March 3, 2006

John Lloyd Young Reflects on His Early Days on Off-Off Broadway

March 3rd, 2006

Reporter Amy Krivohlavek of’s interview with Jersey Boys’ John Lloyd Young provides one of the most interesting and in-depth interviews regarding his early days in off-off Broadway theater. Even though Young is now receiving accolades playing Frankie Valli from critics and fans alike as he plays to sold-out audiences eight times a week, his early work in small storefront theaters has helped Young to cling to his artistic ideals.

In the production, Spring Awakening at Expanded Arts, a 30-seat storefront theater, Young was onstage with a gaping head wound from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in summer heat. Thinking back to that production, Young says,

“It was disgusting, gruesome, hot, sticky, ghoulish: a barrel of laughs.”

Although Young’s performance as Frankie Valli has already generated Tony Award buzz, he admits that 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. He tells Krivohlavek,

“To be perfectly honest, 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.”

How does Young feel about starring in a ‘jukebox musical’? 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. He states,

“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. 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 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.

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.”

Young 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. Young reflects on his future,

“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.”

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.

So how would he advise the hard-working people who continue to make Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater, often quite unluxuriously? Young’s advice to the off-off Broadway actors,

“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.”

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