Southern California theatergoers know L.A.-based actor Thomas Fiscella for his roles in stage productions as diverse as the Bock & Harnick classic Fiddler On The Roof and Terrence McNally’s Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune, but for the past few years he’s been away from our stages and touring North America with the Broadway smash Jersey Boys, an absence that makes the tour’s upcoming three-week stop at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts an event to celebrate. Here’s our Welcome Back To Sunny SoCal interview with Tom.
Tom, you’ve been touring with Jersey Boys for quite a few years now. Can you talk a bit about how your involvement with the musical came about?
It all goes back to the late summer of 2011. Following a comprehensive audition, callback, and interview process in L.A. and New York, came this amazing opportunity to be part of the original company of the Second National Tour, and I headed to New York for Jersey Boys rehearsals that fall.
What was the rehearsal process like?
I relish rehearsals, so being a part of building this particular production of Jersey Boys from the ground up, in an open rehearsal studio on 42nd Street—well, I wish for that experience upon every actor I know. It was just fantastic.
After launching with a six-week run in Philadelphia, it’s been pretty much non-stop since then. There have been a few brief interruptions, but no time long enough to break away for any other projects. I’ve got a screenplay I’m working on while on the road, so that’s percolating, but I keep my primary focus on Jersey Boys. That’s the joy, and that’s the job. With 59 cities thus far, it’s been one heck of a trip.
What was your reaction to Jersey Boys the first time you saw it?
You know, like anyone who comes to see it for the first time, I’ll never forget when I first saw Jersey Boys when the First National Tour came through Los Angeles back in 2007. After one of the performances, I had a drink with my late friend, the brilliant and much-missed actor John Altieri, who was playing Four Seasons producer Bob Crewe on that tour. John looked at me with such laser focus and he said, “Tom… you fit this. You have to find a way to be a part of this Jersey Boys family.” And now it’s happened, I’m part of the “JB” family, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Tom (far right) in Jersey Boys (Photo: Joan Marcus)
You’re playing the role of real-life mob boss Gyp DeCarlo. Does the part (or the “and others” you play) let you strut your musical theater stuff, or is your work in Jersey Boys primarily of the dramatic variety?
As Gyp and the “others,” I’m mostly contributing drama (and hopefully a touch of comedy) to this story, not so much traditional musical theater stuff, per se. However, there is one opportunity to “strut,” as you mentioned. Without spoiling too much for those who haven’t yet seen Jersey Boys, let’s just say that by the very end, everyone deliriously gets in on the act, shedding any stage “characters” and simply performing as our “actor” selves. So while a guy like Gyp DeCarlo may not dance, a guy like Tom (who shall remain nameless) sure does his level best!
How does Gyp figure in the lives of the now legendary Four Seasons?
Well, as you mentioned, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo was a real-life figure of the New Jersey underworld. As our show starts, he has the musical group’s leader, Tommy DeVito, under his wing as a kind of “mobster in training.” He also owns a handful of nightclubs in New Jersey, and through these clubs gives Tommy and his band opportunities to perform and build some modest attention in the pre-fame days of their career. But Gyp sees and hears the power and potential of Frankie Valli’s talent, and knows Frankie’s going to go far with it. Some years later, as the Four Seasons are skyrocketing through the music charts, Gyp reconnects with the band as a serious issue hidden behind the scenes of their stardom threatens to destroy everybody’s hard-earned success.
As you researched the role of Gyp, did you discover anything interesting or surprising about the mob boss that informs your performance?
Well, there’s a lot of information out there regarding Gyp DeCarlo. A lot of opinions as well, as to the type of man he was. Some have said he was downright ruthless. Some have said he was surprisingly warm and kind. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and of course, it always depends on who is telling the story. As we say in the play, “Everyone remembers it the way they need to, right?”
What is true is that Gyp was a prominent member of the New York and New Jersey Genovese crime family, with connections not only to Frankie and the Four Seasons, but also, infamously, to Frank Sinatra. And the fact remains that Gyp’s criminal record is long and varied. But our show doesn’t place too much emphasis on that aspect of his life.
Is there anything in particular that informs your performance as Gyp?
I’d say one main thing that informs my performance is the evidence of Gyp as a family man. Not just the famiglia of the mafia, but his own family. When we first meet him in the play, he talks about visiting his granddaughter. Family is important to Gyp, and it carries over into his evolving relationships with Frankie, with Tommy DeVito, and all the guys in the group—but mostly with Frankie.
I’ll tell you something, though. The most surprising and interesting thing I discovered about Gyp DeCarlo—to me, at least—is that I actually have a personal family connection to him.
Wow! What is that?
I’m a blood relative to a Jersey-born Italian singer from the 1960s by the name of Jimmy Roselli. My great grandmother Mary Roselli was Jimmy’s aunt and godmother, so he and I are distant cugini, as we say. Jimmy Roselli had a notable career, recording albums, performing on concert stages, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show—and he was steadily building his audience while appearing regularly in Gyp DeCarlo’s nightclubs during this same time period.
What were some of the sources for your research?
My research included a terrific book by David Evanier called Making The Wise Guys Weep, which chronicles Jimmy Roselli’s music career, including the relationship he had with Gyp DeCarlo and his “business associates.” Of course my Fiscella and Roselli relatives have dismissed any direct involvement that Jimmy might have had with the mob. He apparently pushed away any favors that these mob “capos” might have offered to further his career towards the level of Sinatra. And, maybe as a result, at times Jimmy was selling copies of his albums out of the trunk of his car. But as I understand it, he still kept the wise guys on good terms, so as not to offend.
My grandfather Carl played jazz trumpet in New York and New Jersey during and after the Big Band era. Many gigs were for large clubs, and sometimes for private customers who were pretty well “connected.” When those guys wanted you to stay past closing time and play late, you knew not to say no.
And I love that title Making the Wise Guys Weep. It pretty much exactly describes what happens to Frankie and Gyp, during what is revealed later to be a critical moment in the play. So, in an odd and personal way, my own family lightly figures into this story as well. It certainly keeps it all the more real to me.
I understand that you have some Gyp-related momentos that you keep with you.
Yes, one of my actor “quirks” is that I like to track down and give meaning to real physical objects that somehow relate to a character I play. Sometimes they become props or visual stage dressing in the show, sometimes not. For Jersey Boys I travel with an actual vintage matchbook from one of Gyp’s clubs, the La Martinique in Mountainside, New Jersey. I found it on eBay along with several other vintage matchbooks from that era. I shared them with our director Des McAnuff and he believes I should frame them for travel, and given how much we’re banging around the country he’s probably right.
You’ve been touring for a long time now. What is it that keeps you excited about playing the same role rather than itching to do other projects?
We just recently hit the 1,000 performance mark. It’s astonishing, to be part of a long-running production like this. The main thing that keeps me excited is the script, this story, and how the audience responds to it. It’s visceral. It’s crafted with so many layers of humanity and universal experience. Plus I stay excited by remembering how the roles I play all add texture to the entire fabric of that rich story. My desire to act, direct and write has always been rooted in my interest in good storytelling, and this one is a real doozy. It’s hard to beat. Now, as far as itching to do something else, sure there are other amazing stories being told right now—on television, on film, on stage—but I believe there will also be compelling new stories to tell whenever my time with Jersey Boys comes to a close. And I’ve got that screenplay to work on as well, while on the road, which covers an entirely different and compelling real-life American popular music story. Everything in its time, right?
At nearly nine years and over 3500 performances (and still counting), Jersey Boys is now the 13th longest running show in Broadway history. What do you think it is that has made this “jukebox musical” outlast so many others that have come and gone over the past decade?
Oh, man… There are so many elements in play here: the iconic music, the previously unknown story of these guys, the craftsmanship of the script and the staging. There’s a valid argument that perhaps Jersey Boys isn’t actually a “jukebox musical” at all. It’s an exceedingly well-crafted biographical play about these blue-collar guys with just the right individual ingredients to ignite themselves into these incredible singers, songwriters and musicians during the remarkable journey of their lives.
But I think it stands alone among other “jukebox musicals” because it has the kind of heart, soul and truth throughout that connects with the audience in a very personal way. That’s the real key, I think. I mean, yes, it’s about the Four Seasons. But, it’s actually about the audience, too. About our lives, and our memories that are uncovered with each song. About our relationships to our friends, our lovers, our parents, our siblings, our children.
How does the stage production compare to the recently released film adaptation?
First off, the movie is really terrific. It’s another way to interpret and receive this great story, and I hope so many people will appreciate that fact as much as I did when I recently saw an advance screening. But as immersive as any film can be, part of you is always aware that there’s a distance between you and these moments that were captured so many months ago.
Without spoiling anything, I can confidently say there are moments in our live stage production when the audience suddenly realizes, “Oh my God—I’m in this show. I’m a character in the show!” I don’t necessarily mean that they identify with one of the Four Seasons they are seeing onstage, or any of the strong women in their lives (although that might also be true). But in fact, as themselves, during certain amazing moments when witnessing this band perform, every member of the audience is actually made into a character in the show—right in the middle of the action, from their seat, as it is happening live in front of them. The walls and the proscenium just fall away. It’s incredible. Those are truly goose-bump moments. It’s something you can’t, and shouldn’t, describe completely. You have to see it to know what I mean.
Have there been any memorable Jersey Boys moment that just simply stick in your memory because they were so special?
Well, the opportunities I’ve had to spend time with the real Frankie Valli, and the real Bob Gaudio—those are very special moments. To know these guys lived through their story, and know the bond they’ve shared for decades… I just look at my own life and the relationships I have with the people I love, the people I’ve worked with, and am working with right now, and I find it very inspiring. We say it in the show: Family—including the family you make—is everything.
What’s the best (and the worst) part of doing a National Tour like Jersey Boys rather than working closer to home?
Thinking about what I just said, about family, I’d say the toughest part is being away from dear friends and loved ones. I have friends with young children who are growing up so fast, and I miss out on seeing that happening and sharing their joy in the way I can when I’m in my home base of L.A.
What about the plusses?
The best part of being on the road with a tour like this is seeing so much of North America, and bringing this great story to people in every part of the US and Canada—people of all ages and backgrounds who share a passion about this music, this story, and attending live theater in general. And actually, the tour has given me opportunities to see a lot of my friends and extended family who live in every corner of the country, many of whom I haven’t seen in years, so there’s a good trade off with that.
Tom in The Kite Runner
You’ve done some great dramatic work over the years, and I know one of your most exciting projects was the stage adaptation of The Kite Runner. What was it like bringing Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant, powerful novel to the stage?
That was such an incredible experience. It’s a challenge to even make sense talking about it, that’s how powerful it was to me. I just wanted to honor the universal immigrant experience in a way that honored the Afghan people and their heritage. The bravery that it takes for Baba and his son Amir to make that choice, to abandon the only home they’ve known and start over with next to nothing in America. And the courage it takes for an adult Amir to face up to his failures as a young man. The Kite Runner is one of the most universal stories I’ve ever read or performed. Which is incredible when you realize it is derived from a Middle Eastern culture and history that is so very foreign to and even shunned by much of the Western world. And even with all the heaviness of this story, there were extended moments of light humor and pure humanity on that stage that I know Khaled appreciated. I credit our adapter, our director and our ensemble for that. And I credit the audience for being willing to take such an emotional rollercoaster ride with us.
Tom and Victoria Strong in Fiddler On The Roof
A particularly memorable Thomas Fiscella performance I was fortunate enough to witness was your towering work as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. How did you go about creating your own Tevye, a role that so many identify with either Zero Mostel or Topol?
Well, that’s a very kind compliment, by the way. Thank you, Steven. You know, from the start I had to set aside any memories of those guys’ interpretations and just deal with the Fiddler book and the Fiddler songs as if they were completely and totally new, right off of the creators’ pens. Plus, I did my best to not think of him as this iconic “Tevye” character. I always thought of him as just a man. A man of the country with deep devotion and deep wells of passion: for his faith, for his work, for his family, for his community.
I also remembered the fact that Sholem Aleichem’s source stories cover a lot of rich characters, not just this particular fellow. To me, he is Tevye, the dairyman. He and I know that he is just one part of his community. Fiddler on the Roof could have just as easily placed its focus on anyone living in Anatevka—maybe on Mordcha, the innkeeper, Nahum, the beggar, or Lazar Wolf, the butcher. Certainly an entire play could build around Yente, the matchmaker! Teyve says it right at the top, “You might say, every one of us [in Anatevka] is a Fiddler on the Roof.” But today, the spotlight happens to land on him. So in addition to making his rounds, delivering milk, he’ll be our guide through the town and what is happening with him and his neighbors. In a way, he’s kind of like Wilder’s stage manager in Our Town, but thrust right into the middle of the action.
That CLO South Bay Cities Fiddler was amazing!
I was incredibly fortunate to be trusted with that role in that production. Before meeting me at the auditions, our director Jon Engstrom and our producer James Blackman quite honestly did not know me from Adam. I had never worked there before and in fact hadn’t done any musical theater work in SoCal. It had all been non-musical drama and some comedy, or “dramedy.” But there must have been something they saw in me that made them agree to try something completely new, and I’m so grateful that they did. I’m also grateful for the generous work and powerful chemistry that came from Victoria Strong, our Golde. Without Victoria, I would never have found the unique Tevye I wanted to be.
Is there anything in particular that you took from that production of Fiddler?
What I took from that experience the most was it reinforced that belief to trust your instincts. If you can bring that belief to a character and a story, even when both the character and the story carry deep audience expectations, maybe you can bring something that helps the audience to experience the show in a new way. I’ll say this, I’d love to go back to Anatevka again someday. More than once. It’s that kind of show.
Is there another iconic musical theater role you’d like to sink your teeth into?
I’m not alone in claiming that I’d love to take a crack at the role of Sweeney Todd. It’s such a monster and he has such a powerful dramatic journey. That show is scary as hell, and so is that part. And I want to do the roles that scare me. But as far as something a bit less produced, if the cultural conditions are ever right for any professional theater to bring back Kismet again—Well, as one of the fantastic songs in that show says, I would give my right hand for a chance to throw myself into the comedic tour-de-force role that is Hajj.
I’m curious about your gig understudying Chris Noth in Farragut North at the Geffen Playhouse. What were the challenges, frustrations, and rewards in covering a leading role at a major regional theater when you know you might never get to play the part?
Well, starting with the rewards, the opportunity to audition for, and then to observe director Doug Hughes at work, and to develop an introductory working relationship with him was just golden. I’m so grateful to Geffen casting director Phyllis Schuringa for that opportunity.
The script by Beau Willimon, the creator and executive producer of House of Cards, was sharp and solid and required absolute precision. The chance to rehearse and craft a performance with that incredible material, even without an audience ever seeing me do it, was like hitting the gym day after day. You’re always building.
Was it frustrating to you never getting the chance to go onstage in the role you’d been rehearsing?
I never felt frustrated about not going on. I did the job I was there to do. I knew from the outset that Chris Noth (and Chris Pine) were not only going to be major ticket sellers by virtue of their careers, but were going to be really terrific in their respective roles. Noth was a part of the original production in New York, and he was committed to its success in Los Angeles, which would include not missing a performance. He did the job he was there to do. And if an emergency came up, or if he couldn’t turn down a sudden career-changing film opportunity, I would be there and be ready, and that was a good thing for all of us.
Ultimately, the work itself is the reward. Some good professional relationships were started, and that’s a reward as well. I’d love to work on the Geffen stage in the future. I’d love to work with Doug Hughes on another project, and I’d love to work on Beau’s material again, to work with Chris Pine, with Chris Noth, with anyone else in that company. Farragut North unfolded for me in exactly the way I had hoped.
Have you thought about life after Jersey Boys? What would you like to see as the next step in your career?
I’m a believer in going where the work takes you. You can do your best to steer the direction of your career like a sailboat, but you can’t always predict where that wind is going to come from, or when it’ll go deathly still, or when the big storms are going to hit. And I firmly believe you have to be flexible and adaptable to any opportunity that allows you to ply your craft.
So how do you as a stage actor go about transitioning into film and TV?
For television and film work, the next step is to expand my circle of colleagues and champions. To reach more people who come to know my work and who come to believe that I can help them solve their casting needs. Before Jersey Boys, I was slowly but steadily integrating into the TV/Film world in Los Angeles—and certainly New York City is always figuring into the mix. For regional theater projects, I audition both in L.A. and Manhattan. And there are projects in every medium casting everywhere, shooting everywhere, being staged everywhere. I’m fortunate to have an affiliation with the Circle X Theatre Company in Los Angeles, and I have some creative roots in the theater community in Chicago as well. If there’s a great story to tell—either as an actor, writer, director, designer, stage manager—wherever it’s happening, I want to be there.
Thank you so much Tom for taking the time to answer all these questions! It’s been far too long since last I saw you! I can’t wait for the press opening of Jersey Boys!!
Oh, this has been my pleasure, Steven. I admire your passion and advocacy for live theater in SoCal, and I know we share that enthusiasm. It’s great to know you’ll be in the audience for the opening—I’ll see you there.
Tom’s Jersey Boys bio:
Regional: The Kite Runner, Fiddler on the Roof, Tranced, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Miss Evers’ Boys, The Bigger Man, Stalag 17, Black Friday, The Manchurian Candidate. National Tour: The Sound of Music. Television: “24”. Principal roles for the Georgia, Texas and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals. William & Mary grad. With deep gratitude for friends and “famiglie” (both real and theatrical), and for JB angel John A., Tara Rubin Casting, Richard, Des and the entire creative and production team — “salud.”
Click here to purchase tickets to Jersey Boys, playing June 24-July 13 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, Costa Mesa.
Tags: Jersey Boys