BWW Interview - Debut of the Month - Mark Ballas on Being JERSEY BOYS' Final Frankie Valli
The producers of the Tony, Grammy & Olivier Award-Winning Best Musical Jersey Boys recently announced that the Broadway production will end its record-breaking, 11-year run on Sunday, January 15, 2017 after 4,642 performances at the August Wilson Theatre. In addition, it was revealed that "Dancing with the Stars" superstar Mark Ballas will be the final actor to take on the iconic role of 'Frankie Valli,' making his Broadway debut in the show on October 18th and continuing in the role through the end of it's historic run.
Today, the quadruple threat (that's right, he's a musician too!) speaks with BWW about what it means to make his Broadway debut in a show that has held a special place in his heart since the time he was a little boy!
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Walter McBride captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Mark Ballas throughout the feature!]
I understand you've been a huge fan of Jersey Boys for a long time and have seen multiple productions of it over the years.
I have yes. I saw it a few times when it opened in the West End, I've seen it in Vegas a couple of times, and I've seen it on Broadway a couple of times too. So I've been a huge fan of the show.
What was it about the show that caught your attention initially and ultimately turned you into such a fan?
Well in general, I've been a musical theater fan and done musical theater myself since I was a kid, that's what started me in entertainment. I have a diploma in musical theater. And it's always been something I've been passionate about and have loved. And I've seen so many musicals, that was always a thing we would do as a family, go see a show every now and again. And I grew up with the music of The Four Seasons, my grandfather used to love them, as well as the music of groups like the Four Freshman. So that kind of music was big in our house, we'd listen to a lot of '50's stuff.
So as far as Jersey Boys, first of all, I think the music is timeless, and it's amazing, it's just one hit after another. I remember the first time I saw it I didn't realize that. I was like, 'man, all these songs are them?' You know, you just forget how many great songs they had. And then on top of that, the story is so compelling, it's so raw and real. I think when you see most musicals there's all this kind of glitz and glam to the production, but with this, it has edge and soul and heart and turmoil. You really see the ups and downs of these guys and where they came from. And I kind of relate to that because my mother's side of the family is from Liverpool in England, which is kind of blue collar, so it's a smilar background in that way. And then on top of that, the choreography is so well done and so interesting, and so specific, so that's kind of the icing on the cake. The guys move so well, Sergio's [Trujillo] done an incredible job, Des' [McAnuff] direction is incredible, so it's just bulletproof for me.
You mentioned the choreography. How does the dancing in Jersey Boys differ from the ballroom dancing that we see on "Dancing With the Stars"?
Oh, it's a completely different thing, you can't really compare the two. It's doo-wop, but at the same time, it's very precise. There's no room to take liberties. I am there to play Frankie Valli, not to put a little extra something into it, you know. So even if I can probably do five turns, I'm only going to do two. I am here to play Frankie and get that character down, and move like the three other guys, and that's been the coolest part, to make the four of us identical in our movements. And I'm playing the Italian kid from Jersey. So even though my dad's side is hispanic, my mom's side is British, and I've grown up around dancers and musicians my whole life, none of that flare can be put into it, it has to be authentic, and I love that. It's very different for me and I'm really enjoying it.
It was awesome! You know I've wanted to do this show for years, for years. Moving to LA and pursuing a television career really came out of the blue. I had just finished doing the Buddy Holly musical in London, I had done JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, COPACABANA and I was about to do WE WILL ROCK YOU in the West End, DIRTY DANCING in the West End, or FOOTLOOSE, those were the three shows I was about to go into. And then 'Dancing' came up and I was like, 'oh, I've never been to LA before, why not?' And that wound up turning into a nine year thing! And I got to the point where I kind of wanted to use that diploma I got in musical theater.
So when I heard they were re-casting Frankie Valli, I asked my representation, 'please, put me up for that, I would love to go in.' And I wanted to audition like everyone else, and I did audition like everybody else. I had to get through three rounds of auditioning, and after the third round they said, 'the final thing is that we have to send your tapes to Bob and Frankie', because they had filmed me in the audition room in New York. So I left the audition and was about to fly back to LA, and I remember I was sitting on the plane, on the runway waiting to take off and my phone rang. And I picked it up and they were calling to tell me that I got the role, and it was awesome. And it was funny because the flight attendant was like, 'sir you have to turn your phone off now,' and I was like, 'two minutes please, just two minutes!' So it was an incredible feeling.
Frankie Valli's falsetto is of course so iconic. Was singing in falsetto something you have always been comfortable with?
I actually have a really sharp falsetto, that's something that I've had since I was a kid. I was a high tenor in the choir, so luckily it's been one of the easier aspects of taking on this role. The stuff we've been working on vocally is getting those high chest notes while doing the choreography at the same time. Because let me tell you, you sweat man! These moves may look sharp and simple, but it's a lot, and you've got to get used to it. But when it comes to the falsetto, luckily I've been blessed in that area.
Do you have a favorite number from the show or is it just too hard to chose?
It's really hard to chose, but I'd say 'Sherry' and 'Big Girl' never get old for me. I love doing 'Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You' as well, that song has always been special to me and my family. They're all fun. I love doo-wop and '50's rock n roll too and 60's music, so for me, all the songs are awesome. 'Rag Doll', 'Who Loves You', it's just hard to chose. And every day is different!
Do you think that wonderful music is the reason the show resonates with audiences all over the world?
I do. What's great about the show is that you have the generation who grew up on the music of The Four Seasons, and they just lose themselves in the show. It's kind of like The Beatles to some people, or Michael Jackson to some people, they grew up on it. They know these songs, they remember where they were when they first heard them, they remember jumping up and down on their bed singing 'Sherry' and throwing teddy bears at each other. And back then, The Four Seasons were considered the bad boys of music, their music was cool, it was different, so all the women still go nuts when they hear it today.
But then at the same time, you have the younger audience members, who maybe had never listened to that music, but even if you didn't grow up listening to it,the songs are so good they just get you anyway. And then on top of that, you're watching this very compelling story about a singer who is trying to keep it all together, who thinks he's doing the right thing even though he's never home, he doesn't see his kids, he never sees his wife. But at the same time, there is this underlying love among the four of them, a sense of family and loyalty. So the story has amazing highs, amazing lows. It's also very tragic, what Frankie goes through in the show is unbelievable, and I think everyone can relate to that. And of course the music is incredible. So I think that's really what it is. Whether you're a fan of The Four Seasons or not, you're going to walk away with those songs in your mind, those melodies are gonna get to you!
Is there a chance you may return to DANCING WITH THE STARS in the future?
Well I'm jusT Loving this right now. I did nine years of DANCING WITH THE STARS, nine incredible years that I loved and would never take back, I had some amazing times. But I turned 30 this year, so it's like a new page and new step and for right now, in this particular moment in time, I'm just solely focused on this. I've just really been working on perfecting my craft, working hard on the music, spending a lot of time on the choreography, learning the script and really giving it meaning, so it's hard to say. I wouldn't rule it out, but I don't have a crystal ball at the same time, so we'll see. I learned a couple of years ago to really embrace the now, because I don't know what tomorrow's going to be, so that's what I'm doing. I have no future thoughts, I'm just trying to really live in this moment and take it all in.
What do you think it will be like to make your Broadway debut in Jersey Boys tomorrow night?
Well I did my photo shoot on stage with the full cast the other night, so I was in my costume and it was very cool to stand on that stage. You know this has been a dream of mine for a long time, to be able to be seen as a musician and an actor first. That was actually something I was doing for a long time before I went out to LA. So this change of pace, this kind of moving back to my first true love, it's just a huge honor. And being on that stage for the first time and achieving that goal and knowing that I worked hard for it is going to make that debut on October 18th even more special. And I can't wait to get out there!
Emmy-nominated Mark Ballas is a multifaceted entertainer. For the past 18 seasons, he has captivated more than 20 million viewers per week on ABC's hit show "Dancing with the Stars." He is a two-time champion, nine-time finalist and he earned a 2011 Emmy nomination for his work on the show. He choreographed Pepsi's Super Bowl commercial starring Sofía Vergara & the Oscar commercial for Shonda Rhimes' "The Catch." In the U.K., Mark appeared in the national tour of Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story and took the lead role of Tony, Off West End, in Copacabana. He also played Judas, Off West End, in Jesus Christ Superstar and Benjamin in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Mark currently performs in the duo Alexander Jean with fiancée BC Jean. The team's single "Roses and Violets" and debut EP "Head High" both debuted at #1 on iTunes' Singer/Songwriter chart. They have recently completed a 20 date U.S. tour. Mark is also an accomplished flamenco and electric guitar player. He was trained at The Italia Conti Performing Arts School in London.