Art Talk with John Lloyd Young
I challenge anybody who doesn't see the importance of arts in our lives to throw away all their books, turn off their television, never watch another movie again, and never listen to another song. And see if they can survive without any of that stuff.---John Lloyd Young
The New York Times called John Lloyd Young a "star-in-the-making" when the ever-popular musical Jersey Boys first roared onto Broadway with Young originating the lead role of Frankie Valli. Given that Young later won a Best Actor Tony---and several other covetable theater awards---for the role, it's probably fair to say that this particular star is now officially made. In addition to the Great White Way, Young also has honed his stage chops at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and right here on Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House, among many other venues. In addition to being a passionate performer, Young is also a visual artist, and---as he revealed in our interview with him---he often works on his visual art as part of his pre-performance preparation. What else did have to say? Let's just say, he's planned a heck of a (fantasy) dinner party you won't want to miss! Read on for more....
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: I'm going to paraphrase the very important artist Marcel Duchamp who said that the artist acts like a medium, seeking his way out to a clearing. My understanding of that for myself is the artist is unselfconsciously learning out loud for the benefit of him or herself, and also for his or her audience to reveal things that may be overlooked, to bring to light certain truths that the artist is feeling intuitively are there but doesn't know quite how to get to. And that's what I feel that the work of an artist is---constantly trying to get at those things that intuitively the artist feels he and other people need to see.
NEA: What’s your ten-word bio?
YOUNG: Well I am going to do a ten-word bio that is exactly what I think is the most important: "Thank god for arts education; he never would have survived."
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with the arts?
YOUNG: My first experience with the arts was as a preschooler, gluing alphabet letters, alphabet pasta, onto construction paper to learn the alphabet. And, sort of, happily, as an adult, I also do visual art besides acting. I have art works in gallery on the East coast and the West coast and it is an assemblage-style art. So now as an adult I am gluing things onto things again.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist?
YOUNG: My first experience was making things with construction paper. But it took me until after I succeeded as an actor to get back into physical visual art-making. But my experience as an artist or a creative person was, most of my life, as an actor and performer. My first experiences were through being a kid in plays at the community theater or musicals [and] school plays. When I was very little, in the early 1980s, there were two movies that came out that I never could forget and both movies have prototypical characters in them that I've modeled myself, for better or worse, after as an artist and a performer my whole life. Those movies were Tootsie, with Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, and Amadeus, with Tom Hulce as Amadeus. Anyone who knows those movies well knows that is a huge blessing but also a very huge curse to identify with those two characters throughout a life. So those two movies really gave me a very strong, passionate desire to be an artist, or involved in the arts, to be a creative person… When I ended up at college, at Brown University, I decided to really focus on [acting] and graduated out of the theater program at Brown.
NEA: You were raised in a military family, which involves a lot of moving around. Can you talk about the ways in which the arts are especially important to kids and families in that situation?
YOUNG: I know that experience very well. And I think that the most important way that the arts can be a benefit to families that have so much change is as a through-line that you can carry with you every place you go. Arts, like knowing another language or something like that, are absolutely portable. A love for the arts or an involvement in it is portable; you can take it anywhere you go. It is also a way to get involved in new communities and meet new people who have similar interests. You can join a theater company, you can go see theater in a new community, see what the art museum is like in the new community, you can join a book club, all of those things are community-building experiences but also a way to engage with the arts, wherever you are. Even if you're remote somewhere, you can still pick up a book or you can still write. For me, it was wonderful to be able to go into these new places as a military child who was moving to a new place and have this comfort, something that I could focus on, and dream through, that I could take wherever I want.
NEA: You’re currently reprising your role as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. Can you tell us about the process of getting cast? And what have been some of the challenges and surprises of the role?
YOUNG: Well, I was a struggling actor in New York and the way I got the role in Jersey Boys is like everything else---it was just an audition amongst many auditions, but this was the perfect fit and thank god I was lucky. They were perhaps lucky to find me, but I was even more lucky to find them. A role like that is elusive in an actor's career and that's what happened. I went in and I auditioned and it was the perfect fit.
The hardest part of Jersey Boys, especially the role of Frankie Valli, is that it was unprecedentedly difficult singing for a Broadway show. Never in the history of Broadway had there ever been a role that was that vocally challenging as 27 songs a show, almost all in high falsetto. So the deepest challenge was to learn how to approach that and do it multiple times a week without losing my voice. And so my vocal coach and I worked very diligently on figuring out how to do that and we succeeded at it in such an extent that she coaches all of the guys who've played Frankie Valli across the world in all the productions of Jersey Boys. The hardest challenge was the live singing and the dedication and the devotion and discipline to learn how to do that… The thing I am most grateful for is that the show has been such a universal hit across the world. It's been so well received that I received an invitation to both the Bush and the Obama White Houses and everyone loves it.
NEA: I’m curious what you knew about Frankie Valli before you joined the cast, and how your idea of him has changed since you’ve had a chance to “inhabit” him, so to speak?
YOUNG: I didn't know much about Frankie Valli the man before I got the role, but I certainly knew all the music. I didn't even know that all of those songs were Four Seasons songs. They were such a part of the tapestry of America in soundtracks of movies, even some commercials had some songs that they wrote in them. Those songs were everywhere. So when I finally got the script and got the part, I learned that I knew much more of their body of work than I had realized. So, I didn't know much of Frankie Valli at all---I just knew that signature voice. For me, and probably for my generation, the theme song to Grease was the most distinctive sound that I had in my subconscious of Frankie Valli. What I learned about him since---from both knowing him and playing him---is that this guy is right out of American lore. He is the American rag-to-riches success story personified. I mean he had nothing in New Jersey but a dream and then he became a worldwide vocal superstar against all odds. This guy is the American dream on two legs.
NEA: Do you have any special rituals or things you do to prepare before each performance?
YOUNG: I make sure I get a lot of quiet rest, which is great for me because I am still very engaged in study. I am also really engaged in the humanities, I think that if you love art, it also is deeply important and very enriching to get the humanities side of art. Where does it fit into history, what was going on around the art, [who were the] artists in that artistic movement during that period? I go to a lot of museums. I read a lot. I'm learning Mandarin Chinese on my own. I stay quiet all day. And then I work on my visual art…. Before the show, I go to the theater about an hour-and-a-half early and warm up vocally for an hour before the show. And I eat right. I have to eat right and sleep a lot.
NEA: Do you have a dream role or a list of artists you’d like to work with?
YOUNG: I love to keep the future open and to sort of see what the universe will bring. So in terms of having a dream role, I never really have an answer to that question. However, I do have acting idols---Sidney Poitier and Gregory Peck. I think the reason I admire them so much is because I am always in search of or excited about the idea of playing characters who have deep integrity and maybe somehow or even severely are persecuted for that integrity and heroically face that persecution. On the other side of that deeply virtuous character, I also would love to play an evil genius. In terms of what kind of artists I want to work with---anyone who shares that same passion for stories or roles, scripts that have those same kinds of exciting values.
NEA: What’s the fantasy guest list of artists---living or dead---for your next dinner party? And yes, I want to be invited!
YOUNG: This is a really fun question to think about. So it's going to be a table for nine then, since you're invited. So it's a long table. On my side of the table, you're sitting to my right. To my left is Yoko Ono, and I'll tell you why later. Across from us is Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. In the middle of them is Maurizio Cattelan. The reason that I want him there in the middle of them is Warhol and Dali were such showmen, and Cattelan is this really mischievous artist, but deeply shy. I just think it would be fun to watch him be awkwardly in the middle of two such eccentric guys. Then on the ends of the table would be the grand dames of all of our twentieth-century art--- Bette Davis and then on the other side, Dorothy Parker. So it would be like a ping pong match of them rolling their eyes at each other. And so you and I would be whispering our impressions to Yoko Ono, because it seems like Yoko Ono would be someone cool to be friends with and to whisper impressions to. And then next to you would be the last artist at the dinner party. And this guy, you should look him up, what he does, his artwork, is amazing. His name is Daniel Spoerri. This guy I would invite to the party for purely selfish reasons, because what he does is he glues all of the leftover plates and food to the table after a dinner party and then cuts the table legs off and turns it into a painting. So he would be there to archive our dinner table.
NEA: Our guiding principle at the NEA is that “Art Works,” referring to works of art, the transformative power of the arts, and also artists as workers. What’s your take on “Art Works?”
YOUNG: I want to quote Baltasar Gracián with "the truth is generally seen, rarely heard," and I want to put this in sort of Beltway Washington terms. Those very famous political ads---Lyndon Johnson's Daisy ad and Ronald Reagan's Morning in America---those messages were so deeply impactful because the people who put those together were using the tenets of art, which is symbolic language being deeply powerful behind a message. I really believe this: if you've got artists on your side, your message will win at the end of the day. So be nice to artists. I don't want to get too political here, but that's why, in my opinion, it doesn't make any sense to marginalize artists or to insult them, or to insult or marginalize creative people, [to put] them in a different class than other people.
Let's say a facility for symbolic communication is triumphant---always. Look at history. The first emperor in Rome who ever put his head on a coin, that's art. And that sent a message throughout the entire Roman Empire that they were unified under one leader. That's how coinage got heads of leaders on it. That was an artist decision, and that unified an entire empire. The arts aren’t just something that people go off and do to indulge themselves; they’re actually central to everything we do. For example, it's central to our purchasing decision. When you go to the grocery store and you see your favorite brand, part of the reason it's your favorite brand is the artwork. There's been millions of dollars that's gone into the marketing of that artwork that makes whatever's in that box attractive to you. Art is central and integral to everything that we do. In my opinion, "art works" represents the most integral and essential driver of what I hear Beltway people always refer to as our nation’s soft power.
NEA: Any thing you’d like to add?
YOUNG: I challenge anybody who doesn't see the importance of arts in our lives to throw away all their books, turn off their television, never watch another movie again, and never listen to another song. And see if they can survive without any of that stuff. Imagine going into the grocery store and everything was just in a white box with a name of what's in it. I mean, life would be abysmal without the arts. Art isn't just a person painting a picture. Part of the reason people don't support the arts is because they don't understand that. And I think that part of the challenge for people that love the arts is that we need to demonstrate to the people [the value of the arts] in ways that they feel, not just making arguments with words.
Every guy who ever proposes marriage to a woman knows that if he doesn't choose his words artfully, she could say no. So if you understand that is an artistic process, [as well as] choosing the words you need to say in a job interview to get the job, if you understand that writing the cover letter artfully and effectively is an artistic kind of pursuit, is a creative pursuit, then you can make the argument to people that we need to be trained as citizens in art. Or by art.
Want to hear more from John Lloyd Young? He'll be back on Art Works in June to give us his take on the importance of arts education.