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Too Good to Be True?
At his Bar Mitzvah, he learned to walk like a man. Now, at 26, he's taken the next step: He's singing it.
Indeed, the specter of Spector commanding the stage is a ghostbuster of an expectation for the former "Star Search" star, who now has reached the peak playing Frankie Valli in the San Francisco company of the Broadway bonanza that has big girls crying at the feet of his feats.
The 6-year-old who told me, "When I grow up, I want to be a movie star, just like Sylvester Stallone," is now, 20 years later, a matinee idol of rock, in the Rocky role of his life, as he tunes into the one-time troubled, trebled career of the Four Seasons star from Jersey.
See for yourself -- although tickets in Frisco and Broadway are hard to come by. But Spector's talent will be showcased this Sunday night at the Emmy Awards, broadcast on Fox TV -- where the heartthrob of the throbbing music that is "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Dawn" and "Walk Like a Man," will walk onstage in an ensemble number and then solo as Valli in a tribute to "The Sopranos."
Hitting the high notes has never been a problem for Spector, who spun heads early on as a child with anything-but-childlike renditions of "Mack the Knife" and "Splish-Splash."
The Bobby Darin darlin' fan is darin' to make his splash now as another '60s icon, and, from all accounts, he's as seasoned as they come. All too good to be true?
Truly, avers the good-looking actor with even better-looking prospects who traveled the road to fame from Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, and from puberty to Princeton, where he was an economics major as a university Tiger.
But he recaptured the tiger that is entertainment once more in his teens, and the tale goes from there. From days as an econ major to the econ daze of making a living in the business has bottom-lined well for Spector, who concedes that by the time of his junior year at Princeton, he envisioned his senior moments better served as a musical major with an empirical education standing in for the economic one at school.
Of course, there had been some indications that the Malthusian theory would morph into the musical theater theory.
"I was a vice president of the Triangle Club," remembers Spector of his headlining role at Princeton's performing club.
But the triangle ceded to a direct line to the stage, where Spector soon captured starring roles on Broadway ("Les Misérables") and on tour, as well as an off-Broadway princely triumph as Hamlet.
To be or not to be ... an actor? Never a question, he says.
But after leaving Princeton, before homing in on a big career, he went ... home. "It wasn't easy to tell my parents [Chuck and Beth] that I was leaving Princeton, but they were phenomenally understanding."
To get a good job, get a good education in the business. And to be cutting-edge, "I sang with the Cutting Edge Orchestra for a year," he says of his Meadowbrook musical memories.
No false starts on his way to the falsetto role of a lifetime. And if the young Spector didn't know a lot about the Four Seasons before he auditioned, his folks were seasoned fans: "They had their own doo-wop collection."
But would that do as background to take on the most trilling role he ever had?
"Before I auditioned, I told my manager, 'I can't sing like that,' " he recalls of the inimitable Valli vocal style that is super and supernal in its range.
Someone up there must like him. "I went in to audition -- and that was it."
What it was -- "after four callbacks" -- was an alternate role in the first national tour of the show that has been hangin' on to sold-out status wherever it goes. Better yet was the alternating Spector had to do between his day work and night job.
"I would be playing 'Hamlet' all day and then going in to rehearse for 'Jersey Boys' afterward," he recalls.
All the world's a stage -- but Polonius never had to play it in falsetto. And would Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, deign to equate Copenhagen with Collingswood?
"Both are tour de force roles," says Spector of his Hamlet and his Frankie. "There's a certain amount of crossover."
Certainly, something's rotten in the state of New Jersey, where the Four Seasons were quadruple-blessed but double-timed, too, by the mob connections that stalked their past. Hence, the Emmy numbers: The Seasons falsetto salute to "The Sopranos" is not as off-key as it sounds.
Big men in town: In so many ways, Spector measures up to the role -- and not just the fact that he and larger-than-life Valli veer off the charts at about 5 feet 7.
"There's an Italian/Jewish closeness," says the star of the ethnic edges he shares with Valli, whom he's met. "There's also a Philly-Jersey-New York feel that I like to think I have," says the Northeast native son.
But his San Francisco treat to audiences 3,000 miles away these days means never daring to coast. Spector is pitch perfect, even as Valli himself pitched him with some sound advice.
"He said, 'If you ever need me for advice, just call.' "
Spector certainly didn't need any help with the Joisey sound. "That accent isn't far from my own," he notes with a chuckle.
Drinking It All in
But, he acknowledges, there are differences between toasting life with sherry, baby, and l'chaim with Mogen David: "We grew up in completely different circumstances. But getting those differences [down] is the job of an actor."
And that's exactly what he is -- to acclaim. Spector acknowledges that if now he can't take his ears off the tunes and his eyes off the role before him each night -- and one that he adores doing -- while growing up, he was more a Bobby Darin fan, as well as devotee of "Sinatra, Manilow and Motown -- that's what I liked the most."
From the sounds of Detroit to adroitness at da Jersey sounds, Spector spectacularly has scaled them all. An American idol the old-fashioned way ... he's earned it!
"I don't watch that show," says the "Star Search" summa-cum-applauded graduate about the current top TV hit, which he tried out for in 2002. Making it to the third round, he wasn't coweled into submission; he was just considered to have too much experience to compete.
Too good to be true? Rag dolts? Not Spector, smart enough to know bad-mouthing is bad for everyone.
And from that mouth come the sweetest sounds this side of the Valli: "I have a lot of appreciation for the [contestants'] talents, but I see enough rejection elsewhere in the business to watch that."
One thing he's never rejected is his past, including the close friendships Spector's kept with the old "kids" from Germantown Academy, "who still bust my chops."
Doubts about his career? It's all academic. "They're not surprised at where I've gone in my career. They've always been there for me," he says of such buds as Ben Haaz and Taylor Lukof.
If there isn't a false note in Spector's performance, doing falsetto night after night can be flat-out exhausting. "When I was first cast, I found myself getting tired so I went to a vocal coach, Katie Agresta, who's worked with Bon Jovi, Stephen Tyler, Cyndi Lauper, and I learned it's a matter of approaching your voice in a different way."
It dawned on him how much easier it could be. "I owe everything to her," he says.
And to his folks and family -- including older sisters Jennifer and Megan (and, yes, big "girls" do kvell) and big bro Greg. "The first time they came to see me in the show ... the crying, the tears," he laughs.
Would it be hard to tear himself away from the role? Frankly, yes, says Spector, who notes that "I'd like to stay with the show as long as possible. It's hard to imagine leaving it."
But leave San Francisco he will, at the end of the month, as Spector takes the musical to Chicago.
And as fans leave the theater, he can share the excitement so summed up in their at-exit exclamations of "Oh, what a night!"
For the former "Star Search" sensation, it's even bigger than that: "Oh, what a role!" sings out Spector, the Jewish "Jersey Boy." u