Friday, 10 June 2016

Big Interview: Erich Bergen

U.S. actor Erich Bergen is preparing to make his UK solo concert debut at the London Hippodrome.

Playing as part of Club 11's season at the venue, the concerts take place on Monday 27th June 2016 at 8pm and 11pm. The shows will feature songs and stories from Erich’s twenty year career. Special guests will include Cassidy Janson, Charl Brown and UK performers who have starred in Jersey Boys.

Erich played Bob Gaudio in Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of Jersey Boys, having played the role in the musical’s U.S. tour. He stars in American drama Madam Secretary which was recently renewed for its third season and is currently airing on Sky Living in the UK. 

Erich recently performed six sold-out shows at the Birdland Jazz Club in New York City. His additional theatre credits include Anything Goes (U.S. Tour) and Irving Berlin's White Christmas (Los Angeles).

I recently spoke to Erich via the wonders of FaceTime to discuss why he’s excited to be coming to London and what audiences can expect from his solo show. We also discussed starring in Jersey Boys on stage and on screen, working on Madam Secretary and his varied career…

Everyone’s obviously very excited that you’re coming to London! How did it all come about?
I’m more excited than anyone, I can’t even tell you! It came about in a backwards way. Friends of mine Shoshana Bean, Julia Murney and Scott Alan had all gone over to London – I always thought it was something I would like to do, but I didn’t know who was putting them all together. Then I was at work with my friend Patina Miller (they co-star in Madam Secretary together) in the makeup room and asked her who puts on all the shows in London, because I know she lived in London for a long time. She told me it was Darren Bell, and that he’s a huge fan of Madam Secretary. I got in contact with him, and like a minute later her emailed back and said, ‘Yes we have to do a concert!’ It came about very quickly… and now we’re here!

It must be exciting to know that most people in the audience won’t have seen you perform live before! Have you ever been to London?
It’s kind of scary… and exciting too. I have a love affair with London but have never spent much time there. I was in London for two days when I was flown over by the producers of Ghost The Musical because they were looking at me to star in the Broadway production. I got to hang out in London for a little bit… and see Blood Brothers and do a few London things. This time around I’m using it as a mini vacation as well, before I go back to film season three of Madam Secretary. 

In terms of putting the show together, I think London is very similar to New York City – they will still get my sense of humour and things like that… I’m not even really nervous about my material. There’s still something a little unnerving about going somewhere different… I’m a little afraid of reading the audience. I don’t know… maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of! I’m very excited, but it’s excitement of the unknown. I’m excited to bring what I do and what I love to do to London for the first time. I’m over the moon about it!

The Hippodrome is such a beautifully intimate venue, do you enjoy having that close connection with an audience?
That’s my favourite. When you play the big concert halls obviously there’s more money to be made, but you cannot beat having an audience of 200 people who are that close to you. It’s exciting for both the performer and the audience – it’s my favourite way to see concerts and my favourite way to perform concerts. 

What can people expect?
I shudder a bit at the word cabaret because I think in this day and age the word cabaret has taken on an odd image in people’s mind… and people are reluctant to go and see a ‘cabaret act’. It sounds like you’re going to have to sit through someone singing depressing Sondheim songs [laughs]. That’s not what my show is – my show is a party. We have an eight piece band with a horn section and we do incredible arrangements of songs and have a blast. It’s funny and upbeat with a party environment. My goal is to always make sure the audience leaves feeling completely different to how they walked in.

How do you piece all the material together?
The material is a mixture of songs that have been part of my career in theatre and film… so there’s definitely some Jersey Boys material in there. There are also some songs I wrote from my albums and there are songs that have been a part of my life for a long time for one reason or another. I don’t want it to be glorified karaoke – there’s a reason for everything I sing. I try to take the material and rethink it, but not just for the sake of rethinking it. I just try to come up with the best version of the song that fits in with my show. For instance, I’m not going to be singing a jazz version of ‘Defying Gravity’. 

[laughs] I’m gutted! You’ve done so many different things in your career from stage and screen work to music. Did you set out to have that kind of variety, or did it just work out that way?
A combination of both; I think when you’re starting your career in the entertainment business, very often you try to imitate what you know. I think there’s part of us that tries to aim for something similar to the career of someone we look up to. I’m always a fan of going towards the open door – I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted. I grew up wanting to be Michael Jackson. My idols were also people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Sinatra and James Brown and Peter Allen – real entertainers. Their main thing may have been music, but they were theatrical in their execution. That’s where I started out. When I was growing up in the mid-eighties I just thought I was going to be a rock star – an MTV pop star. As I was growing up that’s what I had in my mind, but then my mum took me to see a Broadway show for the first time.

What did you see?
It was the musical version of Big. It changed my life because I saw kids my own age in the show. I saw a combination of being on stage and singing and acting and the audience cheering you on and someone my age was doing it. That’s why I ended up getting interested in musical theatre. As a tall, gangling, pale Jewish kid I just thought I was going to be a character actor. Then you grow older and start to change… I think people’s perception of me started to change before my perception of me changed. All of a sudden I was being thought of as a leading man – those parts are never as fun as the character stuff. I’ve always taken the approach of ‘Ok, if you’re going to think of me as a leading man character, I’m going to approach it a bit differently’. With that I’ve been able to develop these characters like Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys and Blake in Madame Secretary. Both those roles are very ‘me’. 

Going back to your question, I certainly didn’t aim to have a broad career. I’ve aimed to do pieces that I love. Mostly the script has to speak to me. I’m a sucker for writing. Being from the theatre and loving live performance I’m lucky enough to find myself going back and forth between stage and screen. I think it has just been a happy accident! Jumping between stage and screen stops you taking anything for granted. I’ve done show after show and at performance 800 you’re like [jokingly] ‘I can’t do any more matinees, I hate my life’. 

Funnily enough I’ve never been on Broadway! I’ve done lots of tours and big shows but never actually been on Broadway properly. I’m part of the theatre community here in New York, but I would love to do something on Broadway and be a part of that world.

So is Broadway next on your list?
I think I have to check it off the list. I live steps away from Times Square [laughs], it’s so crazy that it hasn’t happened! I’ve had opportunities before but they’ve never worked out. There’s a project which is on track to go to Broadway in the spring of 2017 that I’m attached to… so hopefully that will all go according to plan.

As a kid wanting to be a pop star, it must have been amazing to go into Jersey Boys where you get to feel like a pop star eight times a week? The audiences go crazy!
Jersey Boys as a whole… there has never been a more perfect job for me, and I don’t know if there ever will be. It was the perfect combination of the kind of writing that I like – wordy, smart, dry and moving as well as funny. The script to Jersey Boys is perfect! It would work without the songs. I think that’s why it fell so easily into my mouth. Then you combine that with the pretend rock star fantasy thing [laughs] plus the piano playing and business side which is something I’ve always been interested in too. It was the perfect combination for me. It was scarily close to my own life. It fit like a glove. I’m very proud that I got to be part of it for that long and so thrilled I got to put my performance down in cement. 

I was just reading that you only did one audition for the film and got offered it straight away, without doing a screen test!
Yes! Basically, there was a version of the film that was in development before the version that was eventually made. It was originally at Sony being directed by Jon Favreau. They were basically seeing everyone, including people who had been involved with Jersey Boys in the past. I went in for an audition, and then a few weeks later my agent called me and told me they weren’t going any further because they didn’t think I was right for the role. I said, “You mean the role that I played for three years?” My agent said, “Yes, that’s right.” It was so crazy! Obviously they were taking a different approach… I just let it go, but there was always something in the back of my head.

That version of the film ended up falling apart, and then about six months later I heard the movie was back up and running and being directed by Clint Eastwood. Funnily enough I had actually been coaching friends of mine for their audition! Then a week or two after I heard about it, I got a call... went in and did two scenes not from the movie script but from the show. There was a casting associate and a camera and that was it – Clint wasn’t there. I did two scenes and sang a little bit of ‘Cry For Me’. About a month later I was told I was still in the mix and they would probably still want to see more of me. I was in New York doing the workshop of American In Paris and just got a call saying I got it! 

It was pretty wild. The whole Jersey Boys situation is one of my favourite stories, from the first day I saw the show on Broadway as a nineteen year old to the day the film came out it has been a very important and gratifying part of my life. It has been an education and continues to be a love affair. I’m not one of these people who says, “I’m going to move on and don’t want to be associated with that anymore”. I have a great career and am lucky enough to be connected to these songs and this show that continues to make thousands of people happy every night. I love singing the music to this very day.

We of course have to also discuss Madam Secretary! You have the most incredible cast – I love that there’s lots of theatre talent in there. It must be nice to be having a break at the moment, but knowing you’re back filming season three soon?
As I said I’ve had a great career, but you never get out of your head ‘Am I going to have a job tomorrow?’ That never goes away. As an actor you have to be as excited about the bad times as you are about the good times. It all sort of adds up. I’m very lucky to be attached to a show which has been so loved and watched by something like fifteen million people worldwide. I feel very, very [laughs] thankful that this has happened. I loved every second of it and have learnt a lot – not just about television production, but about our country and the way it works. 

Because we film in New York City and because there are so many ‘theatre people’ in the show, it sort of feels a bit like doing a Broadway show. We show up, we’re on our set and Patina (Miller), Bebe (Neuwirth) and I all break into song every time they yell “cut”. It’s a cast full of trained theatre actors, I think we all come from the same approach – we all come in with our lines learnt and ready to go. I love that it’s an ego-free cast, we’re all there to play and have fun. It works like clockwork at this point. And to know that we have series three is a very good feeling [laughs]. 

What’s it like to have so much support behind you? When you’re in a show like Jersey Boys the fans will then stick with you and support whatever you do next.
It’s very gratifying. I mean… I’m a fan. I used to wait at the stage door of Broadway theatres for autographs. I have stood outside hotels waiting for Michael Jackson to show up. I know what it’s like, so I don’t take my fans for granted. I also know how important it is to grow with them and make sure they’re getting something out of it – you don’t exist without your fans. If people have spent money on a ticket or CD you owe them something that you think they’re going to hold dear for some time to come. You don’t want to give them a s****Y production, you want to show up on time and you want to make sure there is a dialogue. Taking the approach of ‘I’m better than you’ doesn’t work. I recently did three concerts in Las Vegas, we sold out all three – it was amazing. I don’t really know what to say about it other than if they’re feeling anything close to what I felt towards people I looked up to then I am eternally grateful. 

And then how cool that you had an amazing response when these London shows were announced!
It’s the best feeling in the world! I have no idea what these shows are going to be. I mean… I know I’m the name on the ticket. I just try to bring the best musicians, the best songs and I want you to leave these concerts having made friends with the people next to you. I don’t necessarily need you to remember you had a great time because of me. The fact that the word about these shows has gotten to London is amazing. We sold out of VIP tickets for the 8pm show so fast – I couldn’t believe it. I’m so excited!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Erich Bergen plays the London Hippodrome on Monday 27th June 2016 at 8pm and 11pm.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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