Matt Corner is currently starring as Frankie Valli in the UK and Ireland tour of Jersey Boys.
Telling the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and their rise to stardom from the wrong side of the tracks, Jersey Boys has been seen by nearly 23 million people worldwide. The show continues to run in the West End where it is celebrating its eighth triumphant year.
Matt was part of the original Jersey Boys UK tour cast as alternate Frankie. After playing the role twice a week for a year, he was asked to take over full time which he has done to great acclaim.
Prior to Jersey Boys, Matt understudied Galileo in the final West End cast of We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. His credits also include: understudy Mike Connor in High Society (national tour), Hero in A Day at the Races/A Night at the Opera (Ireland) and Jim Caruso’s Cast Party (Birdland Jazz Club, New York). On screen he appeared in Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Miserables and played Jimmy in You’re A Musical Star.
I recently spoke to Matt about why he felt ready to take over as Frankie, how playing the role affects his day-to-day life and the secret of Jersey Boys' success. We also discussed what it was like to close We Will Rock You, why he was inspired by Ricardo Afonso when he was younger and what it was like to meet Frankie Valli earlier this year…
Was Frankie ever on your ‘dream roles’ list?
It wasn’t actually a role I had a crazy ambition to play from an early age! I had seen the show and was a huge fan; however, to be honest, after watching Ryan Molloy play Frankie I didn’t ever think for one minute that I would be able to do it… at all [laughs]. I didn’t really know that falsetto sound was in my armoury – I had always been a rock tenor. I rang my mum after my first audition and said “It went well but there’s no chance I’ll get it!” The previous year I had auditioned for the London company and - believe it or not - was seen for Tommy DeVito, so they had no idea I could do it either! A year later I went in and they said, “Actually, let’s see you for Frankie this time. What’s your falsetto like?” and I just gave it a go. It was a crazy situation!
Jersey Boys is not a tribute act, it essentially encapsulates the sound. I just tried to view it like any actor trying to prepare for any role. It’s crazy because the more rounds I got through I thought ‘right, ok’ so I started to do some more research and listened to Frankie’s voice and all the original recordings.
What was it like to alternate the role for a year before taking over full time?
The first year was just brilliant for me. At first it was like a real baptism of fire. It’s a big thing to come into a long-running show like this which the public had been wanting to go out on tour for ages. We were sold out almost every night in almost every venue which was fantastic! It hasn’t slowed down either. To be a part of the tour from the beginning was amazing. For me, having those two shows a week was like having all the good bits of playing a leading role with a lot less pressure. At that point I was more than happy to be learning my craft and improving whilst watching the brilliant Tim Driesen who was our lead Frankie.
How did it feel to be offered the role full time? Who did you tell first?
I was certainly ready for this opportunity and I’m thrilled that I’ve been given it. I had to call my mum and dad first! It came full circle, from ringing my mum after my first audition to telling her I had got the actual part [laughs]. They were, of course, thrilled and very proud as they always are. It was incredible! It has been a huge step for me. This is what I want to be doing and I didn’t envisage it happening this quickly so I’m just enjoying every second, I can’t emphasise that enough!
What is it like to play the role? When I interviewed Tim earlier this year he said Frankie is like the male Elphaba…
[laughs] I like that – the male Elphaba! That’s brilliant [laughs], and a very big statement… I guess he’s right! It’s not just about what you do on stage for three hours a night; it affects your whole life. I think I’m quite lucky because I have a resilient voice. I seem to be coping and handling it fine, but you can’t go out in the middle of the week and go drinking with your mates down the pub. That kind of thing is simply out of bounds. You need plenty of hydration during the day. There’s always that thing of waking up every morning and checking in with yourself to see how you feel. You’re only as good as the last show you did so have to be on your game all the time. It comes with the territory, I’m sure when Benedict Cumberbatch plays Hamlet he’s got to be just as on it – or when whoever is playing Elphaba goes out people are expecting the top level so you have to deliver which can be pressurising. We have a fantastic company of people and creatives who don’t let you get away with anything. You have to be at the top of your game and I love that, I feel like I thrive in that sort of environment.
Jersey Boys always surprises first time audience members because they expect the incredible music but have no idea about Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi’s story. Why do you think the show has stood the test of time?
You’ve hit the nail on the head! It absolutely is because of the story! The music is fantastic and was always fantastic before the show came along. The show harnesses the music and weaves it through a narrative. Credit must go to Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice who wrote the book. It was their first venture out into musicals! Their writing is so good, when you learn the script you realise that it’s even written in the rhythm that the guys speak. Back in the 50s there was no filter on these guys, they said what they were thinking and that comes across in the writing. We’re so blessed to have such a brilliant script! I think it’s 100% the key to the show’s success.
I’ve seen some completely different interpretations of Frankie over the years, how did you find developing your own portrayal? It must be quite something to be playing a real person who you’ve actually met!
To be able to play someone who is still alive and still touring at the age of eighty-three just shows you the kind of work ethic this guy has. Straight away it showed me how hardworking he is. He’s a trouper! To develop my own performance has been fantastic. The director Des McAnuff, who created the show on Broadway, is happy for people to put their own stamp on things. I met Frankie in Glasgow when I went to see his concert, just before I took over the role full time. I went backstage and chatted to him which was a great insight into his life.
What was he like?
For eighty-three he was very hard! You might expect someone of that age to be frail, but he was hard – you wouldn’t mess with him! It was incredible, he held a power and a presence that I guess only those old school Italian guys can, even just down to the way he shook my hand. He said to me that he used to be a bit of a bad boy back in the early days. Those scenes in the show where the boys get in trouble aren’t just made up. They really were on the wrong side of the tracks, and to be able to play that is really fun. They are all gritty, real characters and a lot of people don’t realise that Frankie has been through so much. Having so much depth to a character is wonderful to play, he’s not a one dimensional guy who is just a singer!
"This is what I want to be doing so I’m just enjoying every second, I can’t emphasise that enough!"
What's it like to work so closely with Sam Ferriday, Lewis Griffiths and Stephen Webb who play Bob, Nick and Tommy?
They’re excellent guys and we really get on. We all started this journey together. The show has been in the West End for a long, long time so people have come in and out at different times, but we all started this touring production together. We’ve all been together since day one of rehearsals until today. We’ve also been on the road touring together just like the real Seasons did! It’s like life imitating art – it’s really quite crazy! We’re like a band of brothers which is quite special, and you really do not get that on every job. We’re all around the same age so have a lot in common, we have a great laugh! How could you not when you’re going into these massive cities all around the country and selling out. With Jersey Boys standing ovations are just a normal thing – we get one every single night! We couldn’t ask for more. I wake up and think ‘I’m going into work’ and just have a big smile on my face [laughs].
Do any moments of the show particularly stand out for you each night? Any favourite scenes or songs?
People often ask if I get tired of hearing the same music all the time because we hear it eight times a week, but honestly I couldn’t be further from being bored! The music is so good that I absolutely love it all! One of my favourite bits is a song I have no involvement in, ‘Oh What A Night’. It’s a brilliantly written song! For me personally ‘Can't Take My Eyes off You’ stands out; at that point in Frankie’s career it means so much to him because he’s about to go solo. When they did that song it went ballistic and sold three million copies, but when Frankie sings it in the show he doesn’t know what’s going to happen and if it’s going to be a complete flop or a hit. I think it’s a very cool song to be able to perform.
I also love the sit down scene in act two. It’s the longest scene in the show and has no singing or moving, it’s just a really gritty scene. We were told at the beginning of the process that it’s the scene which has changed the least since the Jersey Boys’ original conception. In fact, it was the first scene written for the show and everything else was built around that scene. It’s such a crucial point in the show.
Prior to Jersey Boys you were in the final West End cast of We Will Rock You understudying Galileo. What was that show like to be a part of?
Conversely to Frankie, Galileo was a role I was desperate to do - it was my dream as a kid. I remember going to see it when I was about thirteen. Ricardo Afonso played Galileo and was absolutely incredible. He came out of stage door and was completely surrounded by women wanting his autograph before getting on his motorbike and zooming off into the night. I turned around to my mother and said, “That’s what I want to do” having just seen him play such an awesome rockstar role. We Will Rock You has a really fond place in my heart. To say I’ve done it and played Galileo at the Dominion is incredible! I loved every second! How could you not – you get to be a rockstar in front of like 3,000 people! I love Queen music, it’s the kind of music I love singing.
What was it like to close the show?
To be part of the last company I mean, god, talking about timing! If I’d been a year late that ship would have sailed and I would have missed that opportunity. I’m so thankful that the creatives gave me that opportunity. I remember that at the final night party, believe it or not, Ricardo Afonso was there and I went up to him and said, “You’re one of the reasons I wanted to do this” and told him the story and explained that I had been understudying the part and played it quite a few times. He was just like, “Wow, that’s so cool man” [laughs]. It felt like such a big circle! I’m so proud of it!
Did you come out of stage door and zoom off into the night on a motorbike?
[laughs] Yeah, yeah… I’m not too sure about that one insurance wise! And I’m not too sure what my family would say about that [laughs].
Right, I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Three musical theatre songs… god… I guess I would probably take something from Parade. I’ll go for ‘How Can I Call This Home?’, I think it’s a beautiful song and such a well written, brilliant show. To give me some fun memories I’d take ‘We Are The Champions’ from We Will Rock You. It would help get me through it – I would need some support alone on that island [laughs]. My third one would probably have to be something quite stagey and predictable. I’m going for ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Mis. It’s a beautiful, anthemic ballad. You can’t go wrong with a bit of Boublil and Schönberg, let's be fair [laughs]!
Finally, what is it like to have such passionate, dedicated support behind you from theatregoers? There will be lots of aspiring actors watching you in the way you watched Ricardo!
It’s incredible! I always try to remind myself ‘that was me’. I will always wait around for as long as it takes to say hello to people. There are some really passionate people out there who love theatre and that’s the key – we need to keep that going and keep the art thriving! It means actors have jobs for a start, but it also means bigger things than that. It’s about culture. What I love more than anything is seeing young people with their eyes lit up looking at you in awe. It’s such a special feeling because you think it might have been their first ever trip to the theatre and could be the thing that makes them want to become an actor, or indeed a producer or work in the wig department or some part of the industry.
I used to be really sceptical about it, but now I think Twitter is a positive thing because I get so many tweets off people who came to the show saying how much they loved it. Not only is it brilliant advertising for the show, but it’s a great tool for spreading theatre. It’s like what you guys are doing at West End Frame – you’re spreading theatre to the masses and helping people make their own decisions about what they do and don’t want to see. The support is excellent and I will always be so appreciative and grateful!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Jersey Boys tours the UK and Ireland until February 2016 visiting Sheffield, Manchester, Llandudno, Eastbourne, Glasgow, Dublin, Northampton and Wolverhampton. Please visit www.jerseyboysuktour.com for further information, full tour dates and tickets.
Photo Credit 2-5: Helen Maybanks