August 9, 2009

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Jersey Boys Chicago Cast Member Shonn Wiley!

August 9th, 2009

Before his Saturday evening performance on July 11, we had the marvelous opportunity to interview JERSEY BOYS Chicago cast member Shonn Wiley, who has been playing Bob Gaudio since the beginning of this year. Shonn shared stories of his inspirations and passions as a performer, the many diverse roles that he has undertaken, and his incredible experience thus far as Bob Gaudio in Chicago!

JBB: Great to meet you, Shonn! We’d like to find out about how it all began for you and how you got started in musical theatre and what inspired you?

SW: I grew up in Adrian, a small town in Michigan, about a half hour south of Ann Arbor and a half hour north of Toledo, Ohio. There are two liberal arts colleges, one of which is now a liberal arts university. Both with great theatre departments. They have a symphony; and the GEM of the whole town is a 680-seat opera house that has been continuously running for over 160 years, The Historic Croswell Opera House, a not for profit theater organization. It has a summer season and a winter season, so I got involved at a really young age.

My dad studied dance as a youngster and auditioned for the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” He ended up serving in Vietnam, and when he came back things in the states were different. Many veterans had a hard time assimilating back into society, much like the boys coming home from Iraq. I think if he hadn’t gone to Vietnam, he probably would have pursued the business himself. He is one heck of a dancer! He came home, met my mother and they started a family.

I was always interested in movie musicals, song & dance, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Fred and Ginger. I am a bit of a movie musical “junkie.” I have a very large collection of clips from the “golden age” of movie making. Footage that most people have never seen before. These movies were a way for me and my dad to bond. While most of the kids were out “having a catch” with their fathers, we were dancing in the driveway. Trying to figure out a step together. “How did Donald O’Conner do the wall trick in Make ‘Em Laugh?”

My theatre career began in the summer of 1986. The Croswell was doing George M! and Yankee Doodle Dandy was my favorite movies. I wanted to audition for the part of Young George Cohan (even though there isn’t a part for a kid in the show). Unbeknownst to my father, I went down to the theatre and did my dance routine by myself on stage. They asked how I learned to dance and I told them from my father. They then asked if he was around and could he come in to audition. Right after work, he showed up and was cast as George’s father, Jerry. I was cast as young George (a part that was created for me). That started my career and resurrected my father’s. We spent many summers working at the theatre, choreographing, dancing in the chorus, playing parts, and working in the scene shop. By the time I graduated high school, I had done over 60 productions. My mentor Robert Soller is a Fulbright Scholar of the theatre and played a large part in my development in the arts.

After high school, I went to college and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and moved to New York, and here I am!

JBB: You’ve had some amazing theatre experiences, Shonn! Earlier this year, you were nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography for My Vaudeville Man! Congratulations on the nomination! So, choreography is obviously one of your big passions as a performer?

SW: It is! Like I said, those old movie musicals have always been really special to me. I was introduced to this little gem of a project called My Vaudeville Man! I had the pleasure of working with Director / Choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett. We teamed up to create the dance sequences. It’s a two-person musical about an eccentric dancer, Jack Donahue, who was from the early part of last century. He became a big star, similar to a big movie star of today. He performed for Ziegfeld and was Marilyn Miller’s dance partner. They did stage shows together. Ray Bolger plays him in the movie Look for the Silver Lining, the story of Marilyn Miller.

Like many Irish immigrants, his father had issues with alcoholism and Jack developed them as well. It really took a toll on him and unfortunately he died at a very young age. But he wrote this wonderful backstage book, called Letters of the Hoofer To His Ma. That is the inspiration for the original musical.

I have to say, the music is fantastic! I am very proud of that project.

JBB: I have to get this book!

SW: It’s a really, really wonderful book. One chapter you get a letter from Jack talking about traveling on the different Vaudeville circuits, learning about how things worked back then. Finding out about the billing and where certain people would play—if you were a headliner you’d play at a certain place; you never would want to open or close the show, The girls he meets and how they swindled him for all his money. The next chapter is a letter from Ma about how she wishes Jack would send money home or at least get a decent job.

I worked on My Vaudeville Man! in the fall. While I was doing that, I had a friend in the company call me to let me know Drew [Gehling] was leaving. I had my manager call casting director Tara Rubin’s office to inquire about the opening, they brought me in, for a work session and a final callback for the creatives and the rest is history. Now I’m a brunette! (chuckled)

JBB: Wow! You got the call? So, had you been pursuing the show for quite some time?

SW: I saw the show about a year after it opened, and the moment I saw it, I said to my wife, ‘I have to do this show!’ When Daniel [Reichard] left, I had come in for it, but didn’t get it that time. Knowing the success of the show, I was certain it would be around for a while and I hoped I’d get the chance to play Bob someday.

Daniel and I did Candide at the New York City Opera together. I stood by for him and ended up going on one evening, which was a real thrill. Never in a million years growing up did I ever think I would sing with New York City Opera. We’ve been fast friends ever since, doing benefits and hanging together.

So, John Coppola, who’s a good friend from when I first moved to New York called, said that Drew was thinking about putting in his notice. When Drew put in his notice, John called again and said get on the phone and find out what’s going on.

Then, like I said, my manager called Tara’s office. They brought me in and I auditioned for Richard [Hester] and Ron [Melrose]. Then, after that, I met the whole creative team. I had the privilege to work with Des [McAnuff] on Dracula the Musical. I think he’s a bit of a genius don’t you?

JBB: Des is definitely a genius!!

JBB Tech Half: You made it happen, worked at it, showed an interest, and followed through?

SW: Yeah, after the show had opened I really didn’t go in for it—for the first national, then this company originally, or the Vegas company—I don’t know why. I guess I just wanted to stay home in New York. I was doing a lot of roles in film and TV. Had the chance to work on new musicals and did two great shows at City Center Encores (Stairway to Paradise and No, No, Nanette). We have to make choices in this business and I thought being in New York was what I needed to do. My wife is an actress, and we were just married in 2004. That played a big part in staying New York.

Then, the economy got really bad and the opportunity presented itself. I wouldn’t say that was the only reason I wanted to come, but obviously leaving town is a big sacrifice. I miss my wife, but we seem to have made it work. Bottom line is: This show—from the moment I saw it, I said, ‘This is an incredible experience and I would be lucky to get the chance! ’ What other time do you get to play rock stars?

JBB: You’ve done such a wide variety of projects over the last several years.

SW: Yeah, I’ve never wanted to pigeonhole myself. I could very well have just been a song and dance man. To be able to go from contemporary musical theatre, like Frank Wildhorn, to 42nd Street on Broadway, to doing movies, and TV, and now THIS! I always want to be challenged.

JBB: What is the most exciting part of portraying Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys?

SW: First of all he is a very interesting person. A child prodigy. Knew he was going to be a success from the beginning. Has the uncanny ability to create melodies that just latch on to your ear. And unlike other melodies that can wear on you, make you wish you could get that damn song out of your ear, for me, I never get tired of these songs. They make me happy. I don’t know how many times we have left the show and people say that it brought back so many memories and just made them feel good inside.

Plus, I think all the Frankies I’ve been with, we’ve all really had special relationships. I want to say that it’s written in the show. When you get an opportunity to play Bob, you have a connection with Frankie, and that’s translated outside the theatre as well. Cory [Grant] was my first. He is such a talented guy. He was around when I first started finding Bob. It’s such a precious time. We have remained close, still keep in touch. He’s a great friend. John [John Michael Dias] is incredible too; we’ve always had a great connection. Sometimes he reminds me of MY best friend. And, when Dominic [Scaglione, Jr.] came in, it was like we’ve known each other forever. We have spent time on the golf course laughing about how similar our relationship is to Bob and Frankie’s. I like to cook, so I’ll bring him in some food take care of him make sure he eats!…just little things like that. (chuckles).

It’s not just with Bob and Frankie, but it’s everybody else, too. We all love each other and take care of each other. The other Seasons are terrific. No one is selfish. Everyone supports the person driving the story. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re all actors with egos but it never get in the way of the work. That’s rare.

JBB: What’s the toughest part of playing genius songwriter Bob Gaudio? Do you feel a certain amount of pressure to play someone who is not only still alive, but also very involved behind the scenes with the show? Have you met Bob Gaudio yet?

SW: Most definitely, it’s hard playing someone who’s still alive. And someone you’ve never met. But I think Marshall [Brickman] and Rick [Elice] have created characters that is very fleshed out. And with guidance from Richard [Hester] and West [Hyler], it makes it easy to trust that what I am doing is right. I think I will feel the pressure when Bob Gaudio sees the show. :) I would love to sit down with him and spend some time talking to him. I have some questions that I am dying to know the answers to.

JBB: What about your favorite scene?

SW: That’s so hard, because they’re all so much fun. I like the sit down just because there’s a lot of good acting going on. Everybody’s connected and committed…I like the sit down, because I don’t say much, so I get to watch and react.

JBB Tech Half: You’re boiling up inside, watching this all going on….enough’s enough!

SW: Exactly! When Tommy talks about how ‘I don’t know why we’re here; I run the group’–it kind of hits me the wrong way. Great ammo to help build up to when I finally do get to speak.

[Michael] Cunio and I have talked about it, too…one instance, when we first sing in the recording studio together. He gives me the stink eye and I love it. It’s the first time, Tommy is out of his element; it’s my element now. Tommy slowly starts to feel comfortable, having a good time, but he’s very stand-offish with me throughout.

Everyone’s performances are so layered. It inspires you to want to make your performance just as nuanced. We all take our jobs very seriously and enjoy the process of breaking it down and figuring it out.

My second most favorite scene would probably be the diner scene.

JBB: I love that one, too! That’s a great one! Especially when you tell Frankie, “It’s a gift.”

SW: It’s such a great scene—it really is.

JBB: What about your top musical number in the show?

SW: I LOVE The Big 3…those songs are great and, then the first time we sing together, “Cry For Me” –they’re probably up there together.

JBB: What about your favorite line—you have so many good ones!?

SW: I’m not drawn to the old neighborhood, my life never revolved around the old neighborhood, I don’t give a fuck about the old neighborhood. That about sums it up, doesn’t it? :)

JBB: You’ve been starring in Jersey Boys Chicago since January of this year. Since then, have you discovered anything about yourself that you didn’t know before joining the company?

SW: Yeah, it’s a lot harder being away from Meredith than I thought it would be. I miss her. But she is the most supportive partner anyone could wish for. When I got the job I never felt from her any disappointment that I would be gone. We’ve always supported each other’s careers. She’s the best!


  1. What a lovely interview. I wasn’t sure about Shonn at first, but he seems like a really great guy. I hope to meet him one day. :)

    Comment by ally — August 9, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  2. Wow. What a beautiful wife. Lucky guy!

    Comment by Gary — August 9, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  3. Wow, went to his first audition by himself!! That just makes me grin. What a great interview. Now I gotta go to Chicago and see him perform.

    Comment by Linda — August 9, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

  4. Fantastic interview! I really love finding about what has inspired these actors. Loved reading the stories of Shonn and his father.

    BTW, Shonn is fabulous as Bob Gaudio. Can’t wait to see him again soon!

    Comment by TeresaJ — August 10, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

  5. Your Jersey Boys Chicago interview series is great! What a talented guy Shonn Wiley is! Would have loved to have seen him in “My Vaudeville Man!”

    Comment by Bill — August 11, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  6. Shonn Wiley I just saw the show for the first time and I loved it. You were great and I think I just might see it again.

    Comment by Annette — November 6, 2009 @ 8:25 am

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