Sporting a thick Italian Jersey accent on stage each night as Tommy DeVito in "Jersey Boys," it may surprise people to learn that Christian Hoff grew up thousands of miles away in La Jolla, California.
"I was born in San Francisco, but my dad moved us to San Diego when he opened up a salon. This was before there was anything out there… there was this La Jolla Village Tennis Club, one of the first condominium complexes built there around the early seventies. There was no mall; we had to drive about twenty minutes to the nearest market. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was UCSD student housing about a mile away and the rest was just nothing. So we thought, this was interesting. Within a year the mall came up, and then in five years we were surrounded by other complexes; and by ten years the whole golden triangle business district came and that became La Jolla. When we first moved there we had a La Jolla address (but we thought like we were in Nova Scotia) because La Jolla would be downtown where my dad's salon was. We were kind of like the outcasts."
Hoff began his theatrical career at the San Diego Junior Theatre when he was eight years old. "It was that or playing soccer one summer. My mom said, maybe you should give that a shot and I said, all right. So I tried it, got the bug immediately. Everyone knew that it was something I was shinning at; that I must be very happy or well suited for this. It was the audience that what it was for me. It was that interaction with the audience." When asked when he realized when he wanted to pursue acting as a career, Christian replied, "It took a couple months and then I knew that it was what I wanted to do for a career. Actually, no, I knew that it was something I wanted to do for fun. When I realized you could make money at it then I realized that it was something I could do for a career that was when I was ten. Nine or ten, I did my first professional show - The Music Man, I played Winthrop.
After The Music Man, it was the small and large screen for Hoff. His first television appearance was opposite no other than the legendary Shirley MacLaine in one of her television specials, "Every Little Movement". "I danced ballet. I played this kid who threw my baseball through a window of a ballet school…(and they are having this ballet with all these girls and my ball comes crashing through the window and me, this little guy (with dirt on my face wearing a ball cap) looks through the window and says, 'What are you guys doing? This is for sissies.' And she (Shirley MacClaine) says, "Oh yeah, have you ever seen Wilt Chamberlain (or somebody) do a hook shot?' I said, 'yeah.' She says, 'Show me.' I said 'Easy,' so I am doing that and they go into this montage - this whole dream like sequence of her and I dancing to ballet on this stage with the lights and the costumes. Iit was this beautiful sequence and she is turning me, and she is picking me up."
At 10 years old, Hoff didn't know at the time who MacLaine was (his parents explained that she was an actress), but immediately he was drawn to her presence. "The minute I met her there was that energy and that love. The first time we were rehearsing this thing, she showed up, no makeup and her hair was curly and frizzy. She had an apple in one hand and her bag of granola or trail mix in the other and she was so loving, so warm, and she encouraged me so much. She said 'you really have a gift and the fact that you are just a regular kid and have that gift…that is what you are going to take with you.' I said, oh yeah sure and whatever. But, I will never forget that experience of rehearsing with her because we rehearsed for that special for a week and learned all of our dance routines and everything. When we got to finally performing together she was just amazing… and she sang… to me - the energy coming out of her and that sparkle in her eye. The love she had for performing was so evident then. I see it in her films now …she really should get back on the stage.
Hoff, now clearly bitten by the acting bug attended the School of Creative And Performing Arts which was a brand new magnet program in the public school system. "I started there in fifth grade surrounded by all my academic teachers who were also musicians, artists, actors, performers, directors, as well. There was this nucleus of 'real folks' who taught regular school that were also artists. I went to that school until the time I graduated High School. The whole time I was still pursuing my acting and they were very supportive — I was still taking American Lit and Geometry and all that stuff. They were very supportive of me taking a leave of absence to pursue my career, for example, my first equity job (when I was 11) was the West Coast production of Evita with Loni Ackerman at the Shubert. I did that for a year. It's where I got my card. In fact, our sound designer (for Jersey Boys) and Loni are married and she came to see me and I just can't believe it because we were friends then and I was like a little pip-squeak - this little punk - she just couldn't believe it, she was so impressed. I kept pursuing acting all through High School and working, I knew that is was what I wanted to do as my career and didn't go to college, just started working and kept working.
Hoff's Broadway debut came under the direction of Des McAnuff – the very same who directed Jersey Boys. Auditioning for 'TOMMY' was through an open call. "I auditioned…like every other guy. I go down there and I guess they just knew I was this 'regular guy.' It was this big dance call and I am there in jeans and they crank this music and Wayne Cilento, the choreographer, said 'I saw you because the minute I turned the music on you started moving, before it was even time for you to do the routine, you were just moving.' I was in the back of the room so it must have made an impression on him. Wayne put me in front and he was so enthusiastic about my energy and how much I was throwing myself into this – even though he could tell I wasn't a dancer."
Although he had little idea of what the show was about, Hoff was a big The Who fan – so this project was something that excited him tremendously despite some reservations as to whether or not he'd be good enough for it.
"But I was dancing and doing everything! He taught me a few things and he said 'the minute I saw you I knew I wanted you in the show.' When I did the show in La Jolla - the energy that we created with that show was very organic and was built on who were as individuals - we were able to bring our own personalities and energy to what we did and we danced our asses off. All that choreography was just vocabulary at first and we didn't know what we were going to do with it. We would do eight hours of dancing of just trying things and looking at the dynamics. By the time that we were in the room with Des and he was ready to get his vision on it and started to tell story….we all knew each other, had sweat with each other, we were bleeding with each other, we were sore as hell. Wayne was on a mission. He was out to prove that these people, these dancers could act this story. With TOMMY, we really had to act it with our energy and that is why it has been so hard (I think) to reproduce elsewhere. Because what we did there was so much about telling the story that you can't just say…ok you stand here and do a turn and then you jump off the pinball machine. It has to be about the story. Des did not want us to look like dancers. He did not want the singers to just sing this only …It wasn't just a rock opera. He wanted us to squeeze what we could out of this material and the only way we could do that was with research, the back stories - learning about who these guys were, where they were from, the environment, their musical influences… That was another magical experience, much like Jersey Boys. Des is in his element. He is up against the wall, he's got something to overcome…with TOMMY he had to overcome…he hadn't had the success then and he wanted to prove himself. Doing The Who's TOMMY comes with a lot of baggage and a lot of expectations. This was the pre-cursor to such shows as Rent. It had been a long time since a rock opera or rock musical had been on Broadway. TOMMY's sound design was outstanding - The first chord alone blew the plaster of the walls. People were jumping out of their seats!"
Jersey Boys puts Des back into his element according to Hoff. "Des told us then and has the same attitude now, he is kind of back in the zone with a show that matches musically his vision for story-telling and design and that has the heart and soul all ready. He told us when we did TOMMY that the audience is your enemy, defeat them. People have an idea what Jersey Boys is going to be because everyone has invested in it. The music is in the fabric of our lives. From commercials, to movies, to radio, to three decades of pop music…one hundred and seventy five million records -even the kids know this music and they don't even know that they know it."
Both TOMMY and Jersey Boys have seamless transitions. The acts in both shows go from scene to scene without blackouts but rather on stage scene transitions. "For us, the performers, it is exhausting but at the same time it is sort of like starting an engine. The most work an engine has is starting itself. Right? It is the same thing with mileage. Unless you are on the brakes or on the gas –you're going to get better mileage with the continuous flow. So as a performer, as an actor…we get to go along for the ride. Once we get that gust of wind in our sails … we're sailing. Certainly, with the audience interaction during the show we are continuously stoking the fire with their investment in our story – regardless of what they brought into the theatre (which hopefully within the first few minutes we have managed to put a few jabs in there) There's about forty-five minutes into the show before there's even a Four Seasons tune and that is surprising to a lot of people. Just like in the second act…we've got a twenty-minute book scene in the middle of the act…and it is a musical…that is unheard of."
In both of Des's shows, Christian has taken on the role as the "bad boy" or source of conflict. "I have always identified with guys that have something going on. People have always identified me with that too even when I have always tried to be "Mr. Nice Guy." It never quite works. In school I was, 'oh he acts nice or he is a real gentleman but he is probably kind of an asshole and stuck up or he thinks he is hot shit because he is doing TV and Film…or because he was in Evita…oh wow!' But I kind of like that duality. I like being that regular guy. I like being able to go surfing and to go to the skate park and just be myself. Even at my school I had regular friends. And I come from a normal family."
Clearly Hoff made an impression on Des – the call for Jersey Boys was a full 12 years later since the two had worked together. "It kind of came out of nowhere. Des called me after trying to get a hold of me. It was his last day in California and I was taking a little breather. I just kind of wanted to pick and choose a little bit. I was not perusing it at all. I was taking care of my two children… and started a business a couple years ago and was taking a lot of wonderful creative time and career energy. He said (Des) 'I am here for another hour in California for a show called Jersey Boys about the Four Seasons can you come in?' I looked around and I saw my two kids on the couch eating popcorn doing their homework and I said 'ok.' So I grabbed my 1959 Gibson LG 1 and my two pumpkins Eli and Erica, drove over there, plopped them down in the room, got out my guitar and sang an Eddie Cochrane song called "Something Else." Des looked at me with his arms crossed and this big Cheshire cat grin and said 'all right read this.' They had no script at the time — all I had was a page and a half soliloquy (Tommy DeVito's perspective on the whole show. He distilled his whole autobiography from 225 pages to a page and a half. It was a mouth full but still quite brilliant. I love cold readings and I knew that it was a work in progress. I knew it was something to sink my teeth into. So I went outside and sat with it for maybe five minutes at the most. All I had a chance to do was to soak the whole thing in one time. I go in and cold read this soliloquy I could just tell that he was enjoying it. He knew I was cut from the same cloth of this character. How he knows? I don't know. He hires people for who they are, not who they look like, sound like. He knows those dynamics. The four of us were hired without reading together, being in the same room together, even singing together. He heard us all sing; he knew what he was looking for. They knew as far as where we were vocally so we could re create the Four Seasons sound; I think that was a necessary thing. The next part was who these guys are as people. He knew I was a guitarist so he knew my character was the guitar player, founder of the Four Seasons and so already there is a match right there. Vocally, there is a match. He (Des) said 'What are you doing this summer?' I said I didn't know and he said, 'I want you to do this.' And…that was it. That day, literally, within an hour and a half or a couple of hours with me sitting at my computer with me working with my kids and stuff to going over there with Des's arm around me…that sealed the deal.
So how does a California surfer boy master the Jersey accent? "I've got a musical ear so it took one ten minute conversation with Tommy DeVito. After hearing Tommy, it just stuck with me. Also, the writers, Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman have done a masterful job creating a world of language that is true to form. What Des has taught and encouraged me to do is trust the material He also told me that I had a character that is better than fiction. You couldn't write a better character."
In fact, playing Tommy DeVito, for Christian, is a dream come true. Unlike previous roles he has had, this one had an abundance of research already at his fingertips. "We've got an autobiography, a perspective from my character. We've got accounts from Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and the late Nick Massi. Also from roadies, road managers, press, wives, ex-wives, girlfriends. We've got so many people that are giving us perspectives on who we are, that it is actually more information that we could handle at times (because we have got literally seventeen different versions of who we are!) So what they have done with the show is put all of those things into perspective and have given us a pretty good, deep look into who these guys are."
The real Tommy DeVito hadn't seen Hoff's portrayal until shortly after opening night. The only contact he had with him up until then was their phone conversation. Christian was reassured by the likes of Bob Gaudio and Joe Pesci on opening night however when both told him he had Tommy down to a "T". "They all had the look on their face like they had seen a ghost. Seeing your life up there in the dynamics of a group like this…it is exhilarating and also pretty painful. I mean these guys have balls…it's pretty courageous to have your stories told in this fashion."
The creative team had a pretty good taste of what was in store for them having had a successful tryout in San Diego prior to New York City. Hoff's portrayal of Tommy did change a bit from the West Coast production and he also had a new cast member to build a relationship with. John Lloyd Young took over for David Noroña as Frankie Valli.
"Even though we had a very successful run out there…we started fresh when we came here. We had a winning book, a great idea about what we were going to do… We started from scratch again - with the research and marinating in the era, their upbringing…who they were as individuals and then we got into their relationship. It was really about who these guys are and were. We had a wonderful rehearsal process…we had time to get to know one another and got to know one another's characters. I think I am playing Tommy stronger here in New York. I think it is clearer. The writing is clarified. My idea of who the guy is has been able to evolve to get more clear-cut. I ended up being local too. I'm living in Jersey. Also meeting and getting to know (and becoming friends) with Tommy DeVito gives me a big perspective. So it's pretty much the same as in California – it's just turned up a notch."
The show is divided into four sections – season – with each band member giving their views in context to the show as a whole. Hoff, as Tommy, is the first season and has the responsibility of breaking in the audience and setting the tone of the show. As it happens, this is one of his favorite moments in the show. "When I first come out in the opening number … it is like returning the kickoff. I want to make that run because once spring starts … it's my season. If that kickoff is not returned you do not have that momentum then we are going to be chugging to get it back. I love that responsibility and the fact that the first thing I do is address the audience. I mean come on, that is a dream come true. I mean the first time I went on stage when I was eight years old it was about that relationship with the audience and realizing that the chemistry is the best of any relationship with any person times how many people there are in the audience. So times that by 1200 everyday….that is an experience. That is my first favorite moment is telling the story, getting the story going. "
As thrilling as it is for him, it's also challenging. "It takes a lot of focus. A lot of energy to just get the ball rolling. It's the most joyful but also the most difficult. I also love when I come back at the end for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame scene and I rise out of the stage. I'm looking at the audience and I see these beaming faces that have been through the story, the loss, the joy, and the sacrifice and the sheer ride of the music. Who knew they were going to get a four-course meal…and here comes the dessert! To come back out and have the reuniting of the Four Seasons there at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – such a milestone in their careers. It had been twenty years since they had been on the same stage together. It was a magical day then … one that they look back on and say that really happened. It was kind of like a dream. And that is kind of like how we play it. It is kind of like a twilight zone."
Christian also loves playing such a three-dimensional character. It's not a question of being a "good guy" or "bad guy."
"To classify him as a good or bad guy is selling one or the other short. There is a story here and people always make decisions. He is definitely heavy. I am blessed for a character within the story line that is at the center of all that conflict. That is kind of what made them popular to begin with. To look and say…what made these guys get noticed out of the neighborhood when groups were a dime a dozen? It was their relationships and it was Tommy's energy and putting himself on the line every single time. Also, their routines had a touch of vaudeville and were very funny. They had comedy sketches in the Four Seasons when they were coming up. When they hit and they became a pop band no one ever knew that these guys had that whole other aspect to their act. People didn't realize until they saw them live that these guys were a bunch of characters. They grew up in show biz. Being from where they were they always had a finger on the Broadway beat, on stand up comedy and on people who brought all their talents to the table. That is something you don't know about when you are listening to the record. You don't realize that these guys came up from that. To hear Franki, Tommy, and Bob talk about it they have had opportunities to do films, TV, and TV movies about their story and they always have kind of held out. They held out for a Broadway show. They knew that's where their story was going to be realized, on stage in 3-D, with the music, with the energy of a live performance - everything that made them who they are today. They certainly paid their dues too. Having their story told on the Broadway stage - they are on cloud nine. To be able to tell the story the way we are doing is what they wanted all along and I think it has brought them together.
Playing such a complex character as DeVito, who had his share of successes and failures, it would be hard for an actor to not take something away personally. "At this time in my life it has been pretty cool because I am in the middle of a custody battle for my kids. Where there is a lot of 'he said she said' stuff going on and a lot of misrepresentation; a lot of individual perspective on one situation with the legal aspects and the emotional and personal aspects of it. That is kind of grounding me in my performance and my performance is grounding me in my real life. Based on that… on the sacrifices we talk about in the show…a sacrifice of a normal life and family life as you would have it or some others would have it. A lot of that is not possible. That is sort of the parallel in my real life - the sacrifice of fame and the need to commit. One of the characters (Mary Delgado) in the show, says, 'your family is bullshit…your family is out there on the road.' This is also my family now too and doing this eight times a week is a big commitment both emotionally and physically, and creatively. It just takes up a lot of time. The amount of hours that I have had to put into this … it takes away from your real life so there are sacrifices that are parallel that will strengthen my real life and the sacrifices strengthen my commitment to the show too. They weight each other. You don't always have the opportunity to perform in a show like this, a successful show and say that my real life is just as exciting or just as challenging or just as difficult. But I can see that now and it had given me a sense of maturity in my own life; that I can apply and I can vent a little bit on stage.
You can catch Christian Hoff in Jersey Boys at the August Wilson Theatre or online at http://www.christianhoff.com.