J. Robert Spencer was nominated for a Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award in 2009 for Next to Normal, but it was his previous Broadway credit before that has put him on map. He played Nick Massi in the original production of Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning musical about Franki Valli and the Four Seasons.
Turns out, he and the other three stars—Michael Longoria as Frankie Valli (he was John Lloyd Young's understudy and later stepped into the role), Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito and Daniel Reichard as Bob Gaudio—had such a bond that they're now touring the country as The Midtown Men, singing pop songs of the '60s. They's just released a CD, too.
Spencer was born in Delaware but his family moved around a lot for his father's job. When he was in the fourth grade, they moved to Plano. Spencer took acting and singing lessons from Plano Senior High School drama teacher John Steele, and also appeared in several of the school's musicals as a youth actor. He credits that experience as fostering his love of performing.
He's also a filmmaker and producer, and before Jersey Boys and Next to Normal, was in the musical Side Show on Broadway.
The Midtown Men did 45 concerts in 2010, and will have 60 under the belts by the end of this year. That includes two North Texas stops this week at Bass Performance Hall (Wednesday) and the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts (Thursday).
In an interview with TheaterJones, Spencer talks about performing for Katie Couric, and arranging songs by Marvin Gaye, the Zombies, Beach Boys and, of course, the Four Seasons.
TheaterJones: Is the audience for Midtown Men mostly people who saw you guys in Jersey Boys on Broadway?
J. Robert Spencer: We're finding a lot of everything. Some people saw it on Broadway five times, or two times. Or they saw it on tour with other actors. We have fans out there because they remember the chemistry they saw on the Broadway stage.
With that chemistry, how did Midtown Men develop?
While we were doing the show on Broadway, we sang at Katie Couric's 50th birthday party, which she asked us to sing at; and we started doing fundraisers and corporate events. Before you knew it we were like "wow, I guess you can make a living doing concerts." It was supposed to be a side gig, but once word got around that we were doing this, the phone did not stop ringing.
We built the business up ourselves; we have an incredible team of managers and business partners. We're now the CEOs, producers, choreographers, arrangers and performers of our own business.
Were you begin by performing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons material at those concerts?
While we in Jersey Boys we weren't allowed to do Four Seasons material, so we thought "no sweat, there's plenty of songs from the '60s." We were doing Mamas and the Papas, The Turtles, Beach Boys, Motown and then once we left the show, we knew we could add Four Seasons back in there, along with the other music, like the Zombies. We're putting our spin, our chemistry and the vocal stylings that made us well-known on Broadway to our other favorite music from the '60s.
We keep building our song collection.
Are certain songs more difficult to arrange for four male voices?
They all have different challenges. The Marvin Gaye song I perform is "Ain't That Peculiar." When Marvin sang that he had three female vocalists behind him, so it's just about finding the right sound for three males to sing behind me. It's really not that difficult. Everybody has a really tremendous ear and has been singing their entire lives.
The challenging thing is when we do Beach Boys, it's a medley, so it's seven songs wrapped up into a seven-minute medley. That's the most exciting thing about arranging this music, that we get to create it ourselves. We were all musicians before we were ever actors.
Which voices do each of you sing?
With the Four Seasons and most of our material, I'm bass, Christian and Daniel are in the middle, and Michael is on top. The thing that drove me crazy about Jersey Boys, I was Nick Massey, the guy who sang all of the bass notes, even though I can sing Frankie Valli songs [with] no problem. With this, we're definitely a group, but now we're a group with individuality. I'm not only singing in the basement, but I'm also singing in the stratosphere when I'm singing Marvin Gaye or the Beach Boys or Motown.
All of us have different ranges that we were limited in showing in Jersey Boys. Now we don't have those limits.
◊ The Midtown Men perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 at Bass Hall in Fort Worth; and at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. Also, the national tour of Jersey Boys, but not with these four actors, will come to AT&T Performing Arts Center in June.
Here's a video promo: