The Tony-nominated actor was inspired to create the show after observing the audience during his Broadway shows “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful.” Watching multigenerational families come for the shows, it intrigued him how each person viewed the music differently based on age. With his love of music and these observations, Spector was able to create a show featuring musicians from Little Richard to Freddie Mercury to Paul McCartney and newer artists like Bruno Mars.
I spoke to Spector about the goal of his show, how he got into musical theater and the difference between Broadway and cabaret performances.
Can you give me a run-through of the show, will it just be songs or will there also be some acting involved?
The inspiration for the show was the multi-generational audience that you would see at a show like “Jersey Boys.” Let’s take my family, for instance. When I on the show, I had my eight-year-old niece, my 40-year-old sister, my mother and my grandmother. So you’ve got four generations of women. All of them are able to come to the show and enjoy the music at the same time.
That always fascinated me since the only Four Seasons fan in the group was my mother, a member of the baby boom generation. My sister would have grown up listening to Michael Jackson and Billy Joel. And the youngest would probably listen to Bruno Mars and Adam Levine. I came to the realization that when they all heard Frankie, they each heard him in their unique, distinct way and through the filter of “that guy sounds like…” in a more personal way.
That’s what the show is really about. In each generation, there is a Frankie Valli, high tenor rockstar archetype that they all connect to. We go through every generation so that when you put it all together into one, each inevitably leads to the next and so on. They’re all really connected by this cool fraternity of singers, everyone from Little Richard to Frankie Valli to Stevie Wonder to the guys of The Beach Boys.
There will definitely be some acting. It isn’t a music history lesson. There are definitely stories about my life, being Frankie and being in “Beautiful” and stories about music all woven together. It’s important to me that it’s not just a night of singing. What makes cabaret interesting is the personal side to it. I want to hear why someone sings these songs so I hold myself to those same standards as well.
Do you have any favorites in the song lineup? Yeah, but I don’t want to give it all away. There are a couple of tunes that really tie together this idea of this generational connection. If you’re familiar with the “Innocent Man” album by Billy Joel, you’d know that every song was a homage to something. So “Uptown Girl” was a homage to the Four Seasons, so we do this cool mash up of “Walk With A Man” and “Uptown Girl.” When you hear it, it’s shocking how similar those two songs sound.
How long has the show been on? “A Little Help From My Friends” debuted in October 2013 so it’s been going on for a little while. I had a nice little run of about 12 shows over a six month period and have been doing it around the country whenever I can considering that I’m in an eight-show week at “Beautiful.”
Are you doing more shows before you come to Brooklyn? How many have you done so far?
I don’t know that off the top of my head but probably somewhere around 30 shows. I’ll be in Denver before I perform in Brooklyn. The rigors of Broadway make it so that I can only do it when my producers allow me to. They’ve been actually pretty generous in letting me do 17 or 18 shows over the course of this particular contract.
What sparked your interest in musicals and performing? My parents had me singing when I was very young. I started singing professionally when I was three years old. I used to sing along with the radio and would sing in the car. My mom taught me a song and I sang for my father who thought that at that age I could really carry a tune. I was on a little Philadelphia TV show called the “Al Alberts Showcase” when I was three. By six I was at Ed McMahon’s “Star Search.” My first taste of musical theater occurred when I was nine when I was casted in Les Misérables in Philadelphia and Chicago.
What type of music did you grow up listening to? Did you listen to a lot of theatre music?
No, that’s sort of one of my achilles heels. I’m not as well rehearsed in musical theater as one would think for someone who has been on Broadway and the stage of musicals for as long as I have. It’s not that I didn’t listen to musicals but I grew up listening to a wide array of music. My idea of music standards came through artists like Frank Sinatra.
My parents listened to a lot of R&B like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. I have older siblings who listened to a lot of rock music from the 70s and 80s. I grew up listening to a lot of whatever was playing in my house. My older siblings introduced me to Led Zeppelin, Queens and Grateful Dead.
Of course, I am a child of the 80s and 90s so musicians like Billy Joel and the 90s grunge rock were also things I listened to. Over the course of my life, it’s been a pretty wide array of music. A lot of the stuff from the 60s from “Beautiful” and “Jersey Boys” really appeals to me in the sense of the history between pop and rock and soul music that the show talks about. It all helps me in putting together concerts like this particular one with the musical history aspect to it.
How is it different performing at a place like Kingsborough versus Broadway? It’s vastly different in many ways. They’re two different mediums in some ways. With musical theater, someone else writes it, someone else is in charge of lighting and someone else directs it. They decide what you say, what you sing and what you wear. Everything is decided for you. In all of those confines, you find the performance. There’s so much that you can hide behind in musical theater.
Cabaret and concert work is very different, especially in more intimate spaces. I’ve written all of the dialogue and I’ve put this show together by myself. While they aren’t my songs, I’ve showed them specifically to tell a story. There’s not a lot to hide behind.
And of course, there’s no fourth wall in cabaret. You’re looking directly into the eyes of people who are looking directly back at you. There’s a direct line of communication and energy transfer between you and the audience. It’s a very different dynamic than musical theater. It’s simultaneously terrifying and yet thrilling and rewarding. The opportunity to connect so directly with an audience is a rare gift. I am scared but also relish the opportunity to do that.
So do you think you prefer the cabaret audience over the Broadway one? Being more intimate doesn’t necessarily make it better. There’s something to be learned from each of them. And they’re not completely mutually exclusive in that there is a venn diagram where you can learn similarities in both. For instance, the idea of connecting with the audience and just taking a moment to breathe and talk to them is a lesson that applies to both. They each influence the other.
What are some lessons learnt throughout your career so far?
I learn new things everyday about what it means to be a part of this business. One of the basic things about being an actor is that you have to be prepared for how difficult it is going to be. One accomplishment isn’t necessarily going to grant you access to a new world that you didn’t have before.
Our career is incredibly non-linear. So you have to find ways to make everything you do have inherent value, because it doesn’t always lead to something else. It’s often about the means and not the end. You have to enjoy every performance for what it’s worth. Everything has to have value in and of itself. It’s an endlessly uphill battle but the highs are so high.
Any advice for people who want to get involved with musicals when they get older?
I’m not the right person to ask. I’m a little bit jaded when it comes to the business. It’s really hard. I’d never be someone who says stop following your dreams, but be prepared. There’s a cliche that is tossed around that states ‘if you can dream of anything else, do it.’ I think that’s true. If you dream about more than one thing - and it could be anything else, like a doctor, vet, lawyer - it could lead you to a more linear lifestyle that you should seriously consider since it’s just so difficult for actors. You spend most of your time just trying to get a job.
If there is nothing else that you could consider doing, do it for you and give it everything you have. We are very passionate in what we do. After all, there aren’t many professions where you get a standing ovation at the end of your work day.