I interviewed Joseph Leo Bwarie in November 2009, when he wowed DC audiences and critics alike with his vocally astounding performance as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys at The National Theatre. It’s such a pleasure catching up with Joseph two years later as he prepares to re-wow local audiences once again – as the Tony Award-winning smash hit musical pays The National Theatre a return visit.
When did you first hear Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons?
Joseph: I guess I was a little kid in the car. K-earth 101. I can still sing you the station jingle. I was not really paying attention to who was singing except I knew I liked all the music on that station. But I really liked The Beach Boys and The Association. Although, I thought they were singing, “Everyone knows it’s Wendy.” Hey, everyone was singing about girl’s names and I was eight – Wendy, windy – close enough.
You’ve been playing this role for a long time. How many productions of Jersey Boys have you appeared in and played this role? How many times have you played the role?
Nov 2007 – now.
San Fran. Seattle. Houston. Vegas. Cincinnati. Cleveland. Dallas. Toronto. Denver. Pittsburgh. Hartford. Rochester. Nashville. Lauderdale. Orlando. Atlanta. Raleigh. Boston. DC. Detroit. Memphis. Ft. Myers. West Palm. Charlotte. Buffalo. Providence. Indianapolis. Des Moines. Louisville. Austin. San Antonio. Philly. Boston (take 2). Baltimore. Miami. Tampa. Minneapolis. St. Louis. Appleton. Cleveland (take 2). Milwaukee. Columbus. Omaha. East Lansing. Hartford (take 2). DC (take 2).
Over 1,000 performances singing 27 songs a night.
Why do you enjoy playing Frankie Valli and how do you relate to him?
It has been quite a love affair with Jersey Boys and the amazing production that was created in La Jolla back in 2005. We are each part of something much greater than all of our individual involvement. That being said, I feel an honor, a responsibility and great pride in this role, more than enjoyment. We leave the enjoyment for the audience. It is safe to say they have the time of their lives.
Regarding relating to Frankie – I relate more now that I have recorded my own album. What I learned standing behind the mic knowing my name would be on the cover changes the importance in everything about the music. Does that make sense? That ‘want’ to sing every song in the most honest, emotional way is something I think I share with Frankie.
What do you remember about the first time you stepped on the stage to play Frankie Valli?
It was San Francisco. The Curran Theatre. November. 2007. The producers moved my first show up a week. I had never run the entire show with the cast.That is a whole other story. I skipped across the bridge for Frankie’s first entrance and the rest is history. It was surreal then and it is mostly still surreal now. But now, I know exactly where I am going at all times and could do the “Walk Like A Man” stomp in my sleep.
The role is quite vocally demanding and most of the songs are done in the unique falsetto. How would you describe Frankie’s voice?
Bright. Nasal. Signature. Iconic. That is the sound of Valli. Portraying an American music legend with that ‘sound,’ comes with huge responsibility. I steer clear of the words ‘replicate’ or ‘duplicate’ or ‘imitate,’ rather, my goal is to emulate the bright, undeniable voice of the one and only Frankie Valli.
Did you have a similar voice when you were growing up and/or how did you learn to perfect ‘that voice’ playing this role?
In reality, my voice is nothing like Frankie’s. I am a singer and I am an actor. For me, it is a layering process of endowing my voice with all the qualities of his and adjusting my stature to his physicality, stance and delivery. But I do not naturally sing like Mr. Valli. I think that transformation is my challenge and what I am so proud of as an actor.
What do you do to rest your voice?
At this point in my “JBOYS” journey – resting my voice is not on the ‘hot 100 list.’ Living life and keeping my voice limber and prepped for the 6 days a week I sing 27 songs a night is what I do. It is a great job.
Which song/songs in the show are the most vocally demanding?
It depends on the night, the venue, the temperature, the dryness or moisture in the room, the amount of bodies in the theatre, and a little bit of how I feel that contribute to the sound mix of the show. We sing live. No lip-syncing here. And two great guys are manually mixing our voices and the band. All those elements contribute to the science of sound, and the easier it is for me to hear – the easier it is for me to sing. But no matter what, by the time we get to “Workin’ My Way Back To You” nearing the end of act 2, it is no easy feat (and that is one of my favorite songs to sing each night).
You played the role at The National Theatre before in 2009. Why do you enjoy performing at The National Theatre?
Every audience is different. Every city is different. The reactions vary from Cleveland to Denver to Vegas to Florida to DC (and all the stops in between). Some cities love the music and leap to their feet mid-show with ovations. Some cities really “get” the comedy and the wit and wisdom of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (our illustrious writers). And some cities are much more reserved. What I call ‘the listeners’ – the audiences who are leaning forward on the edge of their seats in anticipation for what is to come next. But the love for Jersey Boys is universal. What I remember about The National is that the DC crowds were at first hesitant to be loud and let loose during our 2009 engagement. But by the end, they knew it was fair game to sing, to dance, to laugh out loud and to participate in the best night of theatre ever. We hope this time around the gloves are off, and everyone knows to let their hair down and party with us.
Frankie has 15 costumes changes. How do you and your dresser(s) accomplish this?
Velcro. Lots of velcro. And speed and precision. Some changes happen in seconds. But the girls are the heroes when it comes to full transformations in mere seconds: wigs, shoes, dresses, jewelry, and make-up. There are only 3 ladies on stage each night and there is a team of professionals who assist them in playing 52 roles each night.
You were a ‘studio singer’ in the early part of your career. Tell me about that.
Sure. Paramount, Capitol Records, Warner Bros., Universal were all studios I sang in before I turned 13. And there were lots of little hidden studios that I recorded in as well all over Los Angeles. It was incredible and an amazing education for a young singer. And I got a paycheck. I saved every penny and that money was how I paid for college. Last year I was in New York at the holidays and in a hotel lobby a track I sang with The Manhattan Transfer started to play. 20 years later. I just stopped and flashed back to that little studio and those great singers. I don’t take a second of this adventure for granted.
I keep busy. When I am not on stage speaking in a Jersey accent or promoting and performing from my album “Nothin’ But Love,” I devote serious time to my work developing new material for family audiences. Before 2007 when I left LA for ‘Jersey,’ my home was Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank, CA. There, my partners and I developed a series of original musical and non-musical stage productions for the next generation of theatregoers who live in the electronic generation. I think technology is great. I hope to purchase the new iPhone. But there is nothing like live art – music, dance, paintings, photo galleries, and theatre. I think it so important for the younger generation to put down the gadgets and get off Facebook for a few hours and be whisked away to a far away place through art. Why would you want to see a clip of theatre on YouTube, when you could sit in a historic theatre with a full audience all sharing the same live experience at once? And for what it is worth, Mona Lisa looks much better in person. Mr. Marshall and his daughters and I are working to bring our shows across the country to a stage near you. We hope to play the Kennedy Center – so if you work for the Kennedy Center – call me.
You released your first solo CD called Nothin But Love last year. Tell me about the songs you selected and why you chose them, and who you worked with on the CD? Where can you buy it?
My greatest accomplishment to date is my debut album Nothin’ But Love. It was here in DC that I decided to follow through with this dream idea. Late night, after singing at the 2010 Horatio Alger Awards at Constitution Hall, I made a pact with a very talented singer (who has her own album and who sang backup that night) that I would record my own album. That was where it all started – The Fairmont Hotel, Washington, DC. And so the process began. My now great friend, Mr. Charles Calello, served as arranger and producer for the 13-track album. You might know him as the guy who arranged all the hits of The Four Seasons or the man who arranged “Sweet Caroline” or the arranger of the theme for the hit TV show Gidget, or the guy who worked with Sinatra, Streisand, Nyro, Anka, Valli, and many others.
We spent months selecting the songs and arranging them to suit the ‘sound’ that I was after – a modern approach to the signature sound of the Capitol Records era. Each song has a meaning to me and was chosen to tell a love story with a beginning, middle and end. Track 5 – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is my nod to Jersey Boys as that is the first song Frankie sings solo in the show. We recorded in Miami at Criteria Recording Studios with a full big band and orchestra. 45 pieces in all – including jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and my sister on French horn, and not to mention the world-renowned Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. It is an independent record and a true collaboration with ‘Charlie’ Calello.
As an artist who grew up singing in recording studios, it was mind-boggling when in its debut week iTunes placed “Nothin’ But Love” as ‘New and Noteworthy’ watching my pop-jazz record climb into the top 10 iTunes Jazz chart. Maybe even cooler than that is our mash-up of Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella” and Irving Berlin’s “A Fella With An Umbrella” has remained #1 on Europe’s popjazzradio.com 14 weeks running. For an independent record, I am over the moon with the response, and I am humbled that I receive emails from listeners in Spain, China, France and Italy enjoying “Nothin’ But Love.”
To answer your question: “Where can you buy it?” www.josephleobwarie.com and iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon.com, and now in select Barnes & Noble locations.
What role/roles would you love to play on the stage that you haven’t played before?
I am working on developing the concert of “Nothin’ But Love.” That is the next role I intend to play.
Why is Jersey Boys such a smash hit packing houses on Broadway and all around the world? What is it about this show that makes the same theatre-goers keeps coming back over and over again to see it?
I have been asked this question many times in the last 4 years. We live in a very busy, fast-paced world. People don’t have time to speak face to face. Everyone is in a rush. No one stops to be thankful and be happy. Jersey Boys makes thousands of people stop every night for 2.5 hours and allows them to be the happiest and most in love they have been in a long time. And it makes them appreciate their past and America’s great history. And reminds them of falling in love and dancing and perhaps even their youth. And it inspires the younger generation to think about what really matters in life. Because it is not the new iPhone or how many followers you have on twitter. Jersey Boys is a real story about real guys that did something incredible and changed the world for all of us with a guitar, a bass, a keyboard, drums and a singer who sang like nobody else. It’s simple. It’s spectacular.
And yes, it is a bona fide, award-winning, must-see hit!
What advice would you give other actors who are auditioning to play Frankie Valli in other Jersey Boys productions?
I don’t think they need advice from me. If they are cast, it is for a reason.
Jersey Boys plays from November 10, 2011 to January 7, 2012, at The National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Between 13th and 14th Streets), in Washington, DC. Purchase your tickets online, or call (800) 447-7400.
Watch a highlight preview video of the tour with Joseph Leo Bwarie and the cast of Jersey Boys.
Watch Joseph Leo Bwarie tell how he auditioned for and got the role of Frankie Valli in the tour of Jersey Boys.
Joseph Leo Bwarie’s website.
The Jersey Boys tour website.