By John Amodeo
September 21, 2010
How does an actor find his voice? Not only his singing voice, or even his oratorical voice, but his artistic voice. In 2004, John Lloyd Young (left), then 29, and working mostly in regional theater, auditioned for the role of Frankie Valli in the pre-Broadway run of Jersey Boys at the La Jolla Playhouse, and was not cast.
What a difference a year makes.
In Spring 2005 for the Broadway production, he was not only cast, but he was singled out by New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley as "a star-in-the-making."
Brantley went on to say, "Mr. Young has crossed the line from exact impersonation into something more compelling. It’s that sort of melting from perfect wax effigy into imperfect flesh ... Inhaling the cheers of the crowd, Mr. Young as Mr. Valli glistens with that mix of tears and sweat, of humility and omnipotence, that signals that a hungry performer’s need for approval has been more than met."
Not only did Jersey Boys go on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but Young became the first actor in history to win all four major theater awards for Best Actor in a Musical for a Broadway debut: Theater World, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and of course the Tony.
But Young believes in giving back. He saw that the Broadway community was dedicated to charity work, such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and amfAR, and discovered that Jersey Boys gave him a voice. "I realized I could solicit tens of thousands of dollars in my spare time," Young marvels. "If you could motivate other people to give, that’s a magical thing to me, to know that through all this good that came to me, working hard holding up a show, I was in the exciting position of being able to contribute something important to people who need help."
Moving to LA, after two years on Broadway as Frankie Valli, Young continues his charity work often appearing in all-star cabaret benefits for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), an organization Young favors because they provide services directly to the people who need them. "Charities like APLA are feeding people," notes Young, with some concern for the toll the current economy is taking on them. "These days, they are freaking out because people aren’t contributing the way they used to. It’s a no-brainer to continue to do this work out here as I live in LA. If I could draw 10 more people than would give otherwise, then I would do it." To that point, Young, in a rare East Coast appearance, will make his solo cabaret debut in a benefit for amfAR on Saturday, September 25, as part of their annual Bucks County Cabaret Series, this year performed in a converted barn on a private estate in Pipersville, PA. Young will be accompanied by Michael Orland, pianist, arranger and associate musical director for the hit FOX-TV series American Idol.
Leading up to this, Young’s multi-faceted life (he studied theater arts at Brown, and Spanish Literature at University of Salamanca in Spain) has taken a number of unexpected turns, including such firsts as performing at the White House in 2006 ("At least they sat me next to a Democrat."), performing at Lincoln Center, training in the martial arts, launching a career as a sculptor, playing a gay lead character in his first feature film, and becoming first guest star on the hit FOX-TV series, Glee.
A visual artist
Like Jersey Boys, Glee has turned into an unexpected runaway hit. Young was able to get on that train early, through his then girlfriend, Lea Michele, whom he had met doing Les Miserables at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008. Through Michele, he met Glee writer, Ryan Murphy. Young didn’t know what role they would write for him, and didn’t receive his script until two weeks before taping Episode 2, Acafellas.
Young’s memorable character, Henri St. Pierre, was the cough syrup-addicted, thumbless woodshop teacher with the secretly phenomenal singing voice. With such positive response to his character, one wonders if he would have a recurring role. "Maybe after Rachel Berry graduates from HS," Young demurs, referring coyly to his less than amicable breakup with Michele, which occurred awkwardly two days before taping the episode. Further musing, he notes, "That character, if he recurred, he’d be like Venus de Milo. There are some other appendages of mine I’d like to keep."
Oddly, it was through Jersey Boys he found his calling as a visual artist. When renewing his one-year contract for Jersey Boys, he negotiated a six-show week for himself, to preserve his voice, which was taxed to the max singing lead vocals in nearly every number, eight shows a week the previous year. "On my now free matinee days, one of the best things to do was wander the art museums of New York," recalled Young. "I started imagining one day being a part of this world and then started creating things. It was a dream I had that I made real."
Back in California, inspired by his exposure to art, he created a series of pop art sculptures, using familiar items, like Snickers boxes and soup cans, a la Andy Warhol, and presenting them with a vibrant twist, which he’s exhibited, also as a benefit for APLA, in a show called Food for Thought. One piece, Explosion 2010, shows a miniature John Lloyd Young mannequin, dressed in a replica of the outfit he wore at the Tony Awards, and holding a little Tony Award, surrounded by an exploding array of Tony’s Pizza boxes. . "You could call it self-portrait psycho-drama," he laughs. "But the phenomenon of the explosion of Jersey Boys is reflected visually in the piece. The Jersey Boy’s phenomenon could be described as nothing short of explosive."
His art has even caught the eye of one of the leaders in the current pop art movement, Burton Morris, whose paintings could be described as Andy Warhol meets Roy Lichtenstein, and with whom Young will soon be doing a joint art exhibit, an honor whose magnitude doesn’t escape Young. But more than that, he marvels at the way it came about. "I met him face to face at a benefit art auction for APLA," Young notes. "Giving back gave back to me. It went full circle."
Another example of Young’s giving spirit was taking the title role in the 2009 film, Oy Vey, My Son is Gay, starring a bigger than life cast including Lainie Kazan as his mother, but also Bruce Villanch, Jai Rodriguez, and Carmen Electra. Playing a young Jewish gay man who comes out to his conservative parents, much hilarity and poignancy ensues. The film garnered raves on the Film Festival circuit, but hasn’t been widely released yet. "I hope it does get released, because it’s a movie parents should see," Young declares. "I could see parents of gays in small towns recommending it to each other. Lainie Kazan would become every gay man’s mother’s best friend."
In addition to visual and performing arts, Young has learned valuable life lessons from the martial arts, having now trained with Jim Furtado, eleven-time martial arts champion. Somehow knowing he could defend himself, has provided him with a sense of calm, even in LA, what Young refers to as the "road rage capital of the world." He ponders further, "There is something spiritual about martial arts. It tempers that anger, that aggression that is part of the human condition."
Perhaps that inner piece enables him to remain undaunted by his upcoming cabaret debut. Having gone to a number of cabaret shows of such friends and colleagues as Judy Kuhn and Jersey Boys co-star, Daniel Reichert, Young has seen that they can vary quite a bit. "Judy’s was very little patter, and more about the songs. Reichert’s show, on the other hand, has tons of funny patter," he observed. "You get a sense of how to play the room when you see it. This converted barn with a proscenium stage will be like a theater, where I can give them some ear candy."
His show will be an eclectic mix of show tunes, pop, and songs not from the stage. "I’ve now accumulated a library of songs that I’ve performed over the last several years, and mixing in some stuff that I haven’t sung publicly but am recording in the studio. Being in a musical that covers pop music, you end up in both worlds at once." You can bet a few songs from Jersey Boys will be in the program, but look for some Sondheim as well as Roy Orbison’s Crying, which he has sung in his earlier cameo cabaret outings. "The range I was able to discover doing Jersey Boys is wonderfully useful, because anything out there that has a wonderful vocal, I now can approach without much fear," Young remarked.
But developing that vocal range didn’t come easy. Before taking the role of Frankie Valli, Young’s now famous falsetto was only heard in the shower, or singing along with the Bee Gee’s. Having never taken vocal lessons, this full-time baritone wondered if he was even up to singing in his untrained high range eight times a week. After every audition for the role, where he’d sing only three songs, he’d have vocal problems for days. "I was lucky to be cast six months before we opened, so I was in training every day to guide me how to do this," recalls Young, further noting, "I’m not really a tenor, but ironically, after two years with insistent work in my upper range, I could pass as one now."
But more than finding his singing voice for the role, he learned something more valuable working with the real life Bob Gaudio (one of the original Four Seasons) during Jersey Boys rehearsals. "I asked him what his first impression of Frankie was and he said ’He was a little man, with a big heart,’ and I knew I could bring heart to the role," Young recalls.
When asked about his next Broadway show, he demurs, "Your guess is as good as mine." He contemplates his Jersey Boys Broadway debut with its abundant accolades, and concludes aptly that it will be difficult to top. But his experience these last few years have brought a new wisdom. "As a youngster, I lacked patience," he explains. " But one thing the spirituality of Kung Fu teaches is patience. When it feels right, it will be right. I have film and TV out here and my art. My life is full and getting fuller, so it is easy to be patient."
Oy Vey! My Son is Gay! comes to selected theaters on October 1, 2010. Glee airs on Tuesday nights on Fox.
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 19 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is a contributing writer for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.
© 2010 EDGE Publications, Inc.