When Hollywood brings a Broadway show to the bigscreen, the first casualty is usually the stage actors. This dates back to 1964’s “My Fair Lady,” which passed Julie Andrews over for Audrey Hepburn (with Marni Nixon dubbing the singing). Idina Menzel recently revealed that she and Kristin Chenoweth were told they were too old for the upcoming “Wicked” movie. And sometimes, recasting is inevitable: By the time “Chicago” made it in front of cameras after a protracted development process, it was more than 25 years since the original Broadway production. Director Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” suffered a similar fate.
Which is why Clint Eastwood’s decision to keep the stage cast of “Jersey Boys” is an anomaly. John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for originating on Broadway nine years ago, is back as Four Seasons crooner Franki Valli. Erich Bergen (who plays songwriting prodigy Bob Gaudio) starred in both the Las Vegas and national touring companies of “Jersey.” And Michael Lomenda (the slow-burn bassist Nick Massi) is also a vet of the national tour. Young and Bergen each have only one previous film credit on their resumes. Lomenda is making his film acting debut.
Does the movie work with these stage actors? Variety’s Scott Foundas and Ramin Setoodeh stage a fight!
Ramin: Scott, I know you’ve seen the “Jersey Boys” film twice now (which is a brave undertaking) and you believe the stage actors successfully made the transition onscreen, but I disagree. For me, it was almost as bad as Chris Columbus’ 2005’s “Rent” movie, which also kept most of the Broadway actors even though they had aged out of the material. I saw the play “Jersey Boys” in previews, and Young made a brilliant Valli onstage. But he shouldn’t have been cast in the film — he just seems ancient now, and he doesn’t have the screen presence to carry a film. I kept thinking I was witnessing a bad Lifetime production. Although to be fair, Lifetime would have at least enlisted some better-known “American Idol” contestants to play the Four Seasons.
Scott: I agree with you about “Rent” — a horrible movie by any measure — where everybody was supposed to be in their teens or late 20s, but no one looked a day under 35. But in a way, if that cast had aged out of their roles, Eastwood’s has aged into theirs. In 2005, when “Jersey Boys” first opened on Broadway, John Lloyd Young was actually younger than the real Valli was during many of the events depicted in the show. Now, at 39, he’s the same age Valli was when he recorded “My Eyes Adored You” and seems, I would argue, more convincingly weathered and beaten-down as the ’70s-era Frankie onscreen than he did onstage. It would have been easy, of course, for Eastwood to go the celebrity route, or simply to use actors with more film experience, but as the director himself said to me in a recent interview, “You’ve got people who’ve done 1,200 performances: How much better can you know a character?” And indeed, it’s part of the appeal of Eastwood’s film that his Jersey Boys look like real Jersey boys–that is, ordinary kids from the neighborhood rather than airbrushed movie stars. And they can sure sing a hell of a lot better than Russell Crowe.
Ramin: Can we talk about the singing? The whole point of casting Broadway stars in a movie is to let us hear their great voices. Eastwood and his editor told you his actors did sing live on the set, with a band offscreen doing the accompaniment, but the songs still sounded to me as pre-recorded as an episode of “Glee.” I won’t defend Russell Crowe in “Les Mis,” but I can suggest a list of stronger alternatives for the “Jersey Boy” movie, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, Daniel Radcliffe, Eddie Redmayne, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Tveit or Jim Sturgess. Speaking to Variety at the New York premiere, Bergen said that when he was playing the show in Vegas, he dream casted Zac Efron in one of the roles. And the former teen star would have helped at the box office too. According to early tracking, “Jersey Boys” is looking at a $12 million opening weekend, in large part because of the unknown cast.
Scott: Well, I won’t fault the movie for being less commercial, especially as one of the few non-tentpole studio attractions out there this summer. Who knows if bigger stars would have made a difference? It certainly didn’t in the cases of “Nine” and “Rock of Ages,” to name but two. In any event, I strongly disagree about the quality of the soundtrack: Eastwood’s sound team won well-deserved Oscars for their work on his prior musical drama, “Bird,” in which they ingeniously mixed preexisting mono tracks of Charlie Parker with newly recorded stereo ones of contemporary musicians posthumously accompanying him, and I’d argue that the recording work on “Jersey Boys” is every bit as adept. Singing to pre-recorded isn’t always a death knell either — see Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” — but the uncanny way in which Young and his co-stars re-create the Four Seasons’ immortal harmonies is, as it was onstage, worth the price of admission alone.
Ramin: No, it’s not! If you want to see “Jersey Boys,” buy a ticket to the Broadway show. Eastwood, at 84, is still cranking out movies, but he hasn’t made a good one since 2008’s “Gran Torino.” I’d rank “Jersey Boys” behind “Invictus,” “Hereafter” and “J. Edgar.” I hope he finds his footing again with Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” Certainly, the costume choices in that film look intriguing.
Scott: “Sniper” may be more of an obvious Eastwood project — a continuation of his career-spanning interest in the men and machines of modern warfare — but if nothing else “Jersey Boys” is fascinating evidence of how eager Eastwood seems, even at this very advanced stage of his career, to try new things. And that’s something worth singing about!