people who played the role on Broadway or elsewhere or other people they were thinking of?
Bergen: To this day, I don’t know who auditioned for it and who didn’t. I guess some people who did, but I don’t know how wide the net was cast. I have friends who played the same role as me, who told me they went in,” and I know one friend of mine that it was down to the wire, up against him. But I had heard that Bob Gaudio himself requested me. He sort of said that I was the person who was most like him, but I truthfully don’t know much. All I know is what I’ve heard from various sources, but I don’t know what the process was behind the scenes. All I know is, I auditioned for the movie the first time around when it was being directed by Jon Favreau. When I auditioned for that, the casting director called my agent after I auditioned and said, “He’s not really right for the role.”
CS: Which is funny considering how long you played him?
Bergen: Right, I’d just played the role for three years. They said, “Yeah, but he’s not right for it,” so there was no way to really argue with it. We just sort of had to leave it alone. Then that version of the film didn’t happen, and when it ended up in Clint Eastwood’s hands, my first thought was, “Well, great. Now I’ll never be in it.” I never thought I’d end up in a Clint Eastwood movie. When the audition came in I just thought, “Well, you know what? All right. I already let this go once. What is it going to hurt to go in one more time?” It was one audition. It was 90 seconds long. No callbacks, no screen tests, no nothing. A month later, I just got a call to say, “You got it.” I am still processing this information.
CS: Was the audition just a dramatic scene? I’m assuming you didn’t need to sing or do that part of it for the show.
Bergen: Yeah, it was the two handshake scenes. It’s the first one, where Frankie and I decide to form a partnership, then it was the one where I leave the group. I sang “Cry For Me,” but what was so funny was that they had an instrumental track of “Cry For Me,” but the casting director had it on his computer and it was all the way in the corner of the office, so I could barely hear it. I remember walking out of the room and thinking, “Well, that was a disaster,” because I wasn’t in time with the music. There was no way to hear it over my own singing. I thought, “I’m just going to let it go again.” This time, I don’t know what happened, but I’m here.
CS: Bob’s also interesting because he’s also from Jersey, but he has a different background from the other three members of the group. Did you get any idea from talking to Bob about where he got his education or his business sense from?
Bergen: Well, he’s actually from the Bronx, but he moved to Jersey later on. It was a class thing. He just grew up in a different neighborhood and in a different class, and their family had more money and he was not from the streets, and he was on the road at 15 or 16 years old as a member of the Royal Teens. He wrote that hit song for them “Who Wears Short Shorts?” He went on the road in a bus traveling through the South on tour with all these black musicians. He was not only seeing racism firsthand, because it was everywhere, but the great thing that he was getting was he was getting his musical education of R&B music that the white kids back home were not getting. You can hear it in those early recordings of The Four Seasons. You hear that hybrid of R&B and rock and roll and jazz.
CS: John Lloyd Young originated the role of Frankie Valli in the stage musical, so did you ever have a chance to perform with him before the movie?
Bergen: No, no, I was 19 years old when I first saw the show when they were in previews on Broadway. I saw him do it. And I took my dad to see the show before it was a major hit. I saw him do it, and my dad said, “You’d be great in this show.” I’m six foot three, and I thought, “Yeah, but the guy playing him isn’t tall.” I didn’t think of the character of Bob Gaudio as being right for me as much as I was obsessed with the show. Six months later, I got a call to audition for the national tour, and I had a week of auditions and that’s where the story began.
CS: Was the show your first experience with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ music or had you heard it before?
Bergen: No, I grew up in New York City, so we had WCBS-FM here in New York with Cousin Brucie, who broke The Four Seasons the first time around, and he was still on the air. My dad?this is the music of his life?so I grew up listening to this music. My dad sort of forced this music in my face, and I’ve always loved it, so I knew these songs very well. I didn’t realize they were all by the same group, but I knew these songs.
CS: I wanted to talk more about meeting the real Bob Gaudio. Did you meet him after you were already in the show or before?
Bergen: Well, I actually met him once I got the job, but I actually saw him in my very first audition for the show; he was there with 20 people in the room. Frankie was sitting in the front row with the director and the music director, and Bob was sitting in the back row. I wasn’t really nervous. My real thought was, “I don’t know how these guys are watching all of these actors do these very dark scenes in their life multiple times today.” I mean, it’s one thing to watch the good actors do these things, but to watch these bad actors. Like, oh man, I can’t imagine what this experience is for them. I just hope we do it justice.
CS: What did you take away from meeting and working with Bob?
Bergen: I think the best thing I got from him was watching him at work. He would sit in the orchestra of the theater and critique the sound, not just the way we sounded as singers but where the speakers were and things like that. Getting to watch him still at work, it was the best thing in the world.
CS: Did you change the way you played him from watching him?
Bergen: No, because those of us who weren’t playing Frankie Valli, we had the luxury of not playing parts that were so well known to the public. I wanted to respect Bob, but I got a chance to invent a character. I didn’t have to get it right for anyone’s mind because not a lot of people knew him.
CS: Apparently he liked the way you played him because he recommended you for the movie.
Bergen: I’ll take it!
CS: You answered one of my other questions I had, since I was curious what it was like performing for the film versus doing it on stage.
Bergen: I may be wrong in the way that Clint would describe his approach to this, but what I got from it, what it appeared to me was that Clint shot the musical numbers almost in a documentary style. We got up on stage and Clint left us alone to work with Ron Melrose, the musical director, and Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer on the songs. Two of them reprised their jobs from the stage production. When it came time to do the songs, we performed it as a rock concert, and the audience took it in as a rock concert. They were extras, but they were enjoying, you know, a real concert because we were singing live. The mics are all plugged in and the band is right there. Everything was live. Clint really just turned the cameras on and captured a live rock and roll concert like it was one of the great rock films. It appeared to me, that’s how he approached those moments of the film.
CS: I understand Clint’s a very patient and laid-back director from the actors I’ve spoken to that have worked with him. He doesn’t call “action” and he’s very different. How has that been for your first film experience? Does that kind of spoil you for other movies?
Bergen: It’s all downhill from here. Absolutely. It’s funny. First of all, you’re absolutely right about everything you just said. That’s exactly how it is. I was talking to Mike Doyle, who plays Bob Crewe in the film. I was talking to him when we were filming. Mike has been in everything. He’s one of those guys that he’s just like that guy from that movie, you know what I mean? He’s played every character, he’s been in everything and he’s such a wonderful actor. I was talking to him one day. I said, “Okay, you’ve been in everything. What is like your favorite thing you’ve ever done?” He didn’t even blink. He said, “This.” I said, “That’s impossible. That can’t be.” He said, “No, I’m serious. You don’t understand how many directors are crazy and are micromanagers and how many sets are loud and not focused and you don’t understand what a gift it is that you’re getting to see this, because this does not happen.” I’m just trying to remember that going forward, and I’m trying to take that professionalism that Clint brought, and the respect that he has for all of the actors. I’m trying to remember to bring that to all of my future experiences as an actor because boy, I wish for every experience to be like this.
I got to run. They’re cutting me off. I’m so sorry. We’re running around this hotel doing all this junket stuff. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you talking to me, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the film.
CS: Oh, absolutely and I’m glad to hear you’re a fan of ComingSoon.net.
Bergen: I run to your site everyday. That’s how I found out the trailer was out for my movie.
Jersey Boys opens nationwide on Friday, June 20.
(Photo Credit: Joseph Marzullo/WENN.com)