By DAVID W. WANNOP
For 21st Century Media
Ten years ago Frankie Valli spoke to me about a new project he was working on; a play based on the Four Seasons’ music and career. It soon hit Broadway with roles played by Christian Hoff, Michael Longoria, Daniel Reichard and Tony Award nominee J. Robert Spencer. From 2004 through 2008 the show was a runaway smash, but the principals didn’t want to give up their friendship and tutelage after the show closed. So they became the Midtown Men.
The new entity is touted as being a non-mimicking and non-tribute band. They feel they have earned the right to re-interpret the songs for they have the blessing of Frankie Valli, Paul Anka, Tommy James, and others. Some of the artists that they interpret do not tour any more, tour only on a limited basis, and some are deceased. Some lost the rights to perform their 1960s material. So, the Midtown Men are here to give you the 60s experience that you remember, missed, or never had. The Philly Pops will be the backing band for their Kimmel Center performance May 16, 17 and 18.
J. Robert Spencer discussed the concert with me via phone from Oregon where he answered interview questions and helped a child with math equations at the same time. I asked him if rock music now had songs equivalent to the Great American Song Book of Tin Pan Alley, or the repertoire of classical’s three B’s, qua Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
“I do feel that way as I tour across the country performing, whether it is the music of the Zombies, the Mommas and Papas, the Turtles, or Motown.,” he said. These songs are iconic and become more so as they get further back into time. It’s everywhere we look, listen, see and breathe.”
Spencer defends the Midtown Men’s approach to the songs.
He reasoned, “Audience members, promoters, and others tell us that if they can’t get the original artists, well then, we fill the void. We have credibility because of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in 2004. We were the original Jersey Boys from 2005 through 2008. We took responsibility for the logic, the harmonies, the music and the presentation.
It wasn’t hard to slide into being a band after doing the Broadway run.
“During Jersey Boys we were asked continuously, can you play a gala, or a charity event, or a fund raiser? We could, but because we were doing Frankie Valli on Broadway, we couldn’t do Four Seasons’ music. So, we learned other music from the time. And now, we’ve been the Midtown Men for over 360 concerts and we love it!”
Spencer confided his long road between Broadway shows.
“I had a Broadway show in the late nineties and then went through a dozen shows that I thought would go to Broadway but didn’t. I read that monologue for Nick Massi for Jersey Boys and I called my wife because I knew immediately that I had that show. We did 1,600 performances and the stars were in alignment” Spencer said.
The Midtown Men have been embraced by many of the people from the 60s including the Rascals, the Turtles, Tommy James and Paul Anka.
“Tommy James! He has seen us so many times,” Spencer said. He hangs out with the band. We were seen by Paul Anka. Paul Anka asked if that was ‘really us singing?’ We said ‘of course.’ He gave us a really nice quote to use from him.”
Spencer seems to have it down when it comes to touring. He commented, “The best part is going from theatre, to theatre, to theatre across the country because I never knew that there were so many iconic and beautiful performance places. Going through security is a science. No watch, no belt, nothing metal, where slippers and zip right on through. I just don’t like getting up at 4 a.m. For a flight.”
Many of the people in their audience are baby boomers who remember the music when it was new, but they often bring their children or even grandchildren. For many, the music may be slightly familiar and for others unfamiliar. But, if a song is new to you it still has freshness if done with the right energy. If you hear a song for the millionth time, and it still resonates with you, these performances, which Spencer referred to as “high octane,” may bring back the feeling you had when the vinyl was piled high at your local (hifi) shop and the top radio station in the nation (Wibbage—WIBG99) played these song in high rotation.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Philly Pops presents “Sixties Hits” featuring The Midtown Men
WHEN: May 16, 17 and 18.
WHERE: Verizon Hall in The Kimmel Center, Broad Street, Philadelphia.
TICKETS: Prices range from $33 to $110.
INFO.: Check www.phillypops.org or call (215) 893-1999.