August 10, 2010

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Dan Sullivan!

August 10th, 2010

By Frances Fong-Lee, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

I had the privilege to interview one of my favorite cast members recently:the brilliant actor Dan Sullivan, who’s plays Tommy DeVito in the Toronto Jersey Boys Company. This man is truly talented – with his outstanding acting as the tough, bad-boy of the group, and the charm and suaveness to make any woman swoon, and any man wish they were like him! Dan shares some marvelous stories about how and when he became interested in theatre; his time with the “Pirates of Penzance” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” tours; the audition process; his favorites from the show; his amazing experiences portraying Tommy DeVito, and many other surprises!

FFL: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me, Dan. How does it feel to be part of the award-winning, critically and viewer-acclaimed hit show “Jersey Boys”?

Dan Sullivan: Well it feels award-winning and critically acclaimed! “Exclamation mark” It feels awesome. This is the best show I’ve ever seen; it’s not only my favorite show, but it’s my favorite job that I’ve ever had, and it’s a great company to be with, and a great city to do it in. So I’m a bit sad to be leaving.

FFL: Aww, well we’re sad that you’re leaving too!

DS: Thank you.

FFL: And I did some research on you, and I found out that you graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a Masters in Fine Arts for Acting. Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?

DS: I did, yeah. I started in the fifth grade with a Christmas pageant and I was hooked from then on. I didn’t get serious about it until probably until high school, and then I went to undergrad for Theatre and then got a Masters in Acting and Directing — it was actually an MFA in Acting and Directing, with the thought that one day down the road I might want to be an Artistic Director or a professor at a college, but for now I’m just living it large.

FFL: Very nice! What inspired you to be involved in theatre?

DS: That’s a great question. I think the initial inspiration, (and I mentioned this on one other Jersey Boys Blog entry, but my initial inspiration) was my fifth grade Music theatre, named Mrs. King, she was the best and she taught me to love both singing and performing. So she was the first, but then I was encouraged all the way. My parents have always been very encouraging about pursuing my dreams and, in fact, my little brother (to give a little shout-out to him), when I was in the fifth grade performing in my first ever musical, I said, ‘I want to be an actor now!’ My brother, who was four years younger than me at the time, said at the same time I was saying I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘I want to be a firefighter!’ And do you know what he’s doing now? He’s a firefighter! And I’m an actor! Boy, oh boy! Dreams come true!

FFL: Dreams do come true! How did you get started in show biz?

DS: Professional: I straight up moved to New York. Well after college, I actually worked regional gigs for a while in the southern part of the United States, and then moved to New York after a few months of doing that. And just kept going job to job which is kind of the actor’s life. I spent many years traveling the country, both on tour and in regional theatre gigs, and when I say the country, I mean the United States, not Canada, and admittedly, that kind of lifestyle is tiring. I would love to settle down in one place, but that is not always in the cards for an actor; I’ve always found that I’m having to run around. So I’ve been somewhat settled here in Toronto for the past year, a little bit more than a year…

FFL: Has it really been a year?!

DS: It has, it’s been more than a year. And come that for me, 479th performance, that’s how many I will have done, it will be very sad; although I will be happy to go back to my home, which is NY and my family there.

FFL: Speaking of tours, I noticed that you were a part of the “Pirates of Penzance” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” Tours. Which roles did you play in those two musicals?

DS: In both of those, I was an ensemble member who understudied some good parts. So having spent a lot of time with both those shows, I have a big appreciation for ensemble members who can understudy because you have to have many “caps” on. For a while, that’s the kind of job I had. I was an ensemble guy and I’ve been slowly been able to find more featured work since then.

FFL: Let’s venture onto “Jersey Boys” now, what led you to audition for “Jersey Boys”? (-looks over– Dan looks at me and laughs-)

DS: 5 minutes left! We’ll go fast, it’s alright!

My first, well, I saw “Jersey Boys” for the first time, I think it was 2006, I’m nearly positive it was 2006, and I had a friend in it who was playing Hank Majewski, and I saw the show and said “Oh my gosh! I want to be in this show so bad!” It was fun, funny, cool. There was lots of guitar playing – I wanted to play Hank Majewski!

FFL: Was it Buck Hujabre (who was playing Hank at the time)?

DS: It was not, no, I saw Buck on the tour and I know Buck also, but the guy in NY at the time playing Hank Majewski was Colin Donnell, and he was somebody I knew from years ago. And I thought: 1) He was terrific! And 2) I thought: “Man! I want to do this show!” And so the first opportunity I had to audition for it, I did, and two years later, I was finally offered a part. And there were many auditions in between; I think thirteen in all.

FFL: What was the experience like coming into a brand new company a quarter of the way into its run, after Jeremy Kushnier left?

DS: This was intimidating, to say the least. First, I was not only an admirer of Kushnier, but a fan! I saw him perform many times in a few different shows. Second, I was only able to run through the show twice with the Toronto cast, so I felt a little like I was in my own world for much of the first few weeks.

FFL: Let’s talk about the character you play in the show: Tommy DeVito. What did you do to prepare for the part?

DS: To prepare, I needed to get some attitude. Now, I’m a generally nice guy, but I have spent most of my life hiding the not-so-nice parts of me! During auditions for this role, I had to access those parts all the time! I also studied the other Tommys I could see on Broadway and on the tour, worked a whole lot on the dancing and the accent, and never went a day (during rehearsals) without running the show two or three times.

FFL: Since there are so many actors playing the role of Tommy DeVito, what do you do to make it your own? (What do you do to make your Tommy unique?)

DS: That’s a great question. It’s not really anything specific that you do, but you have to find your own personality quirks that go into it. I feel like I’m the guy playing Tommy that has benefited the most from watching other people because I was given the opportunity to watch so many other Tommys. I think I saw four or five other Tommys over the course of the years I was auditioning and then when rehearsing the show. So I have literally stolen from all of them, and then sort of infiltrated my personality amongst them. You’ll definitely see bits from all of them in my performance, but as far as making it your own, you have to find who you are and how it relates to this tough guy character. I’m not the toughest guy in the world, but I’m a very ‘smart-alecky’ guy – I’m a wise-cracking guy. So I can use that sort of sarcasm and things to make Tommy work a little bit for me.

FFL: [This question leads to another one of my questions:] Since you saw so many Tommys, did Matt Bailey, (the Tommy DeVito on the National Tour Company), give you any advice on portraying the role?

DS: I think I watched Matt Bailey the most actually, so I learned a lot from him. And it’s not necessarily asking him for advice that is what it’s about; it’s more just watching him – how he handles different situations – how all of them handle different situations. We’re given the blocking; we’re given the through-line of the scene, but until you see somebody do it, you don’t necessarily get the big picture. So I suppose it’s just observation of how he handles the big picture, and boy, I watched him for two weeks straight and learned a lot from him.

FFL: What’s the toughest part about playing Tommy DeVito?

DS: Toughest is starting out the show with the right energy, because obviously he’s the first person to speak in English –laughs- in the show. You have to come out there with enough energy that people know the show is going to be exciting and fun and engaging, but not so much energy that you come across as frantic or in my case dorky –laughs-. I can come across as dorky, so I have to find the “cool” right from the beginning, and frankly that’s hard when you can’t see the audience and the spotlight is shining right in your face, and you’re trying to relate to a mass of shadows out there. That’s the hardest part.

FFL: What’s the most exciting part of playing Tommy?

DS: If by ‘exciting’ you mean ‘knee-shaking scary adrenaline’ then the most exciting part is when the fence rises during the opening sequence and the audience is revealed to me for the first time. That is a thrilling moment, and scary. I know that just moments from then, I will be down at the lip of the stage talking and singing and there will be nowhere to go but through!

FFL: Offstage, do you share any similarities with the Tommy DeVito character?

DS: Um, I think I should plead the fifth on this one.

FFL: Performing so many shows each week is both invigorating and exhausting. What do you do to keep your energy up and to stay focused?

DS: Sleep. I sleep a lot. Everyone knows their body and what it needs, and mine needs sleep. I haven’t missed a show due to illness yet (in fifteen months!), so it seems to be working.

FFL: Does the audience reaction affect your performance?

DS: It absolutely does. We have a baseline performance that of course we have to do, but if the audience is really laughing a lot, it makes us love the jokes more. If the audience is really silent and engaged, it makes us love the more serious parts more. So even though we can’t see them all the time because the lights are so darn bright, the audience absolutely changes what we do; not dramatically, we still give the same show, but it definitely affects – if you cheer louder, the actors will be more energized. If you don’t cheer as much, the actors will perhaps be a little bit more introspective or engaged with their partner a little bit more. It fluctuates – that is what’s so fun about live theatre.

FFL: How much does the audience response affect your performance? What do you do to stay “up” if you have a less enthusiastic crowd? [MAYBE – very similar to the previous question]

The show remains the same with or without an enthusiastic crowd, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t love it when they are cheering and laughing more than usual. When the audience is quiet, we just turn our focus a little more towards telling the story. When they are loud, we turn our focus a little more towards performing the concert portions. Either way, they always are cheering loudly at the end of the night!

FFL: What is a typical show day like for you – including preparation?

DS: Sleep late. Coffee. Life errands and time with family. Arrive at show one hour before it begins and check in with the cast and stage management. Set up playing cards, microphone, and other show stuff. At half-hour, I take a quick shower and start singing a bit. Then I grease up my hair and put on my costume. By now, it is about five minutes before the show begins and I go into the hallway to say hello to other folks waiting for the places call. Then, when places are called, I go back to the fence and hang for a few minutes with the two Nicks before the show starts…

FFL: What are your favorite things to do when you’re not performing?

DS: I like to write. I like to go on family adventures. And I like to fantasize about doing “Jersey Boys” again someday.

FFL: Quick three questions: Favorite scene, musical number, and line in the show?

DS: Great! Favorite scene: the sit-down. How could it not be?!

Favorite song: “Who Loves You” because I love the way it builds from one actor to two, to three to four, to the whole company. And then when the horns come in, that’s my favorite part.

And what was the last question?

FFL: Favorite line in the show.

DS: Favorite lines: I love to say “ubiquitous”. I think every Tommy would probably say that, but just saying that word with that little bit of a smirk is always fun.

FFL: And also, what’s it like being one of the only Americans in a Canadian cast?

DS: Well, it’s been extremely welcoming, while I’ll admit the banking has been challenging –we both laugh- dealing with currency exchanges and things with my bank; I’m paying bills in the United States – that’s been challenging! But as a whole, the people of Toronto, they welcome the show, sure, but on a personal level, they also welcomed me. The company here at “Jersey Boys” (Toronto), is absolutely the nicest company I’ve ever worked with in my life. And forget the company, I mean you, Frances, the fans are a huge part of that! It’s unbelievable to have people standing at the stage door and just say, ‘Thanks for a great show!’ That is an amazing feeling; I’ll never get tired of it. I’m sad to not have it come September.

FFL: Well, you never know! Also, what makes this particular cast so fun and great to work with?

DS: Because they are phenomenally talented. This is probably the most talented cast I’ve ever worked with in my life. Sometimes I sneak around, especially during the second act, as any true fan would know; Tommy has a 20 minute break in Act 2. And very often, I’ll sneak up to where the lights are hung and I’ll watch the show from the front, from way above the theatre, and I love to listen to the Frankie’s sing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “C’mon Marianne” – I’m blown away by the talent in the company. That’s one of my favorite things.

FFL: What sets “Jersey Boys” apart from other musicals, particularly “jukebox musicals”?

DS: Everyone will tell you that the story is what sets it apart. It is an engaging story, and a true one, and a good story will suck you in any day. But here’s another thing that doesn’t always get mentioned: the musical and vocal arrangements of the songs. This show sounds terrific, full, and theatrical without losing the rawness of the original recordings. Very often, a ‘jukebox’ musical will have funky or beautiful new arrangements of songs, but they lose the power that made the songs popular in the first place. These songs are arranged, in my opinion, just perfectly to still feel like the original rock tunes, but have enough polish and fullness to be theatrical. It is an understated accomplishment, and one that I admire when I hear them every night.

FFL: What is it about the story and the music that makes the audience feel so connected to Jersey Boys?

DS: Oh, an easy one! The dedication is what gets me, and I think what gets other people as well. These guys experienced hardship, and they fought for what they have. Not one of them has an easy path to success. They really are neighborhood guys who made good.

FFL: Why do you think audience members keep coming back to see “Jersey Boys”? [I’m not saying just me, but audiences in general.]

DS: I think: 1) the music is flawless — it’s timeless, flawless music. So that’s one clear reason, but also the other reason is I think the inspiration; it’s an inspirational story that everybody can relate to: people fighting for what they want. Everybody does that or at least should do that; if you have a dream like these four guys did, you fight for it and you go for it and you don’t give up! And that’s what Tommy did and the rest of the Four Seasons, but I think Tommy did it the most. So what if he was kicked out of the group?! He made this group happen and he didn’t give up until it did, and that’s what attracted me to the show in the first place. And I think that’s what makes people want to come back.

FFL: I have three more questions to ask you.

DS: Yeah, bring it.

FFL: Since joining the “Jersey Boys” Toronto Company, what have you learnt about yourself?

DS: That’s a hard question. A person changes with any long job that they do or any long commitment that they make. For me, artistically, I’ve learned that I love being in a very long run of a show; this is the longest time that I’ve ever done one role. In fact, I think it doubles the amount of time I’ve ever done one role. So I’ve learnt how to handle that routine of month after month after month doing the same words over and over again, and how to make them fresh. And on a personal level, I’ve learned how to struggle with how to maintain a family life back in New York while working here in Toronto. I’ve said it before, the dream job (“Jersey Boys”) in the wrong city for me because my family is in NY and I need to balance both of those worlds.

FFL: Do you have a particular story or funny anecdote that has happened, either on or offstage, that you would like to share with the Jersey Boys Blog readers?

DS: Hmm, let me think… There have been many ‘fly-down’ moments. I find myself, I’m not going to lie, I have a habit now of checking my fly all day long. I do it offstage as well just because I’ve gone probably 20 times on stage with my fly down. So I check it, I check it, I check it all the time, and have to fix it whenever appropriate, and not, well, shady looking. There have been many ‘fly-down’ moments. Past that, we haven’t had anything particular dramatic lately. Thank goodness, knock on wood!

FFL: Do you have any advice for actors who will be taking on the role of Tommy DeVito in the upcoming Jersey Boys companies?

DS: There’s a lot to learn; the show is so big and so complex that there is a lot to learn from other people who have played the role. Watching the other Tommys, frankly, was the way I learned the most. Of course I’m not doing exactly what they do, but that is absolutely how I learned the most about how to play the character – what works, how to have a through-line with certain of these scenes because it’s complex. You have a million little offstage things to do, a million intricate scene changes, lots of guitar parts; you have to be charming to the audience, but also have to be a bit of a jerk. You have to be in control but you also have to lose that control, and you have to be forced to give over that control to Frankie – it`s a complex part! I mean, it’s one of my favorite parts in all of musical theatre I think now because I’ve learned that it’s so rich; there’s a lot there. So my advice is to watch as many other Tommys as you can, just like I was able to do because there are lots of great guys out there doing a lot of great stuff.

FFL: Last question: Do you have any projects lined up after “Jersey Boys” ends?

DS: I’m going to put it dot, dot, dot there… there is a project, and I’m not going to say what it is yet.

FFL: Could you say if it’s going to be in Canada or the U.S.?

DS: Let’s put some suspense in there… There may be something. I guess we’ll all have to keep in touch!


  1. Hey! Great interview with Mr. Sullivan, you certainly got him to talk and divulge lots of information on himself. I disagree though that he is the only American in the Toronto cast. Quinn Von Antwerp is also American, a California native.

    Comment by Chiara — August 10, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

  2. The interview does say that Dan is “ONE” of the only Americans in the cast. I know Quinn’s American as well! :)

    Comment by Frances — August 11, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

  3. Loved the interview and God bless Mrs. King! Dan is one of the best for meeting fans and being super friendly! Very informative and interesting to hear where the inspiration for his role comes from. I had no idea that the audition process was so involved. Great Info!

    Comment by Nicola — August 12, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

  4. Frances, you just keep pumping out these interviews so fast it’s hard to keep up with you! And each one is so different. You certainly have a gift for interviews. I hope you realize it. You got off to a late start, but you came up from behind and won the race! Very impressive questions. Dan seems so appreciative of everything that has come his way. He’s such a gifted actor. I hope to follow his career (and yours!) for a long time.

    Comment by Gary — August 14, 2010 @ 10:08 am

  5. Wow-Frances, first and foremost, congratulations on taking home the Gary Award for Best Achievement in Interviewing on the Jersey Boys Blog. It’s an awesome honor given the strong competition!!

    All kidding aside, it was a wonderful interview. A prior Blog piece featuring Dan mentions Patricia King and two other mentor-teachers in such a touching and grateful way. This talented thespian obviously remembers from where he came.

    I look forward to meeting both of you next week in Toronto after the show. So Dan, please don’t sneak out of the side door!!

    Comment by Howard — August 14, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Please leave a comment