By Pamela Singer, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent
Listen up, friends. Here’s the trivia question of the day. Just how far is it from Jersey to Detroit? For perennial Broadway favorite Dominic Nolfi, the answer is six New York City blocks, from 52nd to 46th Street to be exact. After wowing audiences for seven years in the worldwide sensation Jersey Boys, Dom is now heating up the boards again in Motown: The Musical. Motown tells the story of Berry Gordy, who founded the record company that changed the world and introduced us to some of the greatest recording artists in history. Procuring a $16 million dollar advance, Motown opened April 14th to enthusiastic reviews and has now been nominated for multiple Tony Awards. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called the show “a musically vibrant trip back to the glory days of Detroit, sung by a blazing cast of gifted singers.” I sat down recently with Dom to talk about his Broadway journey and much more.
In person, Dom is Hollywood handsome, with Don Draper’s looks and Tommy DeVito’s charm. Dom joined the cast of Jersey Boys in La Jolla in 2004. Before taking on the enigmatic role of Tommy on Broadway for three years, he played seven different roles at one point or another. Quite a resume, wouldn’t you say?! Warm, articulate, down to earth and engaging, it’s easy to see why audiences and fans alike are drawn to Dom.
Pamela Singer: Great to see you again, Dom. Congrats on your new venture!
Dominic Nolfi: Thanks, Pam. You too.
PS: The last time we talked formally for this Blog was in September 2011. You had just left Jersey Boys and were contemplating several future projects.
DN: Yes, a lot has happened since then! I’m really fortunate and happy to be back on Broadway in another great show.
PS: How did you first get involved with Motown?
DN: A few months after I left Jersey Boys, my agent called and said the creatives at Motown thought I would be a good fit to play Barney Ales, Mr. Gordy’s Executive Vice President at the record company.
PS: Wow, so they actually sought you out.
DN: I was very flattered, but still had to go through the audition process, singing and reading ‘sides,’ which are sections of the script. Two days later I got a call to be part of the first lab.
PS: Can you explain what that means?
DN: Sure. A lab is really the first step after a staged reading to start putting a show on it’s feet. Often what happens in the very early stages of a show is the actors and creatives get together to block out scenes and experiment with different perspectives. At that time, we weren’t sure when Motown was going to get to Broadway.
PS: What were the labs like?
DN: They were great learning and bonding grounds for the cast. To see the genesis of the show growing and shaping into what it is now was amazing. We’ve become like a real family, with Brandon Victor Dixon (Berry Gordy) and Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross) as our leaders. They’re both fun and focused and lead quietly by example. The whole cast is really down to earth. It’s a great group of people.
PS: Were all the same cast and creatives involved in the labs as in the show now?
DN: Yes, just about all the same cast members. Everyone was really devoted and committed to the material. Mr. Gordy (the show’s writer and producer) was with us from the beginning and was very hands on and encouraging.
PS: What is he like?
DN: Mr Gordy is very down to earth and approachable, with a great sense of humor. He really seemed to enjoy being in the rehearsal room and being creative.
PS: Sounds like he set a great tone and atmosphere for everyone.
DN: He did! It was a wonderful working environment for all of us.
PS: There are several other Jersey Boys alumni in the cast, right?
DN: Yes, Charl Brown plays Smokey Robinson, Sydney Morton is Florence Ballard, and Donald Webber Jr. plays Mickey Stevenson and is also one of The Temptations. Charl just got a Tony nomination, along with Valisia!
PS: Fantastic! Jersey Boys cast members are, you know, ubiquitous!
DN: (laughs) I had a case of Temp envy at first, with Donald’s character, but don’t think I could have done the role justice!
PS: (laughs) Speaking of the Tonys, it’s hard to believe that Motown was left out of the Best Musical category!
DN: Obviously, it’s disappointing to not be nominated, but the audience reaction to the show has been fantastic. I think our box office advance speaks for itself. The Tonys can be political. Enough said.
PS: I’m with you on that. Did you know anything about Barney Ales before you were hired?
DN: Other than the fact that we’re both Sicilian?! No, I really didn’t know much about his position or relationship with Mr. Gordy.
PS: People might be surprised to learn just how important a role Barney played at Motown. John Rhys has a great description of Barney’s role at Motown on his Bluepower.com Blog. He wrote that ‘knowing the potential of the Motown machine, discerning the machine’s many talents (including his own) and knowing how to collect the rewards was Barney’s talent.’ How did you prepare for something so intangible?
DN: I watched a lot of audio/video recordings of him and of taped meetings he attended. I also read as much about him as I could. Mr Gordy sat down with me and talked about Barney, what he was like and what he did at Motown. I also had a chance to meet and speak with Barney’s son, Barney Ales, Jr.
PS: That must have been great. What insights did he give you about Barney?
DN: It was very cool and helpful to talk with him about his father. Barney is really a self made man. He worked as cement mixer before getting into marketing and music sales.Since cement mixing wasn’t a year round job in Detroit, he looked for something else to fill those months when he wasn’t working. He answered an ad in the paper for his first job in music sales. By the time he came to work at Motown, he had already established a reputation for breaking artists into the pop world.He helped revolutionize the way artists were marketed and carried a lot of clout. Mr. Gordy made a smart move in hiring Barney. Part of Mr. Gordy’s genius was surrounding himself with great people, and Barney was certainly one of his greatest.
PS: Wow, very interesting to hear his back story. How long did the first Motown lab last?
DN: It was around five weeks. At that time, as I’d mentioned, we really weren’t sure when the show was coming to Broadway.Everyone kind of went back to their regular lives in the interim. By the time we got called back for the second lab, in the fall of 2012, we knew we’d be opening in the spring of 2013. It was really exciting to work toward that date.
PS: Can you talk a little about the show itself, what its like to be surrounded by such iconic characters of rock history and that amazing catalogue of Motown songs?
DN: It’s been fantastic!! The catalogue of Motown artists and songs is just so deep and unbelievably rich. Motown was so much more than just a record company. It was and still is a part of American culture and history. There hasn’t really been anything like it before or since. Im proud and honored to be part of a show that celebrates all of that.
PS: I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show, and can attest to how magical a theatrical experience it is, and also how meaningful. The music takes us back to another time in our lives.What’s also fantastic is to hear so many voices that are almost exact replicas of the original artists! It must be so much fun to hear those incredible songs night after night and be part of that experience.
DN: Yes, it’s exciting and a lot of fun. I am honestly blown away by the power of the music and vocals. We’ve got a 19 piece orchestra, which is huge by Broadway standards these days. Ethan Popp does an incredible job with the orchestral arrangements and music supervision. He and I go way back. I’m so happy for him for his Tony nomination!
PS: Talk about a small world! Fabulous that he’s being recognized for the incredible musical arrangements in Motown. What can you tell us about opening night?
DN: It’s hard to put into words how amazing it was! Everyone was so pumped up and excited to begin with. The audience was on fire that night, even more so than usual. Then to see the real legends of Motown on stage with the cast at curtain call was incredible. Along with Mr. Gordy were Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Mary Wilson.
PS: Wow, that sounds fantastic. Talk about life imitating art imitating life! Where was the party afterwards?
DN: It was at Roseland, right across from the August Wilson. We all had a blast. The band was The Commodores, and everyone danced and had a great time. My wife and brother were there, which made it even more special for me.
PS: So your journey came back full circle to 52nd st! It’s a sign! Let’s switch gears for a minute. How are things going with The Doo Wop Project?
DN: They’re going great. The group is like the ultimate side gig for me! Getting together and singing with Dom (Scaglione), Jarrod (Spector), John (Edwards) and Dwayne (Cooper) is the best. We love singing these musical gems and obscure Doo Wop tunes.
PS: Where do you find these songs?
DN: Scag’s Dad is a real Doo Wop connoisseur and has helped us put together our repertoire. A lot of the songs are standards, with our own arrangements and harmony.
PS: I had the pleasure of seeing all of you at Feinsteins last year. You sounded amazing and have a really unique sound. I like ‘the blend!’
DN: (laughs) Thanks. Since that gig at Feinsteins, we’ve had around 25 gigs. Jarrod and Scags recently got back from a Doo Wop tour of seven cities in seven days.
PS: Wow. How can people find out more about the group and any future dates?
DN: People can look at our website, TheDooWopProject.com, and also on our Facebook page.
PS: Dom, it’s been great talking to you! Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
DN: It’s been wonderful to see so many familiar faces at Motown. I really appreciate the support of so many fans and friends that have come to see the show. If you’re there, please stop by the stage door afterwards to say hello. And if you haven’t seen the show yet, please do!
PS: Ditto to that Dom. See you at the theatre!