How do four actors juggle Broadway careers and another identity as the Midtown Men?
“It comes down to timing,” says J. Robert Spencer, a Tony-nominated member of the group. “The Midtown Men usually have the summers off so we can try something then.”
Last summer, for example, the 45-year-old Spencer played Abraham Lincoln in a “wacky, Mel Brooks-style musical” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Throughout the year, he, Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and Michael Longoria also have the ability to squeeze in appearances in films and television shows.
Too good to be true? Spencer wondered when the Midtown Men idea was posed.
“I was in ‘Next to Normal,’ which won the Pulitzer Prize and got me my Tony nomination, when my best friend called with the idea and said, ‘Do you want to go on the road?’”
Spencer talked it over with his wife and realized, “If we don’t try it, we’ll never know.”
Almost immediately, he says, they learned “we could have our cake and eat it, too. You don’t have to be happy with the apple pie a la mode. You could try the blueberry cobbler. It took off like wildfire.”
Now, the Midtown Men are nearing their 400th concert appearance. They’ve opened for Bruno Mars, performed at an oil tycoon’s birthday party, appeared on the White House lawn and recorded CDs and a PBS special.
“Broadway brought us rewards that every actor dreams of,” Spencer says. “But this has given us something more, something entirely different.”
The four were original cast members of the Tony-winning musical “Jersey Boys.” Hoff, Reichard and Spencer were the non-Frankie Valli members of the Four Seasons. Longoria played Joe Pesci, then segued into the Valli role.
The show – which is still running – wowed critics and audiences and created a buzz for “Jersey Boys” appearances. The actors made the rounds but then got requests to do more – ones that would interfere with the performances.
The four talked about going out as something other than “the original cast of ‘Jersey Boys’” and the Midtown Men concept was born.
While Four Seasons music is still part of the group’s repertoire, it’s not its calling card. “We do maybe 30 percent of those songs,” Spencer says. "We haven’t relied on the Frankie music we brought to life on Broadway.” Instead, the Midtown Men have expanded to include other iconic groups from the era.
Spencer also has been too busy to see the film version of “Jersey Boys.”
He and the other originals are happy for the actors who got the roles – “you’ve got to root for everybody, everybody needs a gig” – but never really thought they’d get to recreate their roles on screen.
“That movie happened because I was part of the thread,” Spencer says. “I don’t lose one bit of sleep over the fact that I’m not in it. I know how Hollywood works. But I also know what the fans know. For the droves who come to see as the Midtown Men, I’m Nick Massi from ‘Jersey Boys’ or I’m the husband in ‘Next to Normal.’”
A gritty musical, “Next to Normal” traced a woman’s mental breakdown and the effects it had on her family.
Spencer, who played the woman’s husband, says it was very tough emotionally. “After a week of it, I’d look at my wife and say, ‘I just need to cry.’ I needed an outlet, other than a stage, to deal with it.”
The show, he says, was so “rock solid,” it never felt difficult during performances. “It was a huge collaborative effort – from writing to acting to directing – and it was like being on a roller coaster. When you work with Alice Ripley (who won the Tony for her performance), you have to be on your toes. We connected as friends, as playmates, and that made the journey so rewarding.”
Like “Jersey Boys,” “Next to Normal” generated plenty of buzz and awards attention. Producer Norman Lear told Spencer he wanted to direct a film version of the musical and producers resisted. “So I don’t know if they’re ever going to make a movie version of it.”
Spencer says he and the other Midtown Men are getting a kick out of relating to an audience as themselves, not some characters.
“When we get on stage and tell stories,” he says, “they’re our stories, not someone else’s.”