Interview: Jersey Boys, Sunderland Empire, September 8-19

Matt Corner, second left
Matt Corner, second left

A decade ago he was at the Sunderland Empire as a young theatre-goer with dreams of appearing in the spotlight – now he’s on the stage and walking like a man.

This week, Darlington-born Matt Corner takes over the role of Frankie Valli in hit musical Jersey Boys, which returns to Sunderland next month.

The former Gala Theatre Stage School student is no stranger to donning Frankie’s winklepickers: he’s been playing the role in certain performances on the tour.

He says taking on one of the highest singing voices in musical theatre full-time is a dream come true.

“I’ve been doing two shows a week as the alternate Frankie and luckily I was cast again as the lead, which I was very excited about. It’s such a booster for me, career-wise,” he said.

“It’s never a given that because you play the alternate you’ll play the lead. You have to re-audition again. It doesn’t always happen and I feel very lucky they deemed me worthy of the role.”

Jersey Boys takes audiences behind the scenes of one of the biggest bands of all time – Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Behind their toe-tapping upbeat tempos – on tracks including Sherry, Beggin’, Walk Like a Man, Who Loves You and Big Girls Don’t Cry – lay a story of heartbreak and high-drama. Despite it all, they went on to achieve huge success. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and sold 100 million records worldwide – all before they turned 30.

Original band members Frankie and songwriter Bob Gaudio have played a hands-on role in the musical.

Matt said: “I had a session on Skype with Bob where I sang all the material and I actually met Frankie a couple of weeks ago. I went to see him in his own show in Glasgow.

Matt Corner in Jersey Boys

Matt Corner in Jersey Boys

“It was totally surreal to meet the guy who I live and breathe on stage. When I met him I knew I was taking over the lead, so it was perfect timing. He told me all these anecdotes about growing up, It’s amazing that at 81 he’s still singing, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet someone like that.

“He and Bob are very passionate about the show and they feel it’s a completely accurate depiction of the story of their lives. Bob has written all of the songs, it’s his life’s work, and he has a big sense of ownership and wants to keep it right.”

Matt, who moved to London to study his craft after completing a Btec in performance art at Newcastle College, said it’s a great honour to be bringing one of the most distinctive voices in music to the stage.

“For me, as a guy who grew up in Darlington, wanting to be an actor, it’s amazing to then fast forward a few years and be meeting people like Frankie Valli,” he said.

Bob has written all of the songs, it’s his life’s work, and he has a big sense of ownership and wants to keep it right.”

Matt Corner on Bob Gaudio

“The band’s story is incredible, it’s had so many ups and downs. They came from nothing and without music they could easily have ended up working for the mob and running errands. Music saved them. Frankie has said he is eternally grateful for music and the audience who’ve supported his career and given him the life he has.”

Matt performs alongside the existing cast: Sam Ferriday as Bob Gaudio, Lewis Griffiths as Nick Massi and Stephen Webb as Tommy DeVito.

They’ve been on the road together for almost a year – Jersey Boys is returning to the Empire after a successful run late last year – and he says they’ve already forged a strong bond.

And the male-dominated show, with its gritty, hard-hitting themes, is also attracting a new audience to theatre.

Matt explains why: “One of my favourite TV shows is The Sopranos, and it’s very like that. In fact, Frankie played a role in The Sopranos alongside James Gandolfini, who is one of my favourite actors.

“We’re all manly lads who like football and play sport. I’ve been playing alongside them for 11 months, so we all know each other well and have that camaraderie.”

The famous red jackets

The famous red jackets

He added: “We get blokes coming along. Many have ended up coming along with the girlfriends. They’re not sure at first, and then they end up totally won over. If we can bring theatre to a wider audience that’s a great thing.”

The role of Frankie is not an easy one to fill, and Matt says he has to look after his voice to ensure he can hit those famous falsetto notes.

“Falsetto is something I’d never done before. Before I auditioned, I didn’t know it was in my skill set. I said to my mam when I auditioned ‘I won’t get the job’. But it just so happened that I after studied Frankie’s voice, I could do it. And I’m very thankful I 
can.

“I have to live like a hermit. I do six shows a week and the demands on my voice means I can’t go out on the town, it’s one of the responsibilities of the role.”

His mam will be among those watching him when he returns to the Empire, and Matt says he can’t wait.

“I’ve been to the Empire many times for shows, it’s a fantastic theatre and something the North East should be really proud of. I can’t wait to play there and it’s an opportunity for my family and friends to come along and see what I do as a career.

•Jersey Boys is at Sunderland Empire from September 8-19 September. Tickets are available from www.atgtickets.com/sunderland or Tel. 0844 871 3022.

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys

North East-born Matt Corner

North East-born Matt Corner