MANY'S THE former child star who winds up making headlines for all the wrong reasons - holding up a convenience store, spray-painting a historic landmark, suing his parents, getting carted off to rehab.
But it's a "Beautiful" thing what's happened to Jarrod Spector, the onetime, made-in-Philly juvenile talent who broke into the biz at the ridiculous age of 3. And survived to tell the tale.
Now he's a handsome and "relatively sane" 33-year-old and the toast of the New York theater scene with a great featured part and his very first Tony nomination in "Beautiful," the charming Carole King "bio-musical."
A recent poll by Broadway.com has already anointed him "Broadway's sexiest man alive," thanks to "massive voting by my parents, Chuck and Beth," Jarrod joked (maybe) in a recent chat.
And, judging from his well-structured, high-energy concert show, "With a Little Help from My Friends," newly out in audio form on the Broadway Records label, Spector is equally worth catching on his own. He returns to Manhattan supper club 54 Below, scene of that "great-pop-tenors-through-history" themed recording, for another gig late Friday night, backed up by musician buds from other Broadway shows.
Magic In the Air
Eight times weekly, this savvy, sympatico singer/actor is helping light up the Stephen Sondheim Theater as Carole King's pal and Brill Building music-factory competitor Barry Mann. In the doing, Spector brings a big hunk of happiness and comic relief (Mann was a New Yorky nudgenik and something of a hypochondriac) plus lots of well-belted tunes from the American pop songbook.
It's especially telling in the show's compare/contrast sub-plot, noted Spector recently, how much those chart toppers that Mann wrote with his longtime partner and wife, Cynthia Weil, resembled the tunes that Carole King and her lyrics-writing partner/husband, Gerry Goffin, were penning in the adjacent office at 1650 Broadway.
"The walls were paper-thin, and the rivalry to score a No. 1 was intense," Spector shared. "And many of their songs, like Goffin and King's 'Take Good Care of My Baby' and Mann's first hit, 'Who Put the Bomp' - reworked the same chord progression formula from 'Heart and Soul,' a huge tune back then."
Mann and Weil also would dream up - just so Jarrod Spector and his stage partner, Anika Larsen, can now re-introduce - classics like "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," "On Broadway" and the protest-era smash "We've Got to Get Out of this Place," which Spector growls and rocks with Animals-like intensity.
All nice compliments to Goffin/King gems like "Up on the Roof" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which the show cleverly presents within the dramatic context in which the songs were created. "That's what makes a bio-musical like 'Beautiful' different from a 'jukebox musical,' " Spector explained.
For most interviews, Jarrod Spector is likely to start the conversation with his record-holding, six-year, 1,500-performance run as the pop tenor for all seasons, Frankie Valli, in touring and New York productions of "Jersey Boys." That's the gig that first put this Killer of the High C's on the map as a grownup talent.
But for Philadelphians with a long-held passion for Sunday-morning TV, Spector first struck chords as a precocious 3- (and 4- and 5-) year-old wunderkind on the "Al Alberts Showcase," as "Little Jarrod Spector," who dressed up and wailed like a mini-member of the Rat Pack.
(Go on YouTube to catch the tuxedoed tyke dueting with "Uncle Al" on Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" - a bizarre, world-weary song for a little kid to perform. Yet a joint performance that Alberts liked so much, he put it out as a single.)
"It all really started with me singing along with radio jingles in the car at age 2 1/2, and my parents deciding I should do this thing," Spector related. "Really, what kid that age declares 'I want to be in show business?' I could barely even talk."
So, the Spectors sent Jarrod to famed producer/vocal coach Russell Faith - who'd also made a mini-miracle out of Northeast Philly's little Andrea McArdle, the first "Annie" on Broadway.
Then, at age 6 - and also his parents' idea, he says - Jarrod went national and to the finals on the Ed McMahon-hosted "Star Search," wailing his favorite Bobby Darin covers - "my main role model then" - with intensely overwrought stage moves choreographed by mom and dad.
"Yeah," he said, "they're kinda stage parents, but not in a bad way, always supportive through thick and thin."
Spector lost the "Search" to 9-year-old Countess Vaughn, "a junior Dionne Warwick, no contest really," he says now, rationally, "though back then, I cried terribly backstage, thought my life was over."
Not for long. The little kid with the big voice got himself cast, at age 9, as the heroic martyr Gavroche in touring companies of "Les Miserables" that played Philly and Chicago. Then he joined the Broadway cast.
"It was a pretty crazy life," he recalled. "I did four shows a week in New York. I'd go to the Meadowbrook School [in Abington] on Monday and Tuesday, then my mom and I would trek up to Manhattan, stay in cheap hotels and between shows I'd be 'home tutored.' "
Teendom started relatively normally at Germantown Academy, then went wacky again when a 15-year-old Spector was cast in the pilot for an NBC sitcom "The Larsons of Las Vegas." "It had the writers from 'Friends,' " he said. "I got to sing and play piano. It seemed like a 'can't-miss' situation. Then the pilot wasn't picked up and I was heartbroken again. It was too much for me. I thought, 'I shouldn't have to deal with this. It's not fair. I want to be normal, have a girlfriend, play sports.' So I sort of quit. I continued to do shows at GA, but focused on just growing up and on studying" - and got himself admitted to Princeton, with the aim of studying economics and business.
But you can guess what happened after Spector fell under the spell of Princeton's famous musical-comedy group, the Triangle Club, where everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Brooke Shields had hung out. "I was spending all my time there, doing noncredit work. My 'nature and nurture' caught up with me again. And I loathed the idea of being an investment banker."
So, after two years, Spector left Princeton, returned to Philly. He worked for a year as a band singer on the bar mitzvah/wedding circuit, then threw himself into a couple years of "intense" acting training at the Atlantic Theater Company, in New York, coming out the other end "convinced I would only do Shakespeare, Shaw and Ibsen."
Until the gang from "Jersey Boys" said, "You're our next Frankie Valli" - putting Spector into road companies and then the New York production, and continuing to renew his contract for six years, until Spector finally bid the company adieu. And that "Beautiful" thing came his way.
"I got into the Valli part early enough, opening the Chicago production, so I was able to bring a little of myself to it," he reflected. "But it's nothing like being the guy who originates a role in a successful show and who gets nominated for - I can barely say it - a Tony."
So will Spector's life change for the better if he wins June 8? "I'm just hoping to get through the night with a smile, with my fiancee [actress Kelli Barrett] clutching my hand." (Odds are good he'll also appear in a production number.)
"The thing is, I've now gotten a reputation as someone who plays pop-music icons, which can be good or bad. I would love portraying Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen, who I've been compared to in looks. But I don't want to be typecast, would hate if I'm never considered for more traditional book musicals.
"As to the fame thing, and the chance for flipping out as a pop superstar might - that ain't gonna happen," Spector vowed. "Walking down the street, nobody tears my clothes off. Do the math. I played 1,500 performances as Frankie Valli, for an average of 1,200 people a night. That's less than two million people, total, less than the number watching a single episode of a TV show. You may become 'big' in your small world, but Broadway keeps a guy humble."