(Off-Off) Broadway Baby: Jersey Boys's John Lloyd Young

John Lloyd Young

Downtown theater can be grueling. Just ask John Lloyd Young, who, not so very long ago, found himself onstage with a gaping head wound from a self-inflicted gunshot in the unforgiving heat of summer.

"I had to lean my head against the exposed brick wall supposedly to hold my brain inside the hole in my head, and as I walked across the stage, I left a long smear of blood against it," he remembers. "When I stepped away from the wall, I had to hold my head up with my hand so my brain wouldn't fall out."

The production, Spring Awakening at Expanded Arts, a 30-seat storefront theater, encapsulates the ever-paradoxical nature of downtown theater, Young says. "It was disgusting, gruesome, hot, sticky, ghoulish: a barrel of laughs." Today, no longer battling onstage blood, Young is poised on the brink of stardom, at least by Broadway standards. His widely acclaimed performance as Frankie Valli in the hit

musical Jersey Boys has already generated early Tony Award buzz, as well as the accolades and respect of critics and fans alike, including Valli himself.

But while he currently plays to sold-out audiences at the August Wilson Theater, Young began his New York stage career-as so many performers do-in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theaters. And while his move uptown places him in a more distinctly commercial theatrical environment, the actor-who admits to being in his late 20s-continues to cling to the artistic ideals that informed his work early on.

In fact, Young says his experiences downtown initially discouraged him from pursuing any Broadway roles at all. In Off- and Off-Off-Broadway shows, he relished "interesting" and "artistically challenging" material that was "sometimes so out there." Broadway shows, by comparison, were often "high on spectacle and low on bite."

Even after finding success on the Great White Way, Young still maintains that he never intended to work there. "To be perfectly honest," he says, "I began to get very resentful of Broadway. I was very angry. The musical shows seemed to be empty and artless, and those that were good had trouble attracting an audience."

The Broadway landscape has undoubtedly become increasingly commercial, and the appearance of the jukebox musical has been seen by many as perhaps its most emblematic, money-hungry product. Beloved by many tourists but maligned by most critics, the form splices together pre-existing songs from popular musical groups, with plots that, due to their slapdash genesis, can often seem overly simplistic and contrived. Recent jukebox ventures, both successful and less so, include Mamma Mia! (Abba), Movin' Out (Billy Joel), Good Vibrations (the Beach Boys), and this season's Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash).

Young himself acknowledges that the jukebox musical is at odds with the less conventional, progressive trends found in much Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater. "I hate the jukebox musical, if 'jukebox musical' means an inane story line strung around recognizable songs making a fool of everyone onstage and in the audience," he says. "The shows that do that [present dumbed-down material] don't survive, probably because no one likes to be made a fool of."

But Jersey Boys, which tells the story of the Four Seasons, is, of course, a jukebox musical. So how does a veteran of downtown theater suddenly find himself in the middle of a jukebox? Although Young auditioned for "a lot of so-called jukebox shows," it wasn't until Jersey Boys

A scene from Jersey Boys

that he found a project he believed to be "at once commercially successful and still artistically challenging." And the critics agreed, praising the musical for embracing the actual history of the Four Seasons-depicting actual lives rather than trying to shoehorn music into a fictionalized structure.

Young credits "playable, actable scenes," a strong character arc, and highly demanding falsetto singing for creating a "steep enough challenge to create that fire inside my belly to want to surmount it." And it was Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater that helped, in part, to fuel his desire to seek out huge challenges. "You do things like a storefront expressionist drama for no money while temping during the day," he remembers. "And [you] succeed at it—
or fail—and emerge emboldened."

Citing one favorite Off-Broadway stage experience, at Target Margin Theater, he recalls, "Half the audience left at intermission; half stayed, mesmerized." The potency of Off-Broadway material can be divisive for an audience, but he relishes that knee-jerk response. Whether off Broadway or on, he values "an audacious and exciting theatrical environment where anything could happen."

The biggest benefits of working in a more commercial environment, Young says, are the "luxurious trappings" and the ability to enjoy "complete immersion in the work." Although playing a leading role in a powerhouse Broadway musical demands its share of one's free time (interviews, press events, benefits, etc.), there is plenty of luxury in "being paid enough to not have to split your attention with a survival job."

In fact, "luxury" is a word Young often uses to describe his new uptown performance venue. But for him the charm lies less in his solo dressing room and the wardrobe department and more in having enough time and energy to devote himself wholeheartedly to his craft. He admits to having been tremendously frustrated when he had to hold down "a survival job."

Jersey Boys

"I wanted nothing else than to dedicate all of my attention toward the project," he says. "There is nothing more frustrating than delving into something artistically irresistible to then have to go and type spreadsheets for some unimaginative dullard."

Even with additional time to focus, Young maintains that his approach to the craft has remained the same, whether the production is commercial or downtown. "I've always contended that working in front of an audience is the best training," he says. "And you're not going to be infected just because you're working commercially; you never forget the renegade guerilla experiences you've had. They become part of your artistic personality and sensibility."

So although he is now fronting a mainstream show, don't expect him to "suddenly be transformed into somebody who wants to do the next big revival of Oklahoma!," he says. "It's just not in my makeup. Jersey Boys is something I can do

and do well, because the person I was makes me right for it, not because I've suddenly melded into something new or more 'commercialized.' "

In addition to Jersey Boys, Young has found several other recent Broadway productions encouraging for both their artistic merit and wide audience following. He cites Doubt, The Light in the Piazza, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Avenue Q as shows that have become popular without sacrificing artistic integrity. (All have also won Tony Awards in recent years.) And even with steep differences in funding, resources, and expectations, he believes the worlds of Off-Broadway and Broadway are not mutually exclusive.

At least not completely. "There is certainly a big gulf between the kind of work that happens in a storefront theater on Ludlow Street and on a cruise ship," he admits. "Broadway can sometimes tend more towards cruise ship, of course, and almost never resembles anything you'd see at a storefront theater downtown.

"[Broadway] is a commercial enterprise, and your run-of-the-mill tourist doesn't always want to be 'challenged.' I heard some guy in a restaurant in the Theater District last night say, 'I don't like the plays where I have to think.' It's our job as artists to think, though. Part of the fun of what we do is 'tricking' people like him into thinking, without his realizing we've done it.'"

According to Young, the interplay between Broadway and Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater happens primarily through its artists. Julie Taymor, for example, honed her craft for years before her innovative puppetry found a wider audience in Disney's stage adaptation of The Lion King. While her talent was certainly no secret to much of the theater community, her presence on Broadway made her a household name.

"The Lion King was the right fit for her in the commercial arena," Young says. "And suddenly the mainstream sees something 'new' without realizing that Taymor had been doing that stuff her whole career."

And this widening of scope need not be detrimental for the artist, he says. "As long as what's authentic to the artist isn't irretrievably lost or bastardized, then I think it's nice for them to be able to peek through to a more mainstream audience sometimes."

Young himself had hoped for a healthy career in Off-Broadway plays, peppered with "interesting film or TV projects." Thanks to Jersey Boys, the door is opening wider, but he still refuses to compromise his ideals. "If the next compelling project is Off-Broadway, and the next and the next after that, I'd be elated with that, too. It's really the role and the material that gets me going. The venue is an afterthought."

One thing he definitely plans to do in 2006 is support small companies as they continue to make new theater. In addition to Target Margin, to which he donates every year, he says he tries to donate to "emerging companies who are doing exciting work or whose mission I can stand behind. It changes every year. What is great about being on Broadway is that I I can afford to donate to more companies than I have in the past, and I'm excited about doing that this year."

Again, it's a luxury afforded by Broadway, but it's one that will benefit such theaters as the La Jolla Playhouse (where Jersey Boys originated) and the 52nd Street Project.

A dedicated supporter of up-and-coming theater, Young ranks "sheer force of will" as one of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater's many strengths. One weakness he has noticed, however, lies in the "strong strain of dilettantism" when people are not equally and fully dedicated to a project.

"It is enervating to someone who takes their art seriously to have to act alongside someone who's just fooling around or not serious about what they're doing," he says. "When you want to make a career of it and you're acting with people who are doing it just for fun, it can be very discouraging."

Like Valli, whose rags-to-riches story took him from working-class New Jersey to the height of fame, you could say that Young has graduated from downtown theater and "made it" on Broadway. But he refuses to see it that way, reaffirming his loyalty to the ever-shifting, ever-challenging unconventional houses that nurtured his early career.

Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater, he points out, is a "boot camp for artists" and "a laboratory" where "stakes are lower financially so the tolerance for risk can be higher." And risk, of course, begets growth. Daring innovation is born of limited resources, and in this way "you can create a whole theatrical universe around a few blocks and a piece of fabric."

So how would he advise the hard-working people who continue to make Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater, often quite unluxuriously?

"To keep on," he says. "It's really a noble struggle, a great place to experiment and fail and a gold mine of interesting people, ideas, and talent.

"It can be a morass, too. I don't think anyone would deny that. But when there are flashes of brilliance, it's blinding. To find the means and tenacity to continue to be able to create and thrive in a sometimes hostile environment is probably one of the most exhausting, exciting, rewarding experiences one can have."

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