Michael Watson recently took over as Frankie Valli in the West End production of Jersey Boys which has moved to London’s Piccadilly Theatre.
Although the production has been running for over six years, Michael is only the third actor to play Frankie full-time in the West End. He follows the footsteps of Ryan Molloy, who played the role for six years, and John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for originating the role on Broadway and reprised his performance in Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation.
Jersey Boys has been seen by over 19 million people worldwide and is firmly established as one of the West End's longest running and most popular shows. It tells the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and their rise to stardom from the wrong side of the tracks.
Michael’s West End theatre credits include: We Will Rock You (Dominion), Imagine This (New London), Sister Act (Palladium), Shrek The Musical (Drury Lane) and the charity gala performance of Hair (Piccadilly). Before taking over as Frankie full-time, he understudied the role for a year at the Prince Edward Theatre.
I recently spoke to Michael, who is one of the friendliest and most hospitable performers I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing, backstage in his dressing room at the Piccadilly Theatre after a matinee performance about how it feels to have taken over as Frankie, how he prepared to take on one of the biggest roles in musical theatre and his future career ambitions…
You’ve been lead Frankie for nearly five months now! You must be feeling more settled. What was it like taking over?
It was definitely a quite surreal experience because not only did I take over from Ryan (Molloy) who was the original over here, but we had the original Broadway Frankie, John Lloyd Young, come and do six weeks. I took over from the two masters of the trade! It was a mad experience and I tried to take it in my stride without letting it get on my shoulders too much. As you say, as time goes on you settle in and find your own way of ‘being Frankie’ and don’t try to recreate anything. It’s about finding your own way of playing the role around the system of the show.
I felt mixed emotions! I was so excited because all that hard work had paid off, but then a couple of days after I felt the pressure – I had never done six shows in a row, let alone week after week. I didn’t know whether I could do it… well I believed I could because obviously I went for it. I guess that pressure got on my shoulders but then it was about putting my head down and working hard, singing the show as often as possible and getting it all into my muscle memory. With the hard work luckily the pressure relieved as time went on.
I believe you’re looked after very well in Jersey Boys. Don’t all the Frankies have special vocal lessons?
I now have two vocal lessons a month with Mark Mahlon who is the most amazing vocal coach. I couldn’t have done it without him actually! He teaches you not only to get stronger, but how to sing the show constantly. I’ve just finished a matinee and I feel like I could do it again and again. It’s that nice feeling of having technique behind what you’re doing, and that’s all down to Mark. It allows me to have fun with it.
Do you have to live like a monk? Your day must be focussed around preparing for the show!
[laughs] That’s quite a good way of putting it! When I wake up in the morning I can’t help but check where my voice is.
Frankie is like the male Elphaba – it’s a tremendous role!
They do say that, it’s one of the bigger sings! So I wake up, see where the voice is, then relax for a bit. We have to ring in at four so I have to make a decision about whether I think it will wake up. Luckily it always seems to! I don’t drink that often. I also go to the gym a lot and swim often – I think that help with breathing. I cool down after the show and drink a lot of water, basically everything I can do to make sure I can do the show.
Actually this is one of the loveliest casts I’ve ever worked with. When the show is up and running I don’t really see anyone, but we have a lot of fun here. There are a lot of guys so there’s a lot of banter, but it’s nice to have the girls to balance us out [laughs]. I see the four guys more often, because I obviously see them on stage as well. We just have a lot of fun on stage and off… not too much fun to take away from the show… but we trust each other and keep it fresh.
The four of you must be very close?
Definitely, it has just happened naturally. We haven’t done any exercises – well I guess rehearsals were the exercises of getting to know each other. Our friendship has grown and I think that shows in the show and makes us come across like a real group band. It’s been a really nice experience to be able to feel that. And everybody needs to vote for Matt Nalton in your Best West End Debut Award! He’s great and is chuffed about the nomination!
Do you think you will ever get bored of the music?
Not at all! I was in it for a year as the understudy too and have been Frankie for a while but it is still so fun to sing! Especially on a good day [laughs]! It can be tough on a bad day. It’s just such a joy to sing so I can’t get bored of it!
What is Jersey Boys’ secret? The fans are so dedicated and even people who don’t always like the theatre rave about it!
That’s a really good question, I think the secret must be the story behind it and the fact that not many people know about the background of The Four Seasons. Their background is so colourful and they have this sort of mafia side to them. I also think it has something to do with the pace of the show, you don’t really get a chance to sit back and go, ‘oh it’s this scene’ because the whole show is like, ‘boom boom’ next scene. You can easily see it multiple times and that is the key – people want to come back and see it again. Plus, because the songs are so much fun and the choreography is so great people are taken by it. They’re taken on a ride for two and a half hours and by the end they go, “I want to see that again” because it feels like a roller coaster ride.
I agree, the first time I saw the show the story really surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to be so intrigued and drawn into it – I knew their music but had no idea what they went through!
Exactly! Also I think it’s so well written as a play that you could almost take away the music and still enjoy yourself because it is so interesting.
When did you see the show for the first time?
I saw it maybe around two years into its run. I saw Scott Monello, who I did We Will Rock You with, as Frankie. I just remember thinking ‘wow’. I knew Scott was talented, but I thought the whole show was amazing. Then I saw it again with Ryan a little while after because I had an audition for the show, this was a few years ago. I didn’t end up getting it [laughs], but I was fairly young then so it probably worked out for the best.
Well it has worked out alright now!
[laughs] Yeah I guess it has worked out for the best! Before my audition I wanted to see it again, I saw Ryan and was blown away again. Ryan is an extremely talented man so I found it quite inspirational and I thought, ‘I need to do this show’. It was in the back of my head but it was only when the audition came through again that I thought, ‘right – I really need to do this!’ So I put all my efforts into finding the right songs.
I guess it’s important to remember you’re playing a real person, but then there is certainly room to put your own stamp on it. Since taking over do you feel your performance has evolved and developed?
It’s actually quite amazing! What I’ve discovered and love is that you start as a young, wide-eyed guy. The reason why I think Frankie becomes more of a weighted, almost moody guy is because of everything that happens to him throughout the show. I really think what I’ve discovered in my portrayal of Frankie is that he’s thinking, ‘I need to get out the neighbourhood, I love singing – these are my friends, they’re older than me’ and he’s more wide-eyed. Then as time goes on and Frankie gets older he wises up, that’s when he starts to slow down. I enjoy the journey of finding the older Frankie coming in as the show goes on. I think that’s where I’ve discovered ‘my own’ Frankie.
I love ‘Goodbye’ from Catch Me If You Can! Also… [laughs] it sounds cliché, but ‘Bring Him Home’ (from Les Miserables) is a beautiful song. Umm I need one more. I’m pleased with my first two! Do you know what was a really good one? I was in the show. I really liked ‘Raise Your Voice’ from Sister Act! So I’ll take that as my final one. I remember the first time I was in rehearsals and they sang it and it made me cry! So if it made me cry maybe I should take it with me to a desert island! You know when she goes, “Tu Solus Dominus” and then does the high note? I literally went (crying impression), “Oh my god why is this so beautiful”. It was a bit weird, I was like why am I crying?
You’re making me miss it!
I know, I miss it too - I thought Sister Act was a brilliant show.
It must be amazing to have such dedicated support behind you from theatregoers and Jersey Boys fans?
It’s such a lovely thing, it’s always nice to see a familiar face being supportive. It just makes you feel like you’re doing the right job, and you’re doing it for them as well. It’s so nice to have that support; one of the parts of the transition for me which was tough was that there was so much support for Ryan. He was so amazing and people thought he was irreplaceable and, in a sense, his version is irreplaceable so you have to make it your own. So when I got that support it made me feel really accepted and settled in. That support can help you on a really tough day when you’re questioning yourself, it just helps you through.
I know it’s still only early in your run, but do you have any ideas as to what you might like to do next? Where do you go after playing such a huge role like Frankie?
The only part that I was thinking I would love to try if it comes about – but it has obviously been held back now – is Marty McFly (from Back to the Future). I love playing Frankie so much and there is so much to the character that I don’t know if it is possible to replace. I think it’s always going to be a part of my heart and don’t think it will ever be able to be replaced, especially within the theatre roles which I think I am right for. I think I just need to enjoy it as much as possible at the moment, relish it for now and then see what comes up. I think maybe it’s time for me to look into plays and potentially TV. A lot of people say it, but I think that’s where I need to go if I want to work constantly. We’ll see!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Jersey Boys is currently booking at the Piccadilly Theatre until Sunday 15th February 2015.
Please visit www.jerseyboyslondon.com for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit 2-5: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg