NSO Pops: The Midtown Men with Steven Reineke, conductor
Friday and Saturday
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
2700 F St., N.W.
If you loved the smash Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, you’ll probably also love the Midtown Men, a throwback group comprised of the four original “Jersey Boys” stars who now tour with their own ‘60s revue.
The group, in Washington this weekend for two shows with the National Symphony Orchestra, has played more than 1,000 shows together counting their 2005-2008 stint on the Great White Way.
Now with legal woes behind them — there was a back-and-forth in 2010 between “Jersey Boys” producers and the Men that was eventually settled out of court — the four actor/singers, Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard, J. Robert Spencer and Michael Longoria — have earned raves all over the country for their high-energy show, which the New York Times said has “the air of the Rat Pack, Motown and a nightclub act all rolled into one.”
It started backstage during “Jersey Boys.” Longoria, 33, who originated the role of Joe Pesci while often playing Valli in matinees before taking over the role fully for the last year-and-a-half he was in it, says the cast would often play other early ‘60s music backstage on show nights to help them get in the mood.
“We did it to just kind of feel the world of the ‘60s and the world Frankie Valli lived in,” Longoria, who moved to New York in 1999 when he was 17 to go to New York University, says. “We’d play the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and before you knew it, we all started singing along together.”
After a hit debut singing at Katie Couric’s 50th birthday party in 2007, invitations started pouring in.
When the guys realized it was more than just a one-off, they started establishing more repertoire and eventually, after three years of “Jersey Boys,” they went their separate ways for about a year, but then reunited and hired an agent and within a month, had a year’s worth of gigs booked as the Midtown Men. That was four years ago.
So is this just Boomer nostalgia in high gear or is it more than that?
Longoria, who croons with ease in a buttery falsetto on songs like “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “Sherry,” “Happy Together” and many more (the group rotates its set list regularly), says the songs have lasted because of the uncommonly strong songwriting.
“It was very story driven and has a lot to do with everyday people’s problems,” he says. “It’s guys wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They might be telling you they’re leaving, but it’s done in a very human way. A lot of times in music today, there are so many bells and whistles, the words and melody get lost. But back then, that’s all they had, so they just put it on the table and because of that human element and that human experience, it’s very easy to relate to for an audience.”
Longoria also says the style of much of the singing is well suited to his four-octave range.
“They wrote a lot for guy singers and they don’t really do that much anymore.”
He says the vocal efforts aren’t particularly taxing. He likens it to going to the gym and staying in shape with his voice.
Some of his favorites to sing are “Be My Baby” by Ronnie Spector and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” by the Beach Boys. Four Seasons hits like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are staples of the show.
Longoria says he met Valli many times during the “Jersey Boys” run and says the legendary singer, now 80, was always “very supportive” and even gave Longoria his cell phone number.
“I think he saw himself in me a little bit,” Longoria says. “He was always very nice and kind about giving me advice and stuff like that.”
After graduating from NYU, Longoria worked about six months at the famed Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square before being cast in “Hairspray” with Harvey Fierstein, a show he was with for two years before moving — ironically just across the street — to “Jersey Boys.”
“It was nice because I still got to see my ‘Hairspray’ friends everyday,” he says. “We’d flash each other from the dressing room windows. Girls would show their boobs. Guys would show their asses. If you were lucky, you’d see a dick. It was a fun, young time. Very exciting.”
Longoria came out at age 15 at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and says he can’t imagine living any other way. His boyfriend of five years, a Broadway producer he declines to name, sometimes travels with him.
So is Broadway as gay as everybody tends to think it is?
Longoria says it is, though, “there are lots of annoying straight guys there, too.”
“Hairspray,” he says, was so gay, initially getting cast in the much-straighter “Jersey Boys” provided a tinge of culture shock.
“On ‘Hairspray,’ I never really thought about it,” he says. “It was never like, ‘Oh, there’s all these queens back here,’ you know what I mean? … Harvey Fierstein was just like this big, gay fairy godmother and it just seemed natural. But then being in ‘Jersey Boys, it was a much different experience because I was trying to bring all this machismo to the role and also so many involved were straight, married, had girlfriends. I was the one bringing guys to meet the cast. It was normal and accepting, but it did feel a little different. That specific show just had a lot of straight guys in it.”
Often the Midtown Men perform with a seven-piece rock band, but they eventually had orchestrations charted of their music and shows like this weekend’s with the NSO Pops became possible.
The last few times Longoria has been in Washington, it’s been cold, so he says he’s looking forward to being here in warmer weather. If you’re out this weekend, there’s a chance you could see him at JR.’s or Cobalt. He says he loves checking out the local bar scene, seeing what the drag shows are like and giving out Midtown Men tickets.
“I’ve made some really cool friends in really random places you wouldn’t even think would have a gay bar,” he says.
Will today’s music hold up as well? Will we be going to Adele and Lady Gaga Broadway shows in 40 or 50 years?
Longoria says it’s possible but points out how many of today’s singers — he mentions Adele and the late Amy Winehouse especially — ape ‘60s vibes in their material.
“With Adele, even though the songs are new, so much of the way she sings and the way it’s produced, that’s all ‘60s influences. I think that’s one reason they had so much success is because this time right now is very hot for the ’60s and a lot of people are bringing it back. … It’s also a big trend on Broadway now to bring all this stuff back. There was our show, a Beach Boys musical that flopped but then now there’s the Carole King musical, which I saw and was great. I don’t want it to sound like some negative thing, but it is kind of a cheap way for producers to be like, ‘Oh, you know, this’ll work, everybody loves these songs. Let’s do a show about Carole King, or let’s do a show about Frankie Valli,’ as opposed to something brand new and original. Audiences today don’t always care to see something brand new.”