At the time of the interview, playing the part of Tommy DeVito, Jon is thrilled to be performing in Jersey Boys.
“I think most of our audience come for the music but they come back because of the story and the characters.”
From his first paid weekly job as Earl Blues in The Blues Brothers Meet the Soul Sisters, Jon has also performed lead roles in major shows including Galileo in We Will Rock You, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show.
Jon has also released his debut album Three Four, which is a rock and blues project that many Jersey Boys fans enjoy listening too.
Jon recently took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions about himself, his career, and of course Jersey Boys. Enjoy!
I gather that your father was on stage singing the day you were born. What was he singing?
The truth of it is that my father had a residency at The Tower Ballroom in Birmingham of an evening which was a ‘musical hobby’ while also having a day-job. While performing at the ballroom, I presume it was at some point during a break, he was told that my mum had gone into labour and had been taken to hospital. He did make it to the hospital and was there when I was born. So it wasn’t a filmic ‘stop the band you’ve got to rush off to hospital’. It was 1976 so he could well have been singing ‘Oh What a Night’ as that was released that year, but was probably something from Bay City Rollers, 10cc or some other pop cover that he was doing. But the circle of life is such that when my son was being born I was on stage doing Jersey Boys and I had to leave at the interval and go straight to the hospital in full make-up and quiff. I was there a long time before he was born, but it is quite nice that we both experienced the same thing.
When did you first discover that you enjoyed singing in front of an audience?
I am not sure when I realised that I enjoyed singing in front of an audience. I started at such a young age. I think I was four years old and we were on holiday and there was a kids’ talent competition and my mum said “oh you should get up and sing”, and because my dad and my mum sang, and my sister who is two years older than me also sings as well, I just thought everybody did it. So I got up and sang and kind of enjoyed it for myself, just getting up and singing for whatever reason really. I am not sure I became aware of the crossover when you perform and get a reaction and the feeling that makes you feel, but I certainly grew up with it. I remember changing schools at the age of seven and they had a Christmas assembly and they asked, “Does anybody want to get up and do anything?” I put my hand up straight away thinking everybody would, and I found out then that I was something of a minority in that I wanted to get and do my bit that I had grown up doing, at various holiday camps and places like that. So I became aware then that it wasn’t normal to jump up on stage and do a turn, but I am not entirely sure when I realised that I enjoyed it. But I do and still enjoy performing in any respect. Sometimes it feels like work, definitely, as it is my job and sometimes you do things that you don’t enjoy as much as others. Some you do for money and some you do for love, and some you do as a crossover and you get to it for both.
What type of music did you enjoy listening to as a young man?
Very much Michael Jackson. I came to enjoy my own music fairly late. I listened to whatever was going on in the house. My dad has got a great music collection, The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the classic stuff. I listened to the radio in the house, but didn’t get to choose the stations and listened to whatever tapes we had in the car. I remember listening to Queen, The Sweet and The Beatles. When it was time for me to have my own cassette player in the bedroom it was Michael Jackson that I listened to. I remember having the Bad album on a birthday and pretty much wearing the tape out.
You graduated from Loughborough University with a BA Honours in Drama and won the University Drama Prize. If you could choose one memorable moment from your time at Uni, what would it be?
My time at Loughborough was brilliant. It was three years doing a drama course. It was quite an academic course. There wasn’t much performance and there weren’t any acting classes. It was a mixed bag of students. We did a lot of play reading and very technical stuff with essays etc. I lived in Halls for three years which was brilliant, and I got involved in the Hall life. I went on the committee and became the Hall Chairman and I was the Fresher’s Rep when I was in my first year. I don’t think anything in particular stands out as being a hugely memorable moment. I had three great years with some great people and I enjoyed it all. I do remember in my first year that I had a band that I had got together with while I was at Sixth Form College. Loughborough wasn’t too far away from Solihull so we asked about doing a gig and we played in one of the bars on campus and I remember chatting to the bar manager saying could we do something about the lighting as people would want to get up and dance and not feel too self-conscious. He said, “oh you won’t have people getting up to dance, not in this bar’, and I think it was about three minutes in to the set that the place was on its feet. I felt quite proud of myself and then he invited us back to play again.
After graduating you worked in Fringe theatre in Birmingham. Can you tell us about that?
The first thing that I did after graduating was to move to Nottingham, where I lived for a year. Part of the Nottingham Playhouse has an educational arm called Roundabout and I did some theatre in education touring where we would go into schools and do shows. That was my first paid gig really. Then I went back home to Birmingham and didn’t know whether I was going to make a profession out of this thing I had stumbled into and was doing academically for the love of it. I wasn’t entirely sure that I would pursue it to the length that I have. So I thought I would have a year out of trying some stuff and go involved in some stuff that was advertised locally. It wasn’t amateur but it wasn’t paid. It was budding performers who were putting together productions such as Macbeth, a Ben Elton play called Silly Cow, a Mike Lee play called Smelling a Rat, all at the Midlands Art Centre. It was some really good work with some really talented people, and good production values, for fringe no-budget shows. It was very enjoyable and a bit like an apprenticeship. I was able to apply some of what I had learnt along the way at university and some of what I had learnt in amateur groups as a kid, and learn a bit more about stage-craft before getting my big break.
You toured the UK as Earl Blues in Bill Kenwright’s The Blues Brothers Meet The Soul Sisters. What can you tell us about the show and the tour?
I applied through an industry paper called PCR which advertises jobs. I sent my CV in to Bill Kenwright’s office and had an audition with Keith Strachan who was the musical director. I had applied for the Roy Orbison Story which was also about to be on. I went in and sang and played the guitar, and he obviously saw potential in me to be more suitable for The Blues Brothers Show. That was my first break really. My first paid weekly touring job. I think the tour lasted about three months, travelling across the UK at different venues one week at a time. It was a great show. My band that I had played with at university was a Soul band. It was when The Commitments was in full flow and everyone was doing Soul tribute bands. So doing Blues and Soul was right up my street and I started to find this ‘edgy’ voice which I had began developing with the band. It was a great baptism to professional theatre.
You made your West End debut in All You Need is Love (the songs of Lennon and McCartney) at the Queen’s Theatre. What was it like performing on a London West End stage for the first time?
The West End was a dream come true. It came out of the back of The Blues Brothers. Keith Strachan was involved in All You Need is Love as a musical director and he tipped off the people he worked with, that this young lad had a nice voice and I went through the audition process and I got the job. It was a huge celebration really as it was the first time my parents took seriously what I had chosen to do. To be appearing in the West End was deemed to be satisfactory, considering they wanted me to be a lawyer or an accountant have a proper job. It was very exciting. It wasn’t the biggest production the West End had ever seen, as it didn’t have a huge budget, but it did have a very talented cast and we just got stuck in. It could have gone either way really. It could have become the new Mamma Mia! with a Beatles theme , but it didn’t work out like that in the end. We ran for six months in the West End and when it came to renew contracts at the theatre they decided that they wouldn’t renew. It was a sad end to it really as it was such a brilliant show, with great arrangements of Beatles’ songs and a really talented cast. It was the year the first ‘foot and mouth’ crisis happened and there was a huge drop off in tourism in general. Because it was a new show it didn’t have the support that some of the longer running shows had, to be able to prop itself up. We became a victim of the ‘climate’ in London at that time. It was a huge honour to be a part of the show and for me I felt that I was now a legitimate performer.
The theatres in the provinces are much nicer, newer, bigger and cleaner than those in the West End where there are grim backrooms and corridors, but there is just something about being in one place commuting into Town knowing you are a part of the history and tradition that has gone on for hundreds of years. It is a really positive thing.
What is your favourite Beatles song?
My favourite Beatles’ song probably changes daily and today I think I would say it is ‘Hey Bulldog’, which is not a very well know song but is in the film ‘Yellow Submarine’ which my sister and I used to watch as kids. It has got a great Harrison guitar riff and is very Bluesy.
You toured the UK and Europe in The Rocky Horror Show, playing both Brad Majors and Frank N Furter, performing over 600 times in more than nine countries. What are some of your favourite memories from being in the show?
Being a part of The Rocky Horror Show is a hugely entertaining experience. I think it is one of those shows that has a sort of life and rules of its own. It is just phenomenal how successful it is and you almost become part of a family between the company that you are playing with, and the history (the alumnus) of those that have gone before you and the audience, which is largely made up of fans that have followed the show for years. Whichever part of the country we were in the audience would turn up dressed up for the show and get involved. It really is a sort of travelling circus of a show. In many ways it follows the same traditions of any touring show, you play for a week in one place and then you move on, but it is like the party has come to town. You can tell there is a sense of excitement that you are going to be there and people are going to come and see the show with a lot of people having seen it before. It really is a unique theatrical event. Then to go away and do it in Europe was an opportunity that came at a brilliant time in my life when it was the right thing to go and do some travelling. That was a harder tour as it was a nightly change of venue, so we spent a lot of time on the bus and literally in a different hotel every night. It was a fairly big commitment to be doing that. We experienced the international fan base which differed in every country. The Italians were certainly the craziest. Everywhere we went there was a new group and a new official fan club for a region or a country who would troupe out and see us. We played anything from basketball courts to major big theatres and then I think the highlight was at open air venues. We played in the grounds of castle ruins in Germany where we didn’t really erect any of our set, we just used the surroundings of the ruin. The band and audience were outside, it was the summer and it was quite a spectacle. The tour had been going for ten years and I was invited back to take part in the final show which was a huge concert in Hannover, and it was a real honour to be a part of that, and to be a part of something that had such a following.
You performed in touring productions of Grease (Kenickie) and Jesus Christ Superstar (Judas). What did you enjoy most about being on tour with those shows?
The production I did with Grease was very short. It was in the amphitheatre in Larnaca, Cyprus and it was just for a weekend. We spent two weeks rehearsing and we flew out and did the tech and did a Friday and Saturday at this open air theatre. It was about 35 degrees on the stage during the day. It was intensely hot and very hard work. A bit of a shock to the system really. It was quite a treat to play Kenickie for such a short amount of time in somewhere you would go for a holiday. It was great fun.
I followed that by working for the same company playing Judas in their production of Jesus Christ Superstar which again was a very short-lived tour in Sweden and Denmark. I think we only did two weeks in total and again very enjoyable. It was a very quick way to get in to a show.
The two shows were in very different climates at different times of the year. We saw a lot of snow in the Jesus Christ Superstar tour and a lot of sunshine in the Grease production. The Jesus Christ Superstar tour allowed me to be the person that Bill Kenwright re-employed after all those years when they needed a Judas at the drop of a hat, to do the finals six months of the UK tour with Glenn Carter as Jesus. It was a nice opportunity for me to prove myself to ‘Uncle Bill’ and use my experience of having just done the production to just walk straight into the part. I think I had one day’s rehearsal which was in Brighton and went on in the matinee the next day.
What are your likes and dislikes about being on tour?
Touring can be a joy and pleasure but also be a bit of a pain in the bum. It depends where you are in life, where you are touring and how strict and busy the tour is. There is a great sense of community when you tour, more so than being in the West End. I think because you have to work, play and live together you do become this dysfunctional family on wheels. You get to make some very good friends and see some incredible places whilst all the time having the familiar surroundings of your square of flooring in your set. I can depend on what stage you are in your life as to how difficult it can be. You see a lot of people struggle with relationships, and long-distance family and things like that. If you are in your early twenties and haven’t got any ties and no mortgage there is no better way to get some experience under your belt. It’s not for everybody and I am not sure how I would feel about touring now, now that I am older and have a son, and commitments here. I think it would be a difficult decision. Maybe not impossible, but I think you just have to take each job on its merits and decide whether it is right for you or not. But it is a brilliant way to be paid and to travel the world, although you don’t necessarily get to see the things you would see if you went on holiday. I think you do get to know a country better by playing its small theatres in towns and eating in its local restaurants and staying in its local guest houses. You can get a real sense of having seen a country. But living out of a suitcase is tough and some nights you don’t feel like unpacking it just to put it all away again. You miss certain things from home, like how food and culture is varied. It makes you appreciate what you’ve got.
What advice would you give to a young actor/actress who is about to go on their first tour?
Just to go for it. It is very hard for people who go on tour who try and maintain their links back home. You see youngsters having huge phone bills. If you go you have to be ready to go and throw yourself into it. Just be adaptable and be patient. Try not to get fed up with people and their travelling habits. Really embrace it being on tour. See as much as you can, no matter how tired you are.
You toured as a principal vocalist in a new production of What a Feeling! with Sinitta, Noel Sullivan and Pop Idol’s Zoe Birkett. Can you tell us about this?
This was a very short tour. The feel of a concert. It was a bit like being on the Blues Brothers show again. It was concert venues rather than theatres. It was town halls and the sort of venues that bands go to play in. We didn’t do many theatres. It was brilliant working with the guys. I was the fourth vocalist who got to do all of the Rock ‘N Roll stuff, I was the ‘non-famous’ one! I have a great friendship with the other three vocalists. We also had an incredible cast of dancers. Gary Lloyd’s choreography and his production was just brilliant. As part of the tour, we did a lovely Sunday at the Palladium, with two shows, and most of the West End turned out to see it. As a result of this I think everyone wanted to work for Gary, to do his choreography and his shows. He has gone on to bigger and better things. It was just a great show to be a part of.
You performed in We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre as the alternate Galileo Figaro and also understudied Khashoggi and Brit. How did it feel to be a part of this iconic long-running show?
This was two years of my life and was the biggest thing I had ever done. There were some odd circumstances leading up to my first performance. I was the understudy to Galileo and Ricardo Alfonso, who was due to move from being the understudy to taking over the part with the contract change, was involved in a motorbike accident and he was recovering for about three months. So after two weeks of rehearsals learning my ensemble track I had a phone call to say “can you come in early tomorrow as we are starting you learning Galileo and Ben Elton and Roger Taylor are going to come and have a look”, which was to essentially decide whether to put me straight on or to go down the list of previous guys. Thankfully they went with the decision to put me on and I opened as Galileo. It was quite a big and exciting time really. I had about two weeks to learn my lines and get my voice ready. Luckily I was working with Sabrina Aloueche who was joining the show as Scaramouche so we kind of learnt it together and went on as the new guys. I had three months of desperately trying not to wreck my voice and do a good job. A very surreal first night moment walking out to sing Bohemian Rhapsody, knowing that Bryan May, Roger Taylor and Ben Elton were sat in the audience. My family were there as well, which was great as they were so proud of me. They have been very supportive throughout my whole career. Thankfully Ricardo recovered and I then had the strange task of stepping out of his shoes and back into rehearsals to learn the roles and bits of the show that I should have been doing. I had a strange two weeks where I wasn’t performing where I didn’t know my own track. I had one-on-one rehearsals, costume and wig fittings and eventually got put back in the show again. In the second year Ricard suffered another injury and with another three months off so I was back playing the lead again. In the second year I also covered Khashoggi so I got to try a couple of new things out. Seven Seas of Rhye has been a favourite song of mine so eventually I got to sing all of the best songs, and I even went on for Britney for one night only. So I think I covered all of the bases with that show.
You are now in your fourth year with Jersey Boys, performing as Tommy DeVito. What is it about the musical that has kept your interest and how do you keep your performances fresh?
A fourth contract is quite unusual. I think to do any show for more than a couple of years is a huge undertaking even if you love the show. It becomes very difficult re-create the same excitement and passion in your performances as you did in those early months when you first joined. It does become routine and does become your day job, like everybody else goes to work and does what they do. However, there is something about Jersey Boys that manages to keep you fresh and I think that it is the speed with which the first act is set up and plays out. It is the brilliant dialogue and for me Tommy is the best character. I will never be able to sing falsetto like Frankie Valli so it’s the lead role in the show that is best suited for me and I think even though musically it is often just three or four chords and is early Rock ‘N Roll, it just never sounds stale. I never get bored singing the songs. I wouldn’t particularly listen to the songs on my days off, but there is just something about the way the show is constructed that you never get tired of it. There is always enough richness in the back stories of the characters, who let’s face it are real people, so the more you dig the more layers there are and the more it re-affirms itself. You can never tick a box and say “I’ve done it, and found out everything about this guy, and I’ve shown it on stage”, because he is a complex character and a real person and you will never get to the bottom of that pot. You have to make sure you are doing the same performance, and I have done three years and well into the fourth now and yes it is exciting to go out every night but I don’t get nervous so I have to find other ways of finding my excitement and keeping energy levels up. Part of the way is to take your holidays. It is a very gruelling schedule where you have to perform your day’s work at the end of everyone else’s working day, and put your day’s energy into 2 ½ hours. You have to take breaks, know when you are over-doing it and might need time off. Also, I think it is important to go and watch it again. To take a night where you go and sit in the audience and watch the show, as that is such a different feel. It looks different and sounds different to being in it on the stage. It is important to refresh yourself and your memory of how slick and how brilliant this smash hit musical you are a part of. And just remind yourself how the audience see it every night.
For those that haven’t seen the show, can you tell us about your character and how he fits into the storyline?
Tommy is the man who is the self-proclaimed engineer of the band. He is from blue collar New Jersey and grew up in the fifties. He is a first generation American of an Italian family. The Italians prior to that period were classed as second class citizens and they had to work very hard and they grew up in very rough neighbourhoods. Tommy sees music as the way to get himself out and he surrounds himself successfully with the other guys that he needs to take with him, because he is not good enough to do it on his own. So he finds Nick, his old buddy, who is a genius at constructing harmonies. He sees this young kid Frankie who he takes under his wing and recognises the potential in his voice and through Joe Pesci, they get introduced to another kid Bob Gaudio, who he sees as the brains behind the writing and he manages to pull these guys together with himself at the helm running the group, doing the dodgy deals and propels them far enough so that they get a foothold on the road to success. He ends up getting into trouble and the band kick him out unfortunately, and that’s his story.
What is your favourite song in the show? The one that makes you smile…
My favourite song without question is Sherry, not because it is the best song but in the context of the show up until that first hit single everything is played to audiences who are on stage, the bars, the clubs and the restaurants that the guys grow up learning their craft and playing to. So we are always playing to tables and chairs on the stage, and the moment we get that hit single we turn out to the audience in the theatre and we use them as our real audience for the first time. It is just such a well constructed build up to that moment when we come out in the red jackets and we hit Sherry and everybody knows why this band made it, and in the context of the show that is the key moment for me.
Why should everyone come along and see Jersey Boys?
Everyone should come along to see Jersey Boys just because I think that if we are going to put the label of ‘juke-box’ musical on it (which I think is a little unfair) it is the best one. It’s a play about the story of these guys and it uses their music because that is what the story is about. But is the best one in that genre. There’s an amazing story that you couldn’t have made up if you took these songs and tried to use them as the basis for the lyrical and character content, it would never be as good as the real story of the band, and the characters they grow into and the trouble they got into. The songs are classics, they are hit after hit, with most people probably only aware of half of them being Frankie Valli and The Four Season’s hits. They might have known the song but not realised where it has come from. I think most of our audience come for the music but they come back because of the story and the characters. So if you are not into musicals but you are into music and maybe into films then come and see Jersey Boys because you won’t regret it.
You have a debut album out called “THREE FOUR”. What can you tell us about the album and the inspiration behind it?
The album has been around about a year now. It was a little vanity project. I had been threatening to get into the studio for years and put some stuff together. It is quite a time-consuming and expensive thing to do, so there are only certain times in your life when you can do it. I just wanted to put something together that illustrated some of the music I grew up with. Some of the reasons I started to play guitar and songs are on their, and because I like singing them and listening to them in their original format. There was obviously a thought process that my current fan base is largely made up of people that have been to see Jersey Boys, so they are fans of the golden oldies, but so am I. That is the music my dad used to play and we used to have around the house. Whilst it was a conscious decision to include some oldies so that it had a place to be marketed it wasn’t about making money at all. I have just made some good music and shared it with some nice people who have been very complimentary about it. It sort of won’t date in a way as the songs are already old-fashioned classics. It is my take on some classics. I got to sit in a room with all of my guitars and scream into a microphone for a week and get to see it all packaged up, painted nicely and on sale on the internet.
Away from the stage what do you like to do to chill out?
Although I sing and play the guitar for a living in Jersey Boys it is not necessarily the same when I sit around the house and pick up a guitar and sing. I always try to have little side projects going on with various bands, and I try to do some gigs as and when I can just to let off some steam and to get my head around other types of music. I like being invited to perform for different concerts and cabarets. Music is a big part of my downtime even though it is a big part of my working life. I am also very much into my motorbikes and we have a little West End performers and musicians bikers’ club. We have arranged trips, holidays, days out, meeting at the pub. Food is also a huge passion of mine, and trying out new restaurants, and different types of food at home and abroad.
You have many people following your career. Have you any message to say to them?
I had a conversation at Stage Door recently and they said we’re not fans, we are supporters and I think that is quite a nice way to think of it. I am very grateful that people do take an interest in what I do on stage in the show and also in what I do for myself. So I would say to them thank you for supporting me, always finding out what my next job is going to be, what my next incarnation is going to be and always giving it a try. They might not like is as much as something I have done before and you may only come and see it once and think “Jon was okay in that but it isn’t my cup of tea, we will wait until the next time”, I think that is fine as you won’t like everything that everyone does. I you have a favourite actor you won’t like every film they are in. I am grateful for people that do take an interest and do support me and send me messages on Twitter and Facebook, and take Whiskey and biscuits to the theatre and treats that I get. If it is just because whatever it is we do on that stage every night makes them happy then it’s worth doing.
Interview questions by Neil Cheesman @LondonTheatre1
Credit photographers in order displayed: Catherine Shakespeare Lane 2009 and Chris Gardner Photography 2013.