May 24, 2012

Behind the Streetlamp – A Conversation with Michael Ingersoll, Christopher Kale Jones, Michael Cunio, and Shonn Wiley

May 24th, 2012

(Photo credits: Carol B. & stubbs)

By stubbleyou, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

Our West Coast correspondent stubbleyou talks with the members of “Under The Streetlamp” about their origins, their first national tour, and their filmed-for-television concert that recently aired on Public Broadcasting stations across the country.

One day about seven years ago, stubbletwo came home from school all excited. He was in the second grade. “Hey Dad – I’m in a band!”

“Really? Tell me about it.”

“Ryan will play guitar, Matt’s on drums, and I’m gonna play bass. Kevin will play the piano, and Davis is gonna sing lead.” Now I knew that between these five kids the only thing any of them could play with any proficiency was their Gameboys, but who was I to stifle such youthful exuberance?

“Sounds fun. Do you have a name yet?”

“Yep. The Three Desires.”
Fast forward to the present, when I had the opportunity to sit down with the four very talented performers who comprise the up-and-coming retrogroup “Under The Streetlamp” as they were about to embark on their first national tour. I thought I’d open with a question or two about their name. “Did you consider any other names before deciding on Under The Streetlamp?”

Shonn Wiley: Shonn Wiley and the Five O’Clock Shadows. (Laughter all around).

Now this is doubly funny, not only because of the numerical mismatch but because Shonn, as the babyface of the group, looks as if he’s barely ready to remove that first layer of peach fuzz.

Stubbs: You’re the baby of the group, right Shonn? Stubbletwo took one look at you on TV (on the PBS concert) and said “Boy, that guy looks young.”

Shonn: No, I’m actually not.

Michael Cunio: He’s the oldest.

Shonn: I’m actually the oldest, but I tend to have the …

Christopher Kale Jones: … best skin regimen. (More laughter).

Shonn: …the youngest of spirit, let’s just put it that way.

Michael Ingersoll: Absolutely.

That was my first clue that this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation to stay in charge of. But who was I to stifle such youthful exuberance?

Stubbs: Okay, seriously – who came up with the name?

Shonn: Michael Ingersoll. There’s an incredible line at the end of the musical Jersey Boys, where we’re four guys under a streetlamp, where everything was stripped away and all that was left was the music, that was the best. And we clearly found as we started forming this group that one of the very strong reasons as to why we decided to continue singing together, was because it really was the best. We’ve all enjoyed singing together in Jersey Boys; Michael had the idea of learning extra music while we were in Chicago, and we continued singing outside of the show, and when we got our closing notice, we all made the commitment to continue working together because we became great friends.

We’ve been telling people a lot about the origin of doo-wop and where it came from – it was created in urban settings like the Bronx, like Baltimore, Detroit, Washington DC – these large cities where a lot of people lived in these very cramped homes, and they would find themselves coming out into the streets in the summertimes. Lots of activities were going on, whether it was dominoes or stickball, and musicians would congregate underneath the streetlamp, and they didn’t have a lot of money for instruments, and so their voices became instruments, whether it was the percussive nature of the shoo-bee-doo-wahs, and then the lead singers and that, and … I think Cunio sums it up the best – which is …

Cunio: We were joking about it one day. Because obviously it’s a setting, which is kind of an unusual thing for a name. But the thing we like about Under The Streetlamp is, we consider it the humblest of spotlights.

(By the way, Cunio goes by his last name not so much because there are two Michaels in the group, but because growing up he was surrounded by Michaels, and using surnames made it easier to distinguish among peers.

Funny thing is that his three brothers followed the same convention, so they were a houseful of Cunios. The Four Cunios. But no, they did not sing together – despite having a perfectly good name for a quartet).

I remember reading about you on the Internet as the group was evolving – it seemed that you had a few other members before you settled on the four of you, and that there were even times when you had more than four. It looked to me like, “Well, let’s see who’s gonna be available that night,” or whatever, and like you had sort of a rotating lineup of singers.

Michael: Yeah , that’s exactly what it was. The jumping off point for this was, that I was invited by a theater in Chicago that I had worked for before to do a solo cabaret, and I had never done it before. So I put this concert together, and at the very end of it, I invited the other three guys who were performing with me (in Jersey Boys) in downtown Chicago at the time, and the audience reaction was so intense when the other three guys joined us, they were so happy and so surprised. I was having more fun as the audience was having more fun, seeing the quartet come together. And as I continued to do this show over the next year, there were different people with me at different times, and so other cast members would go out, and new ones would come in, and I’d say, “Hey, I do this thing on Sundays and Mondays; do you want to do it?” But when the show closed, Shonn and Cunio and I had been doing that consistently for almost a year, and that’s when the camaraderie really started to build, and the consistency allowed that. Chris Jones and I, we started out the first national JB tour together, and when the show closed, I called Chris and I said, are you available to come in and do some of these dates that we have, even after JB has closed, and he said yeah.

Stubbs: If I can interject for a moment, Michael, Chris is responsible for my becoming a big JB fan. You could either say he gets the credit, or gets the blame, depending on your perspective. But when I first saw the show in November of 2007 in California, I took one of those backstage tours that was offered for a charity donation. Chris led it. Not only did I love the show – one friend who saw it with me the first time said he looked over at me during the show and it was as if I was injecting heroin into my arm – but I was also very impressed and surprised afterwards at what a nice guy Chris was.

Chris: And I’ve changed, by the way. I’m now a mean, mean person.

Michael: He’s a bastard.

Cunio: Yeah, you should try working with the guy.

Shonn: Really. (Laughter. Mine.)

Michael: So anyway, when Chris came in, he clearly completed the quartet, where all the pieces were just right. And that goes beyond the artistic pieces – how the personalities worked together, and honestly that might even be the most crucial thing, and we knew we had our guys.

Cunio: It didn’t hurt that he fit the suit from the previous guy.

Michael: He did fit the suit. I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

Cunio: We had intended, when this thing started, for it to just be a side gig, until we found our next job, whether that was in the theater, on television, or whatever it may have been. And it’s really the audience’s enthusiasm for what we’ve done here that’s made this the main gig, and given us the opportunity for us to really take a shot at it.

Michael: No one is more surprised than we are that this is now our main job.

Cunio: We were all looking for what was going to be the next thing for us, and this has become that. This has become our first priority, our primary responsibility.
So Chris was the last piece of the puzzle, so to speak. And like puzzle pieces, though they fit together just right, no two are exactly the same. Each of these guys is an accomplished lead singer in his own right and they share and rotate leads throughout the show, but each has his own style and an area where he particularly shines.

Cunio, for example, has the purest rock, roll, and soul voice in the group, showcased on some Aretha, some Kinks, some Isley Brothers, and some Beatles. His rendition of recently-departed Etta James’ “At Last” from 1960 is a showstopper.

Shonn ‘s performing roots go way back, having started dancing at the age of five. He contributes some of the pre-rock tunes in the show, and he’s a natural with anything from Vaudeville to Clarksville and all stops in between. (Shonn sings the only Monkees tune in the show.) He also gets a chance to show off the some fancy footwork that demonstrates why he’s the choreographer for the group.

Ingersoll is heard gravitating toward early rock and roll as well as staking out the “anything rockabilly” corner, having spent a number of years in Memphis. Can you say Elvis and Orbison? Can you say it with a mouthful of fried peanut butter and banana sandwich? Michael probably can, still displaying the elocution of the Shakesperean actor that he was before there was a Jersey Boys. On any given night one can imagine him deciding between his tan shoes with pink shoelaces or his blue suede shoes. (I know, I’m showing my age with that one).

Chris Jones’ clear-as-a-bell dulcet tones remind us why he was the first choice to take JB on the road when it became apparent that the show’s Broadway success cried out for a touring company. Strong and smooth as ever in his chest voice, Chris is the quintessential crooner. Of course he provides the group’s falsetto, in a Four Seasons medley and occasionally but effectively in a handful of other numbers too.

Ingersoll was elbow to elbow with Chris when the first JB national tour began, so there’s some irony that they now are embarking on their own first national tour. I guess the time finally did come for Ingersoll to start his own group.

When Chris left the JB tour, he held the distinction of being the longest running Frankie to date; when Michael left it was to start the JB production in Chicago, where he remained through its entire two-year-plus run. Along the way Cunio and Shonn joined the Chicago cast as Bob and Tommy, respectively, and the rest is history. Or perhaps I should say, is about to be.

You’re about to embark on a six week, twenty-six concert tour. You’re calling it the first tour, but UTSL has been performing since January, 2010, and has done over fifty shows, according to your website. Why is this set of gigs being called your first tour?

Shonn: It’s the first time that we will board a tour bus, and travel from city to city, and we will be playing a different venue every single evening. When we first got started we took advantage – and when I say took advantage I mean in an incredibly positive way – of the opportunities that JB had created for us. The greater Chicagoland area did not want the show to close. Ticket sales might have been down as far as the people in charge were concerned, but the people who live in this community did not want to see the show go. We had an opportunity to capitalize on a – if you want to call it – a semi-celebrity in this area, and it gave us an opportunity to work with charities and not-for-profits, with arts education programs, to raise money for their organizations. At the same time it gave us an opportunity to continue building this show. A lot of the things that you’ll see in this show were born out of those experiences.

Stubbs: So the performances until now were each a one-of-a-kind, or perhaps I should say, one-at-a-time events, rather than as part of a planned, organized itinerary.

Shonn: Right. The idea of traveling from venue to venue, and playing top theaters in large markets – this is the first time that we’ve ever had that opportunity.

Stubbs: Are you taking the same group of musicians along on the whole tour or are you picking up new people in each town?

Michael: Because Joann Doherty, our musical director, and her husband Ryan Bennett, and our baritone saxophone player, are all on the JB second national tour right now, we have had to rebuild our band. So Pat Williams our bass player is the only original one from the PBS special. We’ll travel with our rhythm section, our quartet, and well pick up horns in each city, which will be a new experience for us.

Stubbs: I guess that’s doable; it seems like it might be daunting but I guess its common in the industry?

Cunio: Par for the course.

Stubbs: Are you excited, or are you not looking forward to “the road” – the tiny bars of soap, the wet towels on the bathroom floor…

Shonn: Hey, were looking at this first tour as like summer camp. We were talking about that last night.

Cunio: It’s gonna be a really long traveling camp where we have to sing every night.

Shonn: We tend to laugh a lot, we tend to make each other laugh a lot, and we were talking just today about how this first tour were going to have to be very careful about that, because it can do some damage to the voice.

Michael: Yeah like on the bus, we can’t laugh too much.

Shonn: We really do honestly enjoy – I enjoy at least two of these folks’ company . (Laughter.)

Chris: And that is the truest thing you will hear in this whole interview. (More laughter).

You are obviously getting a lot of exposure through the PBS special that has aired on dozens of television stations around the country. You’ve also done TV spots on several morning news and talk shows. Somebody who clearly knows what they are doing is doing a good job of bringing you all this attention. Is it you yourselves, or do you have someone doing that for you?

Cunio: We’ve had a lot of help and we’re lucky for it.

Michael: I don’t think it’s luck. The way we look at it is this: The universe has decided, we believe, that this project would make people happy. And because that’s the case, people who truly are experts in their own avenue, we have had the grace to meet them and they have joined our project.

Like Joanne Doherty, our musical director, who I just mentioned. Or, let me give you another example. Our agent, Beth Jones, spent seven years at William Morris Endeavor, basically the premier agency in the country, and she’s now with Parallel 49, but she’s a premier agent. Our manager Charlie Blum has been an industry pro starting with the Nederlanders all the way back in the ’70′s. Our press agent, Liz Rosenberg, has a very short list of clients including Madonna, Cher, Michael Buble, and Tony Bennett. PBS is a huge national platform and very few people make it on PBS much less make it through a full pledge drive and are invited back for a next one, as we have been invited to do. So, while we are very proud of our product, we work very hard to make it the best it can be and hope it makes people happy, there have been some career professionals that have stepped in, and their expertise and guidance have absolutely accelerated our trajectory. And it’s difficult to even describe our gratitude for such a thing.

Stubbs: Well it’s obvious they’re doing a great job. Anyone else want to comment?

Cunio: Like I said, you know the deal: we were moonlighting; this was something we did a couple times a month. And we had the great fortune and the grace to have opportunities to be performing our little show in the middle of the country and have been seen by the right kind of people who wanted us to be seen by more than just the people we were performing for. And that’s nothing but grace, nothing but grace.

Shonn: And just to add to that, for us when we first started out, it was about the music and it was about making people happy, and it didn’t matter if we were playing a multi-purpose room at a high school , or we were playing the Chicago Theatre, or the Paramount Theatre, some big theater like that. For me, personally, to step out on the stage with these boys, and to make music together, was enough. And I really think that that in a sense goes a long way in allowing all the other things to happen because we were all content with just making great music and making people happy.

Chris: And to just add my two cents, I always knew I would be incredibly successful despite these three. (Laughter).

Michael: And frankly he was more successful before he met us.

Shonn: It’s all because of Chris.

Chris: We have a good time.

Let’s talk a little about the concert that has appeared on PBS stations across the country as part of their membership drives, and that you’ll be doing live throughout the tour. I have to tell you how much I like the opening – you start with what most would agree are the Big Three of doo-wop, but before that, Michael is onstage alone, singing a slow solo, and then the other voices come out and join in one at a time. It’s not any particular song, but it’s beautiful, and then it breaks right into the energy of “I Wonder Why” (Dion and the Belmonts), “Blue Moon” (the Marcels’ version of the classic, natch), and Sh-Boom (a bit more like the Crew Cuts’ version than the Chords’, but definitely your own). It’s a dynamite beginning, and by the time you’ve worked your way through those three, it’s like the Big Three in Jersey Boys – the audience is ready to explode. It’s really well put together.

Shonn: We love that you think that. That’s awesome. Never thought of that ourselves, actually.

Stubbs: That opening – the slow intro – is that something you yourselves created? It’s really really nice.

Chris: That was actually written for us by Joanne Doherty, who’s now touring with JB’s second national tour, when we were in rehearsals for the special. We thought, we’d love some sort of just bare, a capella-ish thing to introduce everyone to who we are, and basically to say right from the beginning, this is where our brand of music started; this is where it began. It began with people blending their voices together trying to make some music, and then explode out from there. She went home, and I think in the space of like an hour, wrote that.

Michael: The concept of starting with one voice, and adding another one, and introducing each member of the band was ours, but she was the one that turned that into a musical reality.

Stubbs: It accomplishes perfectly what you wanted it to. I don’t know if it’s your intention to start every concert of this tour with that, but I hope for the audience’s sake you do. Another great thing about the concert, as it aired on PBS, is the reaction of the audience. You see true, unadulterated joy and enthusiasm on their faces. There are a couple of guys I just look at and say, “I could have gone to junior high with that kid.” I can picture him at age fifteen. He’s put on a few decades and maybe a few pounds, and he may have a bit less hair, but the way he’s reacting to the music – clapping and singing along – – he’s fifteen again for that couple of hours. It’s as if the music has freed him.

Michael: Our audience is the fifth member of the band. We do it for them. Their enthusiasm – or sometimes lack of enthusiasm (laughs) – shapes the music that we do and how we do it. But their energy and their reactions, especially in the PBS special – they are every bit as much the stars as we are, and that’s as it should be. It’s for them, and without them we wouldn’t be up there.

Shonn: I think it’s also safe to say too, if I might add, when you look at television, and you look at how popular shows like Mad Men have been, there’s a desire by the population and people looking for entertainment to go back to a simpler time. It was a time between World War II and when Kennedy was assassinated, when there was a lot of hope, and a sense of coolness and style, and that’s not lost on us. The music we do is the music of the people that were kids at that time. They’re now adults; they are now going to the theater, and it’s definitely something that means a lot to them.

Cunio: Hopefully we’re giving them a chance to relive some of their fondest memories, and also share this music too, with people who are now their children and the next generation.

Stubbs: Speaking of which, do you find that younger folks are enjoying your music as well?

Shonn: Actually yes. We have an entire group of four year olds, boys and girls, who continue to inspire us with dance moves, and who continue to listen to the music. We have so many videos of these adorable little kids just having a great time. “I’m tap dancing!” “Clap for me mommy!” It’s incredible.

Cunio: There’s one thing that we talk about when people talk about this music, and its ability to build bridges: One of the things that we joke about is, we all grew up listening to this music because it was the music we could agree to with our parents sitting in the car, you know? And we’re seeing that now in our fans. We didn’t have any expectation, or there was no design in place to try target a younger audience, but we found that they’re showing up, and it’s a really exciting thing to be witness to as we have the chance to perform again and again.

Chris: Absolutely. And in addition to that, at a lot of these gigs we’ve flown in to perform, we’ve been able to partner with some high schools, so we could go and have actual talkbacks with students who want to be performers in some way, whether it be in acting, or singing, or becoming a musician, and we’ll get these groups of kids to come out, and we’ll just talk to them, and tell them about our experiences. Like, this is what it’s been like for us, this is what you can expect, these are the things everyone tells you are really important, these are the things that are actually really important, and it’s been great. And just by doing that, and by making ourselves available, we’ve had a lot of loyal fans come along, who are in high school who are the ones on Facebook all the time, and on twitter, and they love it. We were able to do a gig once where we had a couple seats free, so we invited some students to come in and see it, and their reactions actually pumped up the older crowd…

Cunio: It changed the entire dynamic of the evening.

Chris: They were so excited – they were shouting and screaming, and the crowd of people who were maybe 50-plus were excited to see kids who were excited about it, and they got really excited. It just kind of had an exponential result. So we’ve been really fortunate in that way.

Stubbs: I could see that, because as a guy who was fortunate enough to experience this music its first time around, I love it when I see younger folks today enjoying this music as well.

One of my favorite lines in Jersey Boys occurs when Tommy says that in the early days, the group always was “singing somebody else’s latest hit.” It’s a short line, easy to gloss over, but what I like about it is how historically accurate it is, in so few words. If you go through the Four Season’s first few albums, you find many, many instances of them having done exactly that, From “Sincerely” and “Tonite, Tonite” to “Sixteen Candles” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” just to name a few of my favorites. UTSL has a similar phrase that packs a lot of meaning into a few words, and that is how you describe your music: “The American Radio Songbook.” This of course is a variation of the oft-used phrase “the great American songbook,” which refers more to show tunes, movie songs, and jazz standards of the twentieth century. But by throwing the word radio in there, you give it a whole different meaning that perfectly evokes the way we felt about popular music at the time. When I was young I’d listen to the radio, as Karen Carpenter so wistfully sang, and when I was young we didn’t ask each other, “Are you into rock and roll?” or “Do you like pop music?” We would say, “Do you listen to the radio?” It was all about the radio. And that’s how everybody referred to it.

Cunio: That’s exactly where the name came from, and Shonn started to set that up a little bit earlier. When we were figuring out how to categorize our repertoire, one of my great mentors in life was a musician and an arranger and a conductor. Most of the musical taste that I have, I have appropriated from him, not shockingly. And I remember him talking specifically about that experience, about how there was a time where it was just one FM radio station and you were really in the hands of a deejay. It was up to Alan Freed or Wolfman Jack what you were listening to, and you weren’t just limited to heavy metal, or hip-hop, or top forty. You could have the Beatles and Johnny Cash and Etta James all in one listen, and sure, you probably favored one more than the other, but you were exposed to it all, and it was a shared experience.

From Ike and Tina to Steve and Eydie. From Doris Day to Marvin Gaye. From Jan and Dean to the King, and Queen. (Well maybe not Queen. The world wasn’t ready for Queen yet).

Cunio: This is something we like to say too – one of the fun things for us about these shows is, the people who grew up with this music, they come to see our show, and they don’t know the words to just a few songs — they know the words to all of them, and that’s why. So it’s something we’re very passionate about, and frankly, it also gives us the opportunity to include a wide range of music, stylistically. We’re not just a doo-wop band, were not just an oldies band. Shonn does stuff from the 30′s and 40′s, and we did get our feet wet in the 70′s and the 80′s , but it’s all stuff that you found on the radio during a certain time period.

Stubbs: Your mentor’s comments really match my recollection of what it was like back then too. So the phrase “The American Radio Songbook” is one that you came up with, Cunio?

Cunio: Yeah, its one that I came up with. We were sitting in Chris’ kitchen one day trying to figure out how exactly to categorize ourselves, and it was a very brief and very short-lived moment of inspiration (laughter) but it served us well.

Funny, Michael, that you referred to the audience earlier as your fifth member, because that leads right into one of my questions: George Martin became known as the fifth Beatle. Many people considered Neil Diamond to be the fifth Monkee. Is there a fifth UTSL member who writes your vocal arrangements, the musical accompaniments, the horn charts, and all that?

Michael: The fifth member in that sense is an entire team. We have been graced with an entire team of people who have felt that this project a good idea and that it made people happy. So we have gone to our friends – some who have been in the JB family, some who have not, and we’ll conceive of doing a certain song and we’ll know someone’s musical taste, and we’ll think, “Oh, so-and-so should do this chart,” and “So-and-so should do this chart.” But we will typically have a point person. For instance, the team that were working with on the tour, are our musical director Pat Williams, who’s our bass player, and our pianist, Kara Kesselring, came up with an arrangement for one of the brand new tunes were doing. But what they did was bring to us what they heard our voices doing. And then we spent a couple of days going back and forth developing the charts together, so yes, we have a point person that brings an idea and a shape to the table, but then when we actually put it in practice and put our voices to it, the whole group collaborates to come up with that chart and that arrangement.

Cunio: That includes our seven musicians – you mention two of them, but our whole team, the band that we play with, aside from being totally exceptional as musicians individually, they bring to the table a wealth of talent – and that allows us the ability to do exactly what Michael just said. Which is work in total collaboration with one another.

Michael: And you can see from the video of the concert that Joanne Doherty is playing piano on it, and she’s now the musical director of the second national tour of JB. She’s an incredible musician and helped arrange a couple of things, and you can also tell from the credits that Steve Orich, who orchestrated JB, worked on a couple of our charts as well, so we’ve been lucky to work with some of our former JB colleagues, and then also a whole host of new folks.

Most recently we have been collaborating with a gentleman named Dan Ponce. Dan Ponce created Straight No Chaser, and wrote the arrangement for the Twelve Days of Christmas, which became a viral video for them, and also wrote the arrangements for most of their biggest hits. Dan Ponce wrote the vocal arrangement in conjunction with us, for one of our new tunes for the tour. We’re not talking about what those two new tunes are but…

Cunio: It opens the second act. It’s a great tune.

Michael: We’re really excited about that relationship because clearly he’s an individual who knows how to arrange a tune.

Stubbs: So I’m going to be surprised with a new tune at the beginning of the second act at your concert?

Cunio: Yes, and you can write about it all you want!

Chris: It’s technically the second set; we still kind of refer to theater terms, but it’s the second set.

Shonn: Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Stubbs: Will you tell me now what it is?

Michael: Are you coming to see the show?

Stubbs: Yep, I’ll be there.

Cunio: Just wait for it. It’ll be a surprise. There’s a new number for Chris too which is particularly exciting. So you’ll want to write about that one, I’m sure.

A real bonus in the show is your choreography. Shonn, I understand you are the group’s choreographer. Before you stepped in and picked up those reins, did the guys have anything going on in that department?

Michael: I’m going to just answer that question and say no, not a damned thing.

Cunio: Occasionally we would stand with our legs together, occasionally we would stand with our legs apart. That was pretty much the extent of it.

Shonn: Occasionally some together and some apart. The funny thing is, is that when JB closed we had the opportunity to perform at the Paramount, just right outside of Chicago, in Aurora. Aside from the solo that I did in Michael’s cabaret, there was no dancing in the show. We would congregate in the center of the stage, and we would sing some tunes and make some beautiful music. We started a conversation, and I said to Michael, were going to put some movement to some of these tunes, and it was the first time that we had ever done that. And that being said, even from that point until now, it has just grown and grown.

Stubbs: I’d say you tutored them very well.

Cunio: The first choreography that we put together for the show was in a kitchen, and it was literally, step touch to the right, step touch to the left, it was super simple. We choreographed Sh-Boom…

Shonn: …and I Wonder Why.

Cunio: …and then the whole rest of the show was just us acting like idiots. Well it still is, primarily.

Chris: And from there we’ve gotten to the point where yesterday we choreographed an entire song in ten minutes.

Stubbs: Fans of the music would love this show even if you just stood at four mikes and sang, but from watching the concert on PBS, watching all that movement, it’s like a there’s whole second show going on. There’s one show for the ears and another one for the eyes. It looks like it would take a lot to learn and to remember, so I’m surprised you can learn a number in ten minutes. And it’s so much fun for the viewer. Some of it – I’m sure its intentional – seems a bit tongue in cheek, designed to elicit smiles, if not laughter. And it just adds a whole element above and beyond what a lot of other groups do.

Cunio: To be fair, he works with six left feet.

Shonn: I do. I work very hard. I spend a lot of time looking at footage on youtube. I love watching clips of the Temptations, clips of the Jackson Five, clips of the Four Tops, footage from even earlier, just anything that can kind of inspire. And also, I think Sergio (Trujillo, JB’s choregrapher) is kind of a genius as far as what he did with JB. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from Sergio it’s subtlety, and I think that he never went too far with the movement – it always was just right. And I tried really really hard to do that as well. I want the movement to enhance, but I never want it to take away from the true reason that we’re there, and that is to make music.

Michael: One thing that I will say about that, and you were kind of alluding to this earlier, Stubbs. We take the music very, very seriously. We do not take ourselves seriously at all. So the more fun we can invite the audience to have, be it through the way we sing the songs, or the goofiness of some of the choreography, or just how we interact with each other – that’s really the experience we’re trying to create.

Chris: One of my favorite emails we’ve ever gotten kind of summed up exactly the mood we try to evoke. This guy wrote us – “You guys are the kind of group I think if me and my friends could sing, we would form, because we would just get together over beer, and we would just hang out and sing these songs.” And that’s kind of what we like to put forth on stage.

I couldn’t do this interview for the Jersey Boys Blog without mentioning the Midtown Men, and other groups too, like Straight No Chaser and Human Nature. These groups, and probably a few others, pretty much appeal to similar audiences I would think. How do you feel about the increasing interest in the sort of music that you do, and the concomitant (I love that word, concomitant, and I hardly ever get to use it. It means accompanying, or coming along with) increase in groups that invoke the retro repertoire?

Cunio: My personal opinion about all that is, there’s room for everbody. We’re all doing good work. Were all proud of what we’ve created. Were all doing it differently enough from one another to make each group unique and relevant, and frankly we’re friends with a lot of these people. We’re proud of their success and we hope to have some of our own as well, of course. But I think so long as there is a hungry audience, we are all seeking to serve that audience in the best ways we know how. We’ve all found our own specific spin, and I just think – people talk about this a lot – the only people we ever compete with is ourselves. We’re constantly competing to be better performers and better at what we do within our organization. And aside from that, you know, there’s room for everybody.

If the Backstreet Boys, for lack of a better comparison, hadn’t been successful there would have been no room for a band like Nsync.

Shonn: Or 98 Degrees.

Nsync? 98 Degrees? Are those bands? They sound like something you’d pick up in the plumbing department at Home Depot. Hmm, better not display my ignorance. Just nod knowingly…

Cunio: It’s a terrible comparison – we are not a boy band – as I like to say, we’ re a man band – but I think there’s room for everybody, and there are audiences that are craving this kind of entertainment, and we all offer different experiences. All of the people that you just mentioned — to be mentioned in the same breath as all those artists, is a wonderful complement. So it means were doing something right.

What’s next – do you have specific goals for the short term and the long term?

Chris: Well, short term, we’re looking for new tunes all the time.

Shonn: For Tour Two, were already starting to talk about what it is that we want to do the next time we enter these markets. Both as a group and as soloists, and were also starting to talk about our Christmas album. There’ll be a lot of new stuff coming within the next six months to a year.

Stubbs: What about longer term? You mentioned that when you started out, UTSL was just something to do while you waited for the next big thing, and now it’s looking like it IS the next big thing for all of you. Do you have a particular hope or goal as to where it will take you? Do you want to tour more? Do you want to get a long-term engagement in a showroom in Vegas or Atlantic City? Do you want to just record and sell CD’s?

Cunio: Is world domination an option? Kidding.

Shonn: I’m not.

Michael: I would say this: We hope that the music we make , that people enjoy it enough, so that we become top tier touring artists – in the vein of Michael Buble, I would like us to become premier touring artists that play in the best venues, all over the world, with great musicians, making as many people happy as we possibly can, I guess that would be my answer.

Cunio: The only thing I’d add to that is, this is I think some of the most fun any of us have ever had working on stage, so if we could continue to be gainfully employed, by doing something we love so much, for the rest of our lives, that would be a success.

Chris: The only thing I would add to that, is you know, I made a mistake when I graduated –

Cunio: By joining this group (laughter).

Chris: Yeah, by joining UTSL. No, seriously – I made a mistake when I graduated college, and went to New York. It’s like, okay – I need to have a plan, I need to know exactly what I’m shooting for, if I’m not on Broadway in five years I will have failed, and I need to go do something else that I’m good at. I think if you make goals like that they can be detrimental. You always have things that you’re shooting for, and that’s part of the reason that we have this great team — because they have very specific goals that they are shooting for, for us. Such as getting us on Access Hollywood, and things like that. But basically my philosophy with this is, I want to put everything I have into it, for the time being, I want to continue to do stuff that I want to do, which is create music with these guys, and I know the guys feel the same, and see what happens. That’s kind of my biggest goal right now.

Shonn: I just want to get filthy rich. (Laughter). I just want all the money and all the ladies in the world. That’s all.

Let me wind up with this: As you embark on this next exciting phase of your professional lives, are there any thoughts that come to mind as you look back on your JB experiences that you’d like to share with the Jersey Boys Blog?

Chris: I think it just bears noting that we have nothing but gratitude for our time and our experience in that show, and we are fully aware that it has allowed us a certain platform for where we currently are, and we’re incredibly grateful to the creators of that show, as well as the individual producers and stage managers, and everyone that we worked with.

Shonn: We’ve taken an opportunity in our show to specifically pay tribute to Frankie, Bob, Tommy, and Nick, like you see in the special. It’s incredibly important to us to thank them, and the powers that be. I was at the opening of the second national tour of Jersey Boys and Tara Rubin was there – she’s the casting director of the show, and Merri Sugarman, who works with her. I had a chance to talk to both of them, and they were very excited for us. They had heard what was going on, and I said to them, you know, we as an organization owe a lot to you, because at any given time, you thought of one of us, and it’s because you brought us in front of these creative people who brought us into this show, which gave us the opportunity to meet – and that’s when we talk about the whole universe just acting in whatever way it’s supposed to act, in order to kind of throw us all in the same pot.

Michael: One thing I would very much like to make clear to all the blog readers who have supported us and the show all these years is how much gratitude we have for the entire team of Jersey Boys, whether that’s Bob Gaudio personally, or the producers, and the ways in which they have shown us some grace and some guidance in terms of making sure that we can use that event as a jumping off point for this new and exciting project.

Cunio: My very brief thing – and this sort of piggy backs on What Shonn said – it was JB that was the experience that allowed the four of us to meet and become friends. And as Michael said, that was the jumping off point. That was the nest from which we sort of came, and were free to leave and begin this wonderful journey. And were it not for that experience, the four of us would never have come together to create something entirely separate and entirely new, and have the great fortune to see that thing that the four of us have created go on to have a life of its own. And we’re very privileged for that, and were very proud of what we’ve done with the opportunity.

Chris: I’d like to add one thing that I think would be of interest to the people who enjoy the blog so much. When I was in Los Angeles playing the Ahmanson, I had the good fortune to go to Frankie Valli’s house. And talk to Frankie Valli for about an hour and a half. One thing he mentioned to me is that when you’re doing these songs, you really have to invest in them and you have to craft them like an artist. And he mentioned to me, there are people out there who are doing this right now, today, and one of the people he mentioned specifically was Michael Buble. He said there’s every reason that you could one day transition into doing that. Now I had no thought that I would ever join, or become any sort of musical act, but I was like, “Oh sure, that’s good information,” and in one sense, now, something that Frankie Valli had spoken of in just a passing way has come true, with the four of us, and I now get to do that every night as a vocal group and as a band. So I just thought that that was kind of a cool thing, that he was the first one who ever mentioned that to me, that that was a possible career option, and planted that seed.

Stubbs: I think you’re right, Chris. I’m sure JB fans will find that story very interesting indeed.

Thanks to all four of you for setting aside the time for this interview, and for your thoughtful, candid, and sometimes light-hearted insights into the past, present, and future of Under The Streetlamp. I’m really looking forward to the concert!

Three days after Michael, Chris, Shonn, and Cunio graciously and candidly gave me 73 minutes of their time, I went to their kickoff concert of the tour, at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, a premier entertainment complex that also houses the Staples Center and the Nokia Theater. The show was nothing short of spectacular. I’ll decline the guys’ offer to name the two new numbers in the second act, I mean set, so that you can be surprised too. But here’s another clue for you all – the second set opener begins with the band playing some background music, basically reminding people to get back to their seats. What first sounded to me like Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch” but probably wasn’t, morphed into a very familiar horn riff from a tune that was a huge instrumental hit on the jazz charts for a jazz group and also a pretty good sized hit as a vocal, for a rock group. After just enough time to think, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if the guys came out and started singing along?” they did just that. And as Cunio said above, it is a great song.

As far as Chris’ new second set tune, Cunio’s description of it as “exciting” proved spot on, so much so that one dork in the front row got carried away enough (that would be me) to prove why the audience sometimes has to be considered the fifth member of the group. And no, I don’t think I’ll explain that one any further. ;-) Finally, I hope you get the same encore I did – and I assume you will – because it was just incredible, virtually another set unto itself, and a high energy one at that. You will see why I now call UTSL “the hardest working group in show business.” And as a bonus, the guys hung out afterwards for photos and to sign CD’s and DVD’s which were on sale, on site. All in all, one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever seen, period.


  1. Superb interview! I caught UTSL on PBS and was blown away by the talent and professionalism of the production
    . I was a fan of Shonn, Cuneo and Michael from Chicago, and loved hearing Chris for the first time. I’m really excited about the collaboration with Dan Ponce. What a fantastic job he did with SNC! I see a great future for UTSL and can’t wait to see them in person. Thanks again, Stubbs, for the terrific coverage.

    Comment by Becky — May 25, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  2. Another fantastic interview! Stubbs always…..DELIVERS! You really caught the spirit and camraderie of these guys. I loved Michael’s comment that they take the music very, very seriously, but not so much themselves!!

    Comment by Pamela — May 25, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

  3. Great article….as always. You covered everything Stubbs! Very personable and fun. It is very heartwarming to see the wonderful ties that have been made through this one show, not to mention the talent. I look forward to following this wonderful group of guys and hopefully catching a concert. Best of luck to “Under The Streetlamp”!

    Comment by Carolyn Miller — May 25, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

  4. Fabulous interview. Very in-depth and full of interesting tidbits about the group and each member. I saw Chris with JB in SF and the others in Chicago. Would love to see them perform together. Definitely including them in my “Must See” list.

    Comment by Linda/Tiggerbelle — May 26, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  5. Stubbs, did you apply to Guinness to overtake “War and Peace” for the longest verbiage in literary history?? I started reading, assuming I’d finish on my next cross-Atlantic flight, but I couldn’t stop until I finished the last word!

    When I started the piece about stubbletwo’s band, I figured you’d be doing all the talking with the guys just nodding politely, but your interjections were insightful and really gave these fellows a wonderful platform.

    So stubbletwo thought Shonn looked really young? Why didn’t you tell him Shonn was the inpsiration for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?” Actually although I’ve never met Shonn, I had the privilege of seeing this talented “Bojangles” as the real-life Jack Donahue, the lead in his Drama Desk nominated “Mr. Vaudeville Man.” Yeah, that Shonn Wiley…..who knew?

    I give Ingy a lot of credit here. He emodies all the pluses of Tommy DeVito, leaving the minuses behind. He brought the guys together on stage for the first time. He stuck with ‘em until they hit…which didn’t take long! And the same press agent as Cher? Is this the guys’ first “Farewell Tour”? (Cher has had at least 200 so far!!) And hopefully this agent will keep ‘em off the botox!!

    I also first met Chris on a tour of the studio with several of my friends five years ago (almost to the day), and despite his wonderful start-turn as Frankie Valli, he was humble and gracious. So many years later, that hasn’t changed; what has changed is that the breadth of his talent has widened, if that’s even possible. Just last year, I saw him in a dramatic lead role as the real-life Ned Massey in “Blood Ties”!

    Havent seen UTSL live yet, but have now viewed the DVD and listened to the CD numerous times! Despite his looks on the website Reckless Place (someone an aging accountant wouldn’t want to run across in a dark alley at night), Cunio is enormously talented. His “At Last” is a classic and he should patent his wailings in “Twist and Shout” and “Hey Jude”. And he has the funniest lines of all: “There’s a bar in the back”; “I think I ripped my pants” (which might have been true, given that suit!)

    I also really liked Cunio’s take on similar groups with “there’s enough room for everybody.” I think as we get older, we realize that we don’t have to compete with everyone constantly….there’s enough space for all of us to be “valedictorians”. Kudos, Cunio!

    Thanks so much for a wonderful piece Stubbs. With their ambition and talent, they can’t miss! Glad you made it in on the ground floor to spend precious time with these future stars!

    Comment by Howard — May 27, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Please leave a comment