Jarrod Spector tells his story in Jukebox Life

Jarrod Spector made his Broadway debut at the tender age of nine years old. Since then, he has dazzled audiences around America as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys and Barry Mann in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Now, Spector is bringing his life story to the stage with his new show, Jukebox Life. Broadway Wiz spoke to the Broadway star about the upcoming concert, his time on Broadway, and if there are any other Jukebox musicals he would be interested in starring in.

What made you fall in love with performing at such a young age?
I don’t have that many memories from being two and three years old, but I do remember that feeling of hearing a song and finding joy in sounding out the notes and navigating it and making it my own. So I guess that sort of very basic, almost primal love of music is the thing that made me enjoy singing, therefore performing when I was a kid.

I started performing long before I made the choice to do so. I look at my nieces, nephews, or friends’ children, and a lot of them are at the age I was when I started singing and performing on television. I was around 3, and it is incredible for me to think that these kids are capable of the conscious, mature thought process that it would take to make the decision that yes, this is something that I actually want to do with my life. I think you just kind of do what you can do and what seems fun at the time. Your parents teach you the song and put you on stage and if you are physically able to retain the words and the notes and you can stand up there and do it without throwing a fit and crying or freaking out, then you do it. I think that’s sort of how it went down for me.

You have to have a certain maturity. It’s not an easy thing, even as an adult. You can imagine the level of maturity that you have to have as a child to be able to get up on stage and sing and dance and act and perform in front of however many thousands of people. When you are young, you don’t quite know what you are doing either.

What was it like making your Broadway debut in Les Misérables?
I started Les Mis at the Forest Theater in Philadelphia when I was nine years old. I remember feeling unprepared for what it was. Gavroche comes out when the show transitions to Paris. It’s this bass‑heavy, ominous music and people around you are literally moaning because they are in rags. Gavroche has to sneak out in semi darkness, get to the middle of the stage and lay down and cover himself with a blanket as all of this smoke and dry ice mist is on stage. It can be a scary moment to do that for the very first time and just be told, “all right, get out there and do it.” I felt underprepared and under rehearsed but I just had to do it because I was taught from a very young age the show must go on. You just go out there and do the best you can, and so I did. I remember being terrified, but completely exhilarated and it was so much fun. When I was transferred to Broadway, I sort of had a vague understanding of what Broadway meant versus doing a show in Philadelphia or Chicago as I had done before. It wasn’t until I walked up to the August Wilson theater many years later to go into my first day of Jersey Boys that I really felt like wow, I am walking into a Broadway theater for work. It didn’t register when I was a child.

How did it feel to play Frankie Valli, someone who is so iconic?
I think that there are lots of pros and cons – mostly pros-to playing a real person. Especially when that person is still alive. When you are creating a role that no one has ever seen or heard of before, you have license and liberty to do with it pretty much whatever you want as long as it’s within the author’s and the director’s intentions. When you are playing a real person, you are sort of restricted, for better or for worse by that person, especially when they are famous and everybody knows what they look like, sound like, and they know their own personal association with that person’s music. So you are obligated to do research on that individual. Someone like Frankie Valli who had spent so much of his time in the public eye, I was able to watch lots of footage of him performing or giving interviews. I was able to listen to the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons ad nauseam until it felt like my version of him was coming from somewhere inside, and wasn’t put on anymore, but it was something that could come out of me in a very natural way. That was my preparation for the role. Once I got into the rehearsal room and got into doing the show every day, I allowed myself to let that go away a little bit and allowed my own interpretation of the role to blend in.

Did you get to meet him?
Yes. I met Frankie during rehearsals for the first national tour when it opened. I started with the tour in San Francisco. He was very kind to me and gave me his phone number and said call me any time and started talking to me about singing and stuff. It was very generous of him, but he didn’t see me do the role until I opened in Chicago. I had been in Jersey Boys for almost a year-ten months. I had done the role quite a few times, which I have to say was certainly to my advantage because by the time he saw me do it, I felt like I had ownership of it. I wasn’t nervous about what I was doing, so I could be myself. His being in the audience didn’t add so much pressure that I lost my way. Which I imagine is possible if you are still just getting the role under your feet and into your skin, and then suddenly Frankie Valli is there watching you.

After Jersey Boys you were in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical playing another music icon, Barry Mann. What was the most interesting thing you discovered about him?
I had a lot more access to Barry than I did to Frankie. Frankie is a little more withdrawn and more private. Barry might be private in his public life, so to speak, but in terms of being around the cast– Anika Larsen (who played Cynthia Weil) and I went out to dinner with Barry and Cynthia. We were able to get to know them, really talk to them, so that part was fun. That added a new level of how do I play this real live person. Whereas Frankie, my experience, preparing for the role and then playing him mostly came from watching things on YouTube and listening to music and then, obviously analyzing the script because that’s my primary job as an actor. With Barry, there was all of that plus the added wonderful bonus of getting to know him, watching his interaction with his wife, and then stealing little bits of that and being able to put it directly into the show.

Barry is labelled as neurotic. The wonderful thing about him is he is so earnest. He is everything you want him to be. He is funny and goofy and self‑effacing and witty and smart. He is so supportive and kind, and to me he was just so generous. To watch all of his little shtick, his little isms, and the way that he and Cynthia still, playfully snipe at each other is really sweet. It was so informative and really helped me put extra colors into the role.

You sang so many great songs in Jersey Boys and Beautiful. Which were your favorites and are any of them going to be in your show, Jukebox Life?
It’s hard to narrow it down, because between the two shows, the two songbooks are broad and the music is timeless. I had a particular love for the song “Sherry.” It’s hard for me to separate at times which songs I like the most on their own versus where they fall in the show. “Sherry” is such an exciting moment. The first 40 or 45 minutes of Jersey Boys just build up to the moment that we sing “Sherry” and the audience hears it for the first time. It’s the first Four Seasons hit that the show gives you and you have to wait a good long time for it. So I love that song.

I always had a particular affinity for “Who Loves You” because it’s the end of the show. It meant that my job was over for the night. And “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” is also incredible, of course, but also where it falls in the show is the musical climax. It’s hard to put into words how rare that is to get a mid‑show standing ovation, and while I would love to sit here and take credit for that, it just how the show is written. There is a buildup to that moment that is so effective and it’s staged so well. It’s just a beautifully constructed show, there are a couple of moments that stand out. I sing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” in Jukebox Life because frankly, the show wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to that song and that moment in the show when we are what it represents, more broadly than just the song itself.

Beautiful is frankly just as hard, if not harder, to nail down, especially because I didn’t sing as much in that show. I got to listen and yearn to sing some of those songs. “You’ve Got A Friend” I think is one of America’s all‑time great pieces of writing and I never got to sing it in the show, so I get to sing it in my show. “We Got To Get Out Of This Place” is just a fantastic piece of rock writing and I did get to sing that in the show, but I pretended to play it. So in my show I actually do get to play it. I didn’t know until after the fact that “We Got To Get Out Of This Place” is a Vietnam protest anthem and now I sing with a new meaning and new understanding of what it meant. Not just as a great piece of music, but as a piece of cultural Americana. I just love that song, and I think it can continue to be an anti-violence and anti-war protest song. When I sing it, it certainly has that connotation for me.

Is your wife, Kelli Barrett going to perform with you?
My wife is not going to perform with me this time. I wish, but this time she’ll be in California.

How did your experiences on Broadway help you shape your show Jukebox Life?
There are two different mediums with obvious differences. When you choose your material, you sing the material that you chose, you speak words that you wrote or come up with in the moment. You are looking directly at the audience, there is no pretense of a fourth wall. It’s completely vulnerable and open and you are speaking right to people and hoping that they like all of this crap you have come up with. There is nothing to hide behind. The only thing you get to hide behind is that (at least in my case) I didn’t write all of this music, but choosing is just as hard in terms of being vulnerable out there because it’s still your choice to sing these words and present it to people and hope that they care what you have to say. On Broadway, you get to hide behind so much. It’s a character; it’s not you. It’s somebody else’s writing, it’s somebody else’s choice.

Cabaret is also a team effort, because you are out there with seven spectacular musicians, not to mention my director, music director, my manager, and my wife who supports me in so many ways, including helping me write scripts. The biggest crossover is that you are standing in front of me while I am speaking and singing. Jersey Boys did help because there is so much direct address– you look right at the audience when you are playing Frankie Valli and you speak to them. Granted, the lights are such that you can usually only see the first couple of rows and again, not my writing and I am not playing myself, I’m playing a character and presenting Frankie Valli as told by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman.

What did I learn from them from being in shows like Jersey Boys and Beautiful, is to find the balance between music that you want to sing and music that the audience wants to hear. There is enough of an overlap that I think you can get away with a pretty broad amount of music that satisfies everyone. That’s stuff that I can really get behind artistically and be excited to sing, but that also excites the audience. There are songs that they want to hear and oftentimes that means taking something that they know and twisting it in a way that makes it artistically satisfying for me and also justifies doing a song that might be done a million times, like “Dock Of The Bay.” I do “Dock Of The Bay” on my show but it’s my own interpretation of it and it’s mashed up with a Bruno Mars song that you wouldn’t think would happen.

Something else I learned from both Beautiful and Jersey Boys is how to shape the arc of the show musically so that you keep it interesting and satisfying and then have moments of withdrawing, in terms of volume and energy so that people can have a moment to relax and hear something. It can’t just be 100 percent all the time. That’s just not the way audiences want to hear music and that’s certainly not the way I want to present music.

Are there any other jukebox musicals that you would want to see on Broadway and perform in?
If ever there were a Bruce Springsteen musical, I have been told that I look like him and sound like him enough times that I certainly would want to be a part of it. I do a Bruce song as well in my show. I also grew up and was raised on Bobby Darin, I think his story is fascinating. So if ever there was a Bobby Darin musical, I would certainly hope that I would have a shot at that. Also, Leonard Cohen who recently passed away. I think that his story is very interesting. His music is beautiful and forever and also spiritual. It would be a new angle of music that we haven’t heard on Broadway that much. All three of those, I would like to be a part of.

Do you have any dream roles?
My wife and I have this dream of starring in Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. I also have a little obsession with Iago in Othello. I would love to play Iago, finding a basis for why Iago is so angry and hates Othello so much when it seems almost unjustifiable. Having Iago, who on the outside seems sweet and is actually unmitigated evil on the inside is interesting to me.

You started performing at such a young age. Do you have any advice for young performers on how to balance your career and being a kid?
This is an interesting question. I don’t regret anything in my own life, because to regret anything about the way that I was raised and my experiences, if I had my wish and anything could be changed, then that might alter where I am today. I am happy in my life and very grateful for where I am and grateful for my marriage and grateful for my career and all that. So I wouldn’t change anything in my own life.

That said, I don’t know that I necessarily condone child performers. I don’t mean to be controversial or make any sort of political statements here, but I also grew up in the ’80s. This is a very different time, and putting children in a spotlight in the day and age of social media insanity and the way that performers are subjected to all kinds of online judgment and vitriol, I just don’t think that it’s necessarily the healthiest thing.

I encourage everyone who has children to educate them with music, to have them play an instrument, to allow them to spread their wings and foster their abilities as much as possible. The more music in the world, the better as far as I am concerned. But in terms of being a child performer, I wouldn’t raise my child that way. I don’t encourage people who ask me to raise their children in that way. When you are a young teenager and you want to go into the arts in high school, I encourage that too. That’s great. That’s seen as a safe, insulated, and solid environment to learn which part of the arts you love.

Once you are an adult and you have a solid foundation of who you are as a human being, then you can go into the arts. In terms of being a professional, I just don’t necessarily see the benefit for kids. I don’t mean to sound like a hypocrite because I have said a million times, I wouldn’t be who I am without having gone through what I went through as a kid. You know, my ability to get up in front of people and almost invariably not be nervous unless I am underprepared. As long as I am prepared for what I am doing, I am almost never nervous to get out on a stage and I have to credit my youth for feeling that confidence.

I think that there is an inherent evil with the way social media behaves today and the way that we look at every last video. And if things go viral and then your kid is 11 and famous, how do you grow up like that? How can you have a normal life like that? I didn’t. I couldn’t. When I was 15 I had to quit and I didn’t come back until I was an adult. When I was 21, I sort of made a decision that I wanted to be an actor again, but I had a fair amount of college and high school as a nonprofessional, as a regular “person” before I could come back as an adult and do it on my own accord. I think even with that, I battled depression. I am not necessarily pinning it on the fact that I grew up singing and acting professionally, but they very well might have contributed to my sense of reality. I think it’s so hard to have a grounded sense of reality nowadays that I wouldn’t subject my children to that. The balance you asked me about at the beginning before I went on this tangent is almost impossible. It’s almost impossible to be a famous eight‑year‑old and still go to third grade. That’s not a thing.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?
As cliche as it might sound, it’s the food. You can try a new restaurant every day, exploring the various restaurants in every borough of this city and particularly Manhattan. It’s one of my absolute favorite things about this city.

You can check out Jarrod Spector’s Jukebox Life, March 3 at Brooklyn’s On Stage At Kingsborough. Click here to purchase tickets.

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