September 19, 2009

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Chicago Cast Member Michael Cunio, Part One!

September 19th, 2009

(Photos 2 & 3 by Joan Marcus)

Let’s go back to the outdoor cafe across the street from the Bank of America Theatre following the phenomenal Sunday JERSEY BOYS performance on July 12! With the sounds of the Windy City in the background, we had the pleasure of speaking with Chicago’s Tommy DeVito–Michael Cunio, (who told us he goes by “Cunio”)!

In this two-part interview, Cunio talks about how he became interested in music and acting, his dream of being in a rock band, his current band, Reckless Place, and his journey thus far with JERSEY BOYS. We were also in for an additional treat–meeting and chatting with Steven Dios (who goes by “Dios”), the co-founder of Reckless Place and Cunio’s songwriting partner! Cunio and Dios discuss their partnership, their musical concept and studio process, and the parallels between their group and the JERSEY BOYS’ story.

JBB: So Cunio, what about your early days? Was it always your dream to be a rock star or did you want to be an actor?

Michael Cunio: It was cumulative—I grew up in Seattle and when I was very young, my mom put me in a professional boys’ choir. I started singing at a very early age but I wasn’t any good at it. I was the kid that could sing an entire song in the wrong key and not know anything was wrong.

It was rock music where things really started to click for me, and once my voice started changing.

I do believe that singing is a gift and a talent, and all that stuff, but I also believe that I was very well-trained. I spent seven years in the Pacific Northwest Boy Choir, which was a professional touring boys’ choir—we traveled all over the world.

Joe Crnko, our artistic director, used to play with Stevie Ray Vaughan—he was a big rock and roll guy. So he made sure to educate us—we’d be singing Brahms, Mozart, Puccini and we’d also be listening to Motown, The Beatles, Three Dog Night, and The Four Seasons.

JBB: This is surprising! I thought the boys’ choir would only be singing the highbrow stuff.

MC: We were, but when we weren’t singing all the choral stuff, we got into the good rock stuff, too.

So, once my voice changed, I came into my own as a singer and I discovered Freddie Mercury, Steven Tyler, and Robert Plant.

JBB: So, even though you knew you wanted to be a rock star, what led you to acting?

MC: My brother was an actor and he did community theatre and that kind of thing.

It always looked like so much fun. People would clap for him and he got to hang out with a lot of cool people, so I kind of just wanted to be like my older brother, Jeff. So, when I was 12, I did my first play and got bitten by the bug.

It worked out, because I could sing and I could act well enough to get into musicals. I lived in LA for about four or five years, and had done some movies and television. Then, Hairspray came along; it was my first opportunity to do a big musical, but I really didn’t want to do it.

JBB: How come?

MC: Because I wanted to be in a rock band. But then, I realized that if I traveled with a show that had a pit, then I could maybe get some of the guys from the pit to play music with me.

I thought, ‘You’re in a show, it’s a good gig, it’s a solid gig, and it’s money every week.’
I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and the proximity to real musicians to create original music. I did that and became very close with one our guitarists and we wrote a handful of songs together. When I left Hairspray, I left with the intention of recording a demo with this guitarist in New York.

JBB: I’m seeing visions of the Brill Building?!

MC: Exactly—very much so! Shortly after we got to New York, he got a tour with a show that could pay more than I could. So he left, and I was in New York, twiddling my thumbs wondering what I was going to do now that I was in the city with no band.

The Broadway Company of Hairspray called, knowing that I was in New York, and asked if I would fill in for this part. I said ‘No’ at first. I was with my friend Jordan Ballard, who slapped me across the face (chuckles) and she said, ‘It’s BROADWAY; you HAVE to do it!’

So, I called them back and said (chuckles), ‘Just kidding, can I still do it?’

I ended up doing the show in New York for almost two years. During that time, I enjoyed having a job, but creatively, I still felt very silent. It was very different from the kind of music we did.

JBB: What did you do to get your creative groove back?

MC: During that time, I started singing with a band, and that’s where I met Dios. It was kind of interesting…we saw potential in each other that was beyond what we were doing with this group.

When I felt sort of confident about what WE could do, I quit Hairspray. It was kind of a bold thing to do, and people thought I was crazy leaving a Broadway show, but it was the most thrilling thing that I had ever done.

JBB: When was this?

MC: Around August ’07. When I did that, I pretty much left theatre behind all together.

For a year and a half, I did nothing but sort of write songs with Dios and get our band figured out and I was perfectly happy doing so.

The Broadway community—I would go in and I would sing Guns N’ Roses or Aerosmith for an audition–and people would look at me funny and wonder what the hell I was doing in that room.

It seemed that the Broadway community didn’t want to have a whole lot to do with me. Honestly, I couldn’t fit into what that thing was. So, I thought, ‘No harm, no foul—I’m going to try to be a rock star and let this go.’

JBB Tech Half: Broadway is really kind of a niche, isn’t it?

MC: Yes, it’s a specific thing, and like I said, I love acting, but music has always been my passion. I feel like my gift has been using my voice.

JBB: So, tell us about your band.

MC: Our band is called Reckless Place—named for a street in New Jersey!

JBB: I love that name! I’m curious—are there parallels between Reckless Place and the story of The Four Seasons that you’re telling on stage every night?

MC: The parallels between our band and Jersey Boys are kind of overwhelming. It’s funny, because I have that line, ‘I got a few years on him and I got a lot to teach him.’

Dios is nine years younger than I am and it was kind of random how we met, but obviously we connected creatively in this very specific way.

There’s very much a Frankie [Valli] and Bob [Gaudio] sort of relationship there, except he’s Bob and I’m Frankie (chuckles). I joke and call him little Phil Spector–he’s like this mastermind producer.

Much like in the show, how many different names did they have: Village Voices, the Four Lovers, and the Topics…all that stuff. We played under a million different names, but we could never settle on the name that encapsulated us.

Reckless Place was the name that we could both agree on, and like I said, it’s a street in New Jersey.

Dios: We were literally driving in a car with my father. My dad always wanted to be a musician too, and we saw a street called Reckless Place.

MC: I said, ‘I like it; it’s GOOD!’

We have been playing together almost three years now, and we were a year and half into our relationship before that name unveiled itself.

It’s funny, because neither of us are trained musicians per se. Neither of us write or read music in a theoretical sense, but we create all of this music. Our whole band was born out of necessity, because nobody that we played with and worked with prior really had the same level of commitment, the drive, or the desire to see things through the way we have. So, we’ve become songwriters by default.

One thing that we sort of agreed on: We would never say NO to an idea or and we would never deny a creative impulse. Art for me is kind of a reckless place—it’s a chaotic, unstructured, visceral thing–and I feel that name kind of suits us in that way.

We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, but we’re doing it with all of the energy we have!

Like I said, the journey that Dios and I have been on, trying to get our music out to the world, and get our artistic endeavors seeded. It’s been long, difficult, and hard; and there are so many parallels between what happens on the stage each night and what our experiences have been.

What I find really funny is how little the music industry has changed.

JBB Tech Half: Really? How so?

MC: For all of the time that has gone by, it’s all the same stuff. Rights, ownership, talking to program directors about trying to get your songs on the radio.

We’re very lucky; a couple of our songs are on the radio right now in New York. It’s really cool, but it’s only because of personal relationships and people that we’ve been able to meet.

JBB: How would you classify your music?

MC: We have sort of a vintage rock sound. We’re inspired by the classics: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen to a degree, and Kiss. We could go on and on about the bands that have inspired us.

With our recordings and our music, we try to do something that’s very organic, very honest, without a lot of manipulated sounds. We play real instruments and we use real voices. We don’t try to sweeten it up too much.

JBB: What do you each play?

MC: He plays everything! (Dios laughs)

I sing, I write melodies, and the lyrics. Dios does everything else—he writes all of the riffs and instrumental parts.

In a musical theatre context, Dios would be termed the composer, the orchestrator, and the arranger; and I would be termed the co-composer and the lyricist.

He will typically send me an idea for a song—a guitar riff or a musical line and I will come up with lyrics and a melody to sing on top of that.

I liken our songwriting process to tennis; we sort of hit the ball back and forth and back and forth until it’s complete. He’ll send me an idea; I’ll send him the melody. We tend to name our songs before they’re written, then take inspiration from that.

JBB: So you don’t really hang out together and write together?

MC: Every time we do that, we end up going out for pizza, or I’ll make us some food (Both laugh).

JBB: Is there a Jersey handshake between you guys?

MC: We were just talking about that yesterday (both laugh). We’ve been operating under a handshake for two years. We have our various professional entities established, but it’s been the two of us for a long time. So, if it ain’t broke…

JBB: Even though you left theatre a while back to follow your passion with the band, how did you end up auditioning for Jersey Boys and becoming the Chicago’s Tommy DeVito?

MC: It’s interesting… I really have no business being where I am right now. I hung up my hat so long ago. And not bitterly, but with great joy and great satisfaction. When the call came, the timing couldn’t have been better or worse, depending how you look at it.

I answered the phone call because I didn’t recognize the number. When I left Hairspray, I left theatre all together. I left my agents, and again, none of it was out of bitterness or frustration, but if you’re being pulled in a certain direction, you have to go where it’s taking you. I was tired of trying to fit into a world that wasn’t about what I wanted to be about.

I knew that I needed some structure in order to be able to pursue the band the way I wanted to, so I went back to school. I’ve always had a great passion for wine—I come from a major food and wine lineage. My brothers are world class chefs and I’m the wine connoisseur. I made it all legitimate and became a certified sommelier. I became a wine director and worked very successfully in that environment for a couple of years to supplement the band.

JBB: So, you have a major passion for wine, in addition to music?

MC: My desire with the band is that we’re able to sell enough records one day so that I can buy a winery. I want to retire when I’m 60 and make wine happily every after. That’s really my great dream.

JBB: What a plan!!

MC: It’s a good plan, right? Once I’m tired of showin’ off, I can go settle down on a farm somewhere and grow grapes.

JBB Tech Half: So, what happened with this phone call?

MC: So, I got a phone call from a number that I don’t recognize. My friends will attest much to their frustration, I never answer my phone; I hate the phone. I happened to pick up and it was this casting office.

They were trying to get a hold of me and they asked if I would come in for Jersey Boys. I was sort of caught red handed, but I thought it would be rude to say no, even though I had no intention of going. It was three weeks away.

At the time, I was getting out of a very difficult relationship, but still living with my ex. The day the audition rolled around, I hadn’t looked at the material; I hadn’t prepared any of the music, and I thought, ‘Well, I could stay here in this very uncomfortable situation, or I could use this as an excuse to get out of the apartment for the day.’

They called me in for Nick Massi’s role. I’m not a bass; I’m not a baritone.

JBB: Was this for Chicago or the national tour?

MC: I had no idea; it was just a general audition. I called my best friend from Seattle who is the audio engineer for the Jersey Boys national tour. This was in February and my friend told me no one was going to be leaving the show until August, so in my head, I thought, even if by some fluke, if this would pan out, it wouldn’t be for seven more months.

I justified going to audition, because there was a snowball’s chance in hell that I would get the role, and if I did, it wouldn’t be for ages. So, I go in–I do the sides; I’m terrible! I hadn’t prepared the material. Merri Sugarman, the casting director and Richard Hester—they sort of looked at me and I saw them talking. I was thinking, ‘It’s over; I’m done—no harm, no foul.’

MC: They then said, ‘Why don’t you look at this material?’ and they gave me the sides for Tommy.

I though, “Oh My God, just my luck. I finally don’t want a job, and they want me to come back.’

So, I go in, I do the sides for Tommy, and they ask me to come in again and dance for them. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’

I call Dios and tell him, ‘I didn’t intend for this to happen; I have no idea. Just so you know, I’m doing this audition; here’s why I did it. Don’t freak out; it’s not going to happen.’

I fucked up all the dance moves; but I put on the coolest face I could, hoping they wouldn’t notice everything I was doing wrong.

Well, then they said, ‘Can you come see the show?’

I told them that I had plans to go out of town, and that I wasn’t able to come in to see the show. My best friend, the guy I mentioned before, bought me a train ticket to Connecticut so we could hang out for a couple days. The irony being that he works on the tour. I told them where I was going, and they said I actually could see Jersey Boys. They arranged a ticket for me, so, I saw the show and was really blown away and impressed by it.

They told me to come back on Tuesday to meet Des [McAnuff]. All the time I was in Hairspray, I couldn’t get a callback to save my life. Now, when it’s the last thing I want in the world, people are interested. I went back Tuesday morning and Tuesday afternoon, I had the job.

During that process, Dios and I had been in talks. We thought they wanted me for the tour and thought this could work out well, because no one was leaving for awhile. So we figured we could finish the album and utilize the tour stops for the band. Every Sunday, we’d gig out in whatever city we’d be in and promote our EP [Extended Play recording].

So, when they said Chicago, it was kind of like the carpet had been pulled out from underneath me. It was the last thing I expected.

JBB: So, what made you decide to do the show, even though it was in Chicago?

MC: We sort of weighed the pros and cons and we figured out how we could make it work. They wanted me out here a lot sooner–they didn’t want me in August; they wanted me in March. March was when we were recording our album. So while I was learning this show, I was also flying back to New York to finish recording the album. I was trying to juggle both of these things, which was kind of nuts. But, when it rains, it pours.

In Part Two of his JBB EXCLUSIVE interview, Cunio shares some amazing insights into playing the role of Tommy DeVito, as well as Cunio & Dios discussing their musical partnership in Reckless Place, and tracks from their band’s debut EP!


  1. Great interview! Cunio is fantastic as Tommy DeVito and I am looking forward to listening to Reckless Place in Part 2.

    Comment by TeresaJ — September 19, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

  2. I love finding out more about all of the Chicago cast members! Next weekend will be my first time seeing Cunio playing Tommy DeVito and I can’t wait!

    Comment by Kate — September 20, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  3. Michael Cunio is outstanding as Tommy DeVito from the moment he walks on the stage. He’s very candid in his responses. When will Part Two of Cunio’s interview be posted?

    Comment by Jack — September 20, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  4. Hi Jack, Part Two of Cunio’s interview will be posted this evening or first thing tomorrow morning.

    Comment by Susie — September 20, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  5. Chicago is so lucky that Michael decided to say yes!! He’s perfect as Tommy. Just enough swagger (coupled with insecurity). Love it!

    Comment by Rose — September 20, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  6. The definition of cool……when he steps out on stage, it’s magic.

    Comment by lynnm — September 20, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

  7. This is one of JBB’s best interviews I’ve read. Rose is right, Chicago is lucky that Michael said yes to this role. He has the perfect amount of swagger and takes charge on stage immediately.

    Comment by Pat — September 21, 2009 @ 7:45 am

  8. michael cunio is a talented individual, who is humble,and gives much to his audience. saw jersey boys twice, and then stepping out. cunio belted out his song and he was something else. i hope he realizes just how talented he really is. chicago was lucky to have him, and his fellow actors.michael really has,obviously many gifts. follow your dreams you seam to have matured in the right direction,and god bless you, yourmother, and your brothers. sincerely mrs. ellen galizia of roselle, illinois

    Comment by ellen galizia — August 12, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

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