photo by pierre gautreau
Jeff Madden was well known within the Canadian theatre community and to Canadian theatre audiences for his eight consecutive seasons at the Shaw Festival before his Dora Award winning performance as Frankie Valli, which he played for two years in DanCap’s long-running production of the audience favourite Jersey Boys. Now he is finishing up his limited run as Frankie in the Australian production at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. I caught up with Jeff via email and he graciously answered a slew of questions for me. Here are his answers!
Amanda Campbell (AC): Who are you, where are you from and why are you so talented?
Jeff Madden (JM): I’m Jeff Madden, and although I was born in Surrey, British Columbia I’ve lived most of my life in the Greater Toronto Area. The talented part is probably a combination of hard work, good luck and genetics – I come from a very musical family.
AC: It seems like you *just* finished a marathon run of Jersey Boys in Toronto, playing the epically difficult (but obviously exorbitantly rewarding) role of Frankie Valli. What made you so eager to hop back into the role again? Weren’t you exhausted??
JM: I was a bit exhausted, yes! But that probably had as much to do with the travails of having a two-year old and a four-year old daughter as it did the show. And, you’re right, it was a long run – 21 months I think, for the Canadian cast – and the grind of playing an enormous part every day can wear you out a bit, too. But, to answer your question, I really can’t think of a better role for a guy like me out there. Playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys challenges you on a nightly basis, makes you be the best you can be, gives you such a rush, and thrills thousands of people each week. It doesn’t get any better than that.
AC: Can you explain how getting cast in the Australian Production came about?
JM: Sure, I’ll try. I think I might have to give your readers a little background information to help put this into context. Jersey Boys is co-produced in each city it runs, meaning there is a local producer (it was Dancap here in in Toronto) and the New York producers, The Dodgers. So, just about every decision made in Jersey Boys worldwide is jointly made between New York and the host city’s producers. Also, in each company, there are four guys that are trained to go on for Frankie Valli: the six-show-a-week Frankie, the two-show-a-week Frankie, a Swing, and the actor playing Joe Pesci also understudies Frankie.
My understanding of how I got cast is like this. Basically, the Australian Production of Jersey Boys found themselves in a position where two cast members were leaving the show at about the same time. One was the two-show Frankie (the “alternate”) and one was the Swing who also covered Frankie. So they were in a tough position and needed to get some replacements into the company very quickly. They decided to ask two guys who’ve done these jobs before somewhere else to join the cast here temporarily, until they can replace us with two Australian actors for the long-term. My agent got a phone call from New York asking me to be the “alternate” here for three months, and the rest is history. American actor Graham Fenton got the call to be the Swing for the same time period.
AC: You were the “main” Frankie in the Toronto cast for two years, now you are the “alternate” Frankie in the cast in Sydney. How are you finding this change? Are there any unique challenges to being the “alternate”?
JM: The change is great, actually! I don’t have to work so damn hard! But in all seriousness, it doesn’t feel any different doing only two shows a week. Because I did the show every day for almost two years, it just lives in my body. At first when I got here, I worried about whether my stamina would be affected from not doing the show every day, but that hasn’t been an issue at all. Actually, I find that I have more power and energy now. And, only doing two shows a week makes me appreciate every moment I have onstage that much more. It’s awesome.
AC: Can you explain why there generally needs to be four actors on hand to play this one part? I don’t think the general public appreciates what a tour de force this performance really is!
JM: Well, it’s due to quite a few reasons, really. First, this is not a regional theatre gig. Jersey Boys is a hit show, and has run for two-years plus in all six cities it’s opened. It employs unionized actors, who agree to sign a long-run, or a run-of-the-play contract. Under such an agreement, they are entitled to a certain number of vacation and sick days. A flu-bug can go through a cast incredibly quickly and it’s possible to end up with five or six actors out of the show on any given night. Also, the show is physically demanding, and sometimes muscles are pulled, backs go out, and time off to rehab is needed. Because the show must go on, the show’s producers need to have highly skilled understudies and swings standing by, just in case. Every commercial show has several understudies and swings for this very reason.
Secondly, the role of Frankie Valli is a very special case. First there’s the time onstage. I’ve not done the math myself, or gotten the stop watch out, but I’ve read somewhere that Frankie is onstage for all but seven minutes in the 2-hour and 35-minute show. And four of those seven minutes are spent doing quick-changes in the wings backstage, often with the help of a dresser or two. Other than intermission, I can sit down in my dressing room exactly once the entire show, and it’s for about three minutes. Think about that for a minute. Crazy.
Also, the demands on the voice are enormous. The vocal range might be the first thing that jumps out at the listener. Aside from requiring a three-octave range, you also need power, flexibility and a sensitive dynamic range on practically every given note, ie. you need extremely powerful falsetto notes up to high-F (that’s above high-C), extremely powerful belted chest notes to a B-flat, as well as softer, more controlled notes throughout the range. In some songs, you need to be in falsetto down to middle-C. In another song, you need to belt A after A after A. In other songs, you flip through two octaves in a single bar of music. And, then there’s the “Frankie sound”, the occasionally piercing tone, the growls, the glottals, the lack of vibrotto…
Lastly, the sheer volume of material to sing is enormous. There are 32 songs in the show, and I sing lead on 25 of them. When you add the speaking demands on the voice it really gets scary. Frankie’s not a happy-go-lucky guy, he’s passionate, he gets in fights, he yells at the top of his lungs. And with the construction of the show, the longer the show goes on, the more songs he sings, the more speeches he has. So, when you’re at your tiredest, the most is asked of you.
The Dodgers quickly realized that when one actor plays this part eight shows a week, including two two-show days, he would get worn down very quickly, to the point where he could sustain vocal damage and thus, not be able to do the show for quite a while. This puts the quality of the show at risk. So, they decided to split the role up, giving another actor a chance to play the role for one show on each two-show day. This is not terribly uncommon for large roles in musical theatre – in fact, the recent Sound of Music production in Toronto split up the role of Maria in the same way.
AC: Can you tell us a bit about your cast mates? Anyone that should absolutely be on the radar of us here in Canada?
JM: The cast here is great. Every single member of this group has welcomed me with open arms and the utmost respect. I can’t say enough about their talent and generosity, and good nature. That said, I’m not sure our Canadian audiences would know of any of them. They’re all Aussies except for two guys who come from New Zealand. Actually, there is one actor who is in rehearsals right now to take over the role of Tommy Devito who may be known to some in Toronto. His name is Ben Mingay, and he was in Mirvish Productions’ Dirty Dancing in Toronto. I won’t get a chance to work with him, unfortunately, because he starts right after I come back home.
AC: You mention on your blog that there are some subtle differences in the actual show of The Jersey Boys in Sydney than the one that was produced in Toronto, but what about the audience? Audiences in Toronto went wild for you and the show in general, have things been comparable there?
JM: Yeah, this one is interesting. From what I can gather, theatre audiences in general here seem to be slightly more passive. Compared to our Jersey Boys Toronto crowds, there are definitely fewer audible responses from the audience in the first 30 minutes of the show. This might be due to the New Jersey accents being quite foreign to the ears of the Aussie crowd. I mean, I remember seeing Priscilla in Toronto, and it took me a little while to tune that in, you know? But, once their ears are tuned in, they’re just like Toronto audiences in their responses. Except for at the end of the show. Aussie crowds almost never give standing ovations. Occasionally, a small pocket of people will stand, but it’s pretty rare here, whereas in Toronto, we got a huge Standing O every single show, which still blows my mind to this day. Oh, and in Sydney, the crowd sits still until the band has finished the playout music after the bows, which I kinda love. Toronto audiences are always in a rush to go, it seems. Beat the traffic or something…
AC: Have you had any opportunity to venture out into the indigenous theatre scene in Sydney? Do you have a better sense of what things are like there? Does there seem to be a big split between a big American-written blockbuster musical like JB and the rest of the theatre going on or are things there more inter-connected?
JM: Even though I only perform a couple shows a week, I still have to be in the theatre for every show, so that has prevented me from getting out and seeing much theatre for myself. From reading the paper and talking to my friends, it seems like the Sydney theatre scene is virtually identical to the Toronto scene. There are a few big commercial shows that overwhelm the advertising, and then there are several smaller theatre companies that are producing more indie-style theatre, both plays and musicals from Australia and around the world.
I did see a couple productions, when my schedule permitted. I finally saw The Boy From Oz, with its original star Todd McKenney as Peter Allen. He was brilliant, and the show was a lot of fun. And I also saw Des McAnuf’s production of Lucy Simon’s new musical Dr. Zhivago. This starred Aussie Musical Theatre star Anthony Warlow, he of the unbelievably gorgeous voice. The show was quite ambitious, and showed a lot of promise in my opinion. I think with a few minor cuts and tweaks, it could have a successful life beyond this production, which is definitely the aim. I know that Mirvish sent people on opening night to evaluate the show…
AC: We’ve talked about this before, but I love your take on the show, so I’ll ask you officially, can you talk a bit about what sets JB apart from the “Jukebox” musical trend?
JM: People love to classify things, don’t they? Most people consider Jersey Boys a “Jukebox” musical because it doesn’t have an original score, as all the songs were previously written and recorded for other purposes. But, unlike almost every other Jukebox show, the story and plot of Jersey Boys has not been created to fit the songs. There’s no awkward transitions from scene to song just to try to fit in another hit song like in some shows. There’s none of those ‘breaking into song’ moment where a character sings to the audience what they’re feeling. That type of writing suits some stories very well. But, it absolutely would not work in a story about four street toughs from Jersey playing rock and roll.
This story is real. It’s the chronicling of the four guys who formed a band, tried and failed for a while, then hit the big time, made a tonne of money, got into trouble, broke up, and then had a resurgence with Frankie Valli as a solo artist. Frankie Valli himself has said in interviews that the show is 95% exactly the way it happened. And, the story is universal; it could be the story of four businessmen who struggled before eventually making a fortune in business. There would be no songs in that show. This story just happens to be about four musicians who write songs. So, we hear the songs as they fit into that story; some are heard as they are being composed, some as they are being recorded, some as they are being performed live in a concert or in the TV studio. And I think that goes a long way to explaining why Jersey Boys has been such a world-wide hit. It reeks of authenticity.
AC: What has been your favourite part about being in Sydney? I know you’re obsessed with the Opera House. (feel free to talk about it for those who have no idea what that means) What other adventures have you had?
Well, I do love Sydney and of course the Opera House. I could spend hours just staring at it. In fact, I have! Sydney as a city is awesome. The weather is just about perfect, there is so much sunshine. The waterfront is unbelievably amazing. It puts Toronto to shame in so many ways. I’ve really enjoyed the beauty the waterfront, especially from a boat. You can just hop on a ferry and it’ll take you on the most amazing ‘harbour cruise’. Especially when they go right around the Opera House. It appears so different from different angles. Up close it looks different than when you stand 100 feet away. It’s quite mysterious actually. A wonder of artistic expression and architecture. It blows my mind.
Let’s see… what else? I’ve really enjoyed is getting to the beautiful beaches, swimming in the ocean, and bodysurfing in the waves. I’ve also enjoyed watching cricket and rugby on TV, believe it or not. Aussies are just as passionate about their sports and teams as Canadians are about hockey and baseball. Maybe more. I love that there are a million restaurants downtown, and that there are always tonnes of people walking around everywhere. It’s busy, but not in that gloomy, get-out-of-my-way energy that can sometimes happen in Toronto. Oh, and the nightlife. I’m not sure if you knew this, but Aussies like to drink. Shocking, I know. But, they really know how to have a good time, which is another thing I wish we Canadians would learn from them.
AC: I know you said that you wished that there was more of a “brotherhood” for actors playing Frankie Valli like the “Elphaba Sisterhood” that Julia Murney spoke to me about. Can you go into some detail about why you think it’s important? Also, is there anything you wish someone had told you before you started playing the role in Toronto?
JM: Yeah, reading your blog about that made me wish for a similar “brotherhood” for Frankies. That would be amazing. This is not to say that other Frankies don’t communicate or help each other out, there’s just no ‘official’ way of doing it. I don’t know if it’s a “guy thing”, but it seems like sometimes there is a bit of an unhealthy amount of competition between Frankies. Who does this better, who does that better, who has done more shows, who’s done two-show days, blah blah blah. Macho crap, you know?
When I was first learning the role, the six-show Frankie on the US national Tour was Joseph Leo Bwarie. We chatted at length a few times and he was very nice to me, offering me several helpful tips which I really appreciated at the time. And here in Sydney, I’ve enjoyed passing on some tips related to my experiences doing the role to the new two-show and swing rehearsing here in Sydney. But, I really wish there was some larger way of supporting one another, some way for Frankies to share stories, maybe some tips, support for each other, etc. I mean, let’s face it, it is an enormous role. It takes over your life. So few people on the planet have done it. And so, we’re all kind-of marked by that experience. It’s something we all share in common.
I don’t think I am explaining this very well. I just think Theatre is so special because it is about people, it’s about communicating our hopes and dreams. It’s a group of people coming together and making something out of nothing, you know? We open right up and share our innermost feelings. The bond we form with one another in the industry is incredibly strong. And the idea of an “Elphaba Sisterhood” just warms my heart, you know?
AC: When will you be returning to Toronto? You have played one of the most coveted roles for an actor in contemporary musical theatre, you have performed in Sydney, you won a Dora Award, you have the cutest little family, what is there left to do? Any new big dreams you want to put out into the universe?
JM: I’m a very lucky guy. I have much to be thankful for. I get back to Toronto very soon, May 2nd. I actually got my airline confirmation yesterday, and it turns out I land in Vancouver before I took off! How does that happen?!?!?
As for upcoming work, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be singing in http://www.theatre20.com/ first fundraising concert at the Panasonic Theatre on May 9th, and taking part in a workshop of a new Canadian musical by Allen Cole. Really looking forward to that. Other than these two projects, I’ll be devoting my energy towards auditioning for film and television, continuing to write songs, and hopefully get a few concerts happening.
AC: We’re in the midst of tumultuous political times here in Canada, care to make a comment?
JM: Like most artists I’m pretty much against anything the Federal Conservative party represents. I don’t understand how, what is it, 40% of the country wilfully wants a lying, cheating, distrustful, disgraceful, arrogant jerk in charge of this once-great country of ours. I can only hope if he gets in again that it is a minority government again. It’s actually distressing, so I don’t really want to comment any further about it.
AC: What is the Canadian production or Festival that you are most excited about catching once you come home and why?
JM: I’m very interested in getting to the festivals this summer to see what they have to offer. Probably at the top of the list is My Fair Lady at Shaw in their 50th Anniversary season. After eight years of working there, I have so many of friends that I can’t wait to see do their thing, you know? Of course, I also want to see the world premiere of a new Canadian musical at Shaw later this summer, Maria Severa, written by Tristan composers (and good friends) Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli. Stratford’s musicals Camelot and Jesus Christ Superstar are also must sees for me this summer. I’ve got lots of friends in those shows, too! And there’s plenty of plays I want to check out at the festivals, too. Off the top of my head I’m hoping to see Heartbreak House, The Admiral Chrichton, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Shaw, The Grapes of Wrath and Titus Andronicus at Stratford. We really are so lucky to have such world-class theatre festivals so close to home. On the commercial side, I’m stoked about Dancap’s new summer season. There’s no way I’m missing Next To Normal and the Sinatra show Come Fly Away. And I haven’t seen Billy Elliot yet, so that’s on the list too. Lots of good stuff to get to this year.
Indeed there are, I hope that everyone will follow in Jeff’s lead and attend as many theatre productions as possible this summer and I know we will be very glad to see him back home again soon! If you are in Australia or know someone who is, you can get tickets and more information for Jersey Boys at this website.
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