8/15: Four Seasoned Pros Hit the Town

J. Robert Spencer, Michael Longoria, Daniel Reichard and Christian Hoff are The Midtown Men — and the four seasoned veterans of Broadway’s JERSEY BOYS are working their way back to Jersey for a concert at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre this Saturday, August 18. 

“Sherry.” “Candy Girl.” “Walk Like a Man.” “Dawn.” “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”

We know ’em as canonical catalogue classics from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the Garden State streetcorner-serenade city slickers (and Belleville’s answer to The Beach Boys?) about whom native Jerseyans can tend to be as proprietary as pork roll, pizza and pumping gas (not).

For a whole millennial generation of Broadway babies, however, these awesome poptunes — instantly ID’d through their clanking, thumping beat and the sci-fi falsetto beamed in from somewhere east of the final frontier — are the stuff that drives Jersey Boys, the jukebox juggernaut that became the hit of the 2005 season — and granted its original New York cast (including John Lloyd Young, the Tony winner who recently announced his return to the role of Frankie) the Vallidity of the real thing.

A few years back, four “seasoned” vets from that Broadway cast — including Christian Hoff (a 2006 Tony winner as Tommy DeVito), Daniel Reichard (who played the group’s songwriting mastermind Bob Gaudio), J. Robert Spencer (who portrayed Nick Massi) and Michael Longoria (who took over as Frankie Valli after originating the show’s part of young Joe Pesci) — got together for a touring project that would find them expanding on their 1960s pop bona fides, by tackling a bonanza of Billboard-toppers from the pre-Woodstock era.

Originally dubbed The Boys in Concert, the allstar act hit a serious snag in its momentum, when a legal challenge by the producers of Boys forced a name change before more than an initial handful of gigs were booked. Since rebranded as The Midtown Men, the guys retook to the road last year, and recorded a platter of Sixties Hits that finds them looking beyond Jersey to the exotic lands of Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”), SoCal (The Mamas and the Paps’ “California Dreamin”) and the UK (The Zombies’ “Time of the Season”). This Saturday, August 18, the Men for All Seasons are joined by their seven-piece band for an Off Broadway/ On Boardwalk concert at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre.

Produced by Sammy Boyd, the 8pm event will dedicate portions of proceeds to the (recently relo’d to Asbury) Big Brothers Big Sisters of Monmouth & Middlesex Counties — and, as per the specs of the settlement, it will NOT be a performance of, or in any way connected to, the smash musical that gave these four singing actors their big break.

UpperWETside talked to Hoff — a busy character actor, narrator and vocal artist who actually got HIS first big break as the young voice of the Hanna Barbera toon Richie Rich! — in the middle of a tour schedule that will take the Midtowners from Green Bay to Asbury to Missouri, with big-time New York TV ops along the way. Let’s hang on…

A Tony winner for JERSEY BOYS — and, among many other credits, the cartoon voice of Richie Rich — Christian Hoff has logged hundreds of billable hours playing lawyers on UGLY BETTY and LAW & ORDER: CI, a credit that may have come in handy during the Midtown Men’s past legal hassles.  

upperWETside: When we first became aware of your act, through our meeting and talking to Michael Longoria a few seasons back, we understood that you guys were originally being billed as The Boys In Concert — but the JERSEY BOYS people put a quash on that in court. Coming as it did so early in your collaborative career, how did the whole lawsuit thing serve to crystallize the concept of what you were doing? Did it change things much from what you were doing at the outset? And where does the MIDTOWN MEN name come from anyway?

CHRISTIAN HOFF: It’s an easy jump from being Boys to something else — and we weren’t boys anymore, so the Midtown Men name reflected our hardworking, middle class roots; commerce and art…and it referred to where we all first met, in midtown Manhattan.

The whole lawsuit experience served to bring us together as people and as artists. Any differences we may have had just fell away. We were fighting for our lifeblood; our right to perform in the style that we were known for. The whole thing was very high stakes — but it was never personal. Our position was that we just wanted to entertain, and bring these songs to life.

So the four of you control your own collective brand?

We’re all equal partners in the show…which can be about the perils of democracy on the one hand, but also about how much we behave as a family. We get to argue over everything from the horn arrangements, to the PR, and the type of socks we’re wearing. But, we’re the kind of trained entertainers who can sing through fatigue, sing through anything…and everything that we’ve been through has been a learning experience.

I’m hoping you’re all in agreement about continuing on with those 60s sharkskin suits. You guys look real slick on stage, although I’m sure you’ve all sacrificed a degree or two of comfort for the team…

We did a gig in Delaware where it was about 90 degrees, with 85 percent humidity…you know it’s hot up there when the color of your suit changes from light blue to deep purple. But we enjoy yukking it up in those suits, you know…something about wearing those clothes keeps you focused, keeps you in the period. There’s a certain gravitas to it, like wearing the uniform of a great ball team.

With the necessary disclaimers that the Midtown Men show is not JERSEY BOYS — and with the implicit understanding that your act attracts a lot of its audience from the many thousands of JERSEY BOYS fans out there — how much of what you’re doing in concert is you being the Actor, or you being the Singer?  

The show that we’re doing is great because it allows you to hear our ‘rock’ voices. And as an actor, I was hired based on my ability to bring a character to life, to play a real person. We’re all actors, and the musicians that we work with understand how we feel about it…we’re used to working on Broadway, with all the multimedia aspects, the sets and costumes. Between the four of us, we’ve done over a thousand performances on Broadway — and we’re on track to do over 140 gigs this year. We go into a show like the Super Bowl, where you know the plays going in, and now you get to execute it in real time.

But the bottom line is that this is not a tribute act; it’s not the four of us acting in character…it’s about our sound and the music that we love, how we connect to it, and how that transmits to the audience. Working together for as long as we have, we have fun trying something new…and we can still pull off some incredible things; very in the moment, but still prepared.

With that in mind, I wanted to ask whether you’re constantly tweaking the set list of the show; whether you had any new, or new-old, material that you were trying out on tour. Any surprises in store for the Paramount?

We do adapt the show as we go along. We need to ask ourselves, when we’re kicking around a particular song to introduce into the show, does it resonate? How does it fit in with the show?

It’s fun to try something new…we just finished an arrangement of the Tina Turner song “River Deep Mountain High,” which we rehearsed when we were in Wisconsin. And when we do GMA we’ll also do this thing with ABC.com; a nine-minute Motown medley where we perform seven great Motown classics.

We’ll be doing that one at the Asbury Park show…and if you’re wondering how we pick just seven, we each start with our favorites, then we bring them to the table as a quartet, then bring them to the band — with the ultimate goal of performing them in front of a live audience. We whittled down a list of 20 into 15, then 10, and then 7.

I’m particularly interested in how you came to integrate The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” into the act…it’s a pretty intriguing choice, with a jazzier kind of sound that kind of pointed the way toward prog rock when it came out.

Daniel fell in love with the Zombies song, which absolutely fits my voice…there’s a cool vibe to it; very different from the other things we’ve been doing. The band really has fun with it, too…from the moment the audience hears (imitates the song’s familiar bass-and-percussion intro) they’re into it.

Of course you’re still doing a healthy amount of Seasons stuff, but have you deeper into their catalogue; checked out some of the obscurities and noble experiements? Not that I’m suggesting you perform the entire GENUINE IMITATION LIFE GAZETTE album…

Like so many groups that existed for such a length of time, they left a lot of masterpieces, and some stinkers as well. But they, Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio, really stretched their wings, took a lot of chances. And I love ’em all.

Any plans to record a followup album yourselves? And what might you do differently than on the first Midtown Men album, if you had your druthers?

The first album was done on the fly, in chunks — we’d have one day off and come to New York, hole up in the studio for the day and duke it out. The four of us would literally be listening to mixes while we were traveling in the car, on the plane, at the airport. It would be the only time and place where all of us would be listening to the same thing, on the same device, the same speakers.

For next year’s record, I’d like to try a different sort of approach…it would be great to do things completely old-school, with all the musicians in one place at one time, so that everyone performs with the awareness of the other people around them. And you’d hear the room.

That’s what I love about listening to a phonograph record, too…you hear the room; the whole listening experience is different depending on the record player, the needle, the place where you’re doing the listening. The minute the needle drops, you’re on a journey. I have a 17 year old son who agrees with me completely; who’s really into vinyl records!

That kind of sums up the attitude of the band also…we’re analog champions in a digital world!

Switching gears here, I understand that when you’re not onstage or on camera you’ve been maintaining a pretty happening career as a voice actor — and that you hold the Guinness World Record for highet number of different voices done for a single project (the project was the audiobook of producer Ed Feldman’s TELL ME HOW YOU LOVE THE PICTURE, for which Hoff performed as some 241 different characters)…

It’s fun for me to bring characters to life; it’s part of just being light on my feet, being a jack of all trades and skillsets and mindsets. And I’ve been doing it since I was the voice of Richie Rich in the cartoons…I worked at Hanna Barbera, where I’d hear people like Chuck McCann, Frank Welker doing dog voices; walking around hearing all these voices for The Flintsones, Jetsons, Scooby Doo up and down the hall!

I have to tell you, the same year that I was up for a Tony I was nominated along with Jim Dale in the same category. And that was around the same time that I got the world record for the voice project, which prior to that had been held by Jim Dale, for his recording of The Lord of the Rings. At the Tonys I joked with him that ‘I got you beat you beat on that voice thing, too’ — and of course I never even prepared a speech for the possibility of my winning Best Featured Actor.

But as far as winning awards, breaking all-time records…none of it beats the fact that you’re allowed to do what you love to do. And occasionally you get a kiss on the cheek; you get to cross the finish line and break the tape!

Tickets for the August 18 performance by The Midtown Men are priced from $39 to $79,  and are available by calling (732)897-6500, or visiting Ticketmaster. You can catch Hoff and company on ABC’s Good Morning America this Thursday, August 16; The Men are also scheduled to appear on New York Live, airing on WNBC-TV Channel 4 this Friday, August 17 at 3pm.

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