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by Michael Portantiere

High School All Over Again!

  • John Jeffrey Martin in HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, photo by Joan Marcus

    High School All Over Again!

    When I saw the original production of Grease near the end of its long run, the guy who played Danny Zuko looked every minute of 42 years old. Nowadays, performers who appear to be well over 30 are far less often cast as teenagers; there's no need to do so, given that there's such a large pool of younger talent out there. So in the national tour of Disney's High School Musical, based on the phenomenally popular TV movie of the same title, the leading male role of backetball jock-turned-singer Troy Bolton is played by John Jeffrey Martin, who's in his 20s but is fully believable as a kid of 17.

    Despite his youth, Martin has the Broadway productions of Hairspray, The Rocky Horror Show, and Good Vibrations under his belt, and he played Kenickie in Grease at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Showbiz is in his blood: His maternal grandfather was Johnny Desmond, a famous singer of the 1940s and '50s who went on to star on Broadway as Rudy Lorraine in Say, Darling and as Nick Arnstein -- opposite Barbra Streisand! -- in Funny Girl. Now Johnny's grandson is in Chicago, where High School Music opens officially on August 1, following engagements in Detroit and Philadelphia. An hour or so before a recent performance, JJM called me for our interview.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: Your new website, www.johnjeffreymartin.com, looks great.

    JOHN JEFFREY MARTIN: Thanks. It's been up for about four weeks, and we've had about a thousand hits. I'm recruiting a new wave of five-year-old fans! I'm joking, but the bulk of the audience [for High School Musical] is about 7 to 15, tops.

    STARS: Your full name is John Jeffrey Martin, yet everyone calls you Jeff. What's up with that?

    JJM: I was named after my grandpa, but my parents have called me Jeff ever since I was a week old.

    STARS: In one of your Playbill bios, it says that you're a songwriter/painter "open for commission." Are you still open for commission?

    JJM: I'm not painting as much right now, because I'm on the road. I was selling a few paintings before I left town -- about five or six a year -- and I'm still writing songs. My music is acoustic rock, with a little alternative in it.

    STARS: The bio also says that, aside from being in the ensemble of The Rocky Horror Show, you went on as Brad, Rocky, and Riff Raff.

    JJM: Jarrod [Emick] wanted to give me a chance to do Brad, so he left the show early. I went on in all three roles a ton of times. As Riff, I understudied Raúl Esparza, who got his big old Tony nomination this year. He's my idol.

    STARS: I loved Rocky Horror, but it wasn't a huge hit.

    JJM: It was an awesome production. I wish it had run longer, and I'm not sure why it didn't. Maybe people aren't that into S&M?

    STARS: You played Fender in Hairspray.

    JJM: Yes, and I went on as Link a ton of times also; I would replace during people's vacations. I always wanted to take over the part, but I guess they never saw me as the right guy at the time. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I hear it's really good.

    STARS: Good Vibrations was quite a debacle. What went wrong?

    JJM: There were too many cooks in the kitchen. I love [director] John Carrafa, but I think he was a little too open to everyone else's input. I personally thought the show was much better than anyone else thought. I just ran into David Larsen, who played the lead, here in Chicago, and we were talking about the show. We had a blast doing it.

    STARS: Your grandfather was a very popular entertainer in his day. What did you know of his work?

    JJM: I saw him perform at the Rainbow Room, right before he died, and I knew of his greatness. But he died before he saw me do anything in theater or music.

    STARS: His real name was Giovanni Alfredo de Simone, so I guess that means you're part Italian.

    JJM: I'm a quarter Italian. My grandpa was born in Sicily, but the rest of my family is German.

    STARS: Was your mom a performer?

    JJM: She's a choreographer. She went to the University of Tennessee for Dance, and now she choreographs high school shows on Long Island. She's really good at what she does.

    STARS: She must be so proud of you.

    JJM: Oh, yeah. She wants to be out here on the road all the time. She's already seen the show several times.

    STARS: Is it fun to play a high school kid? What was your high school experience like?

    JJM: It was sort of similar to Troy's. I was always into theater and sports, so I had a marriage of both. I played baseball and soccer, and I ran indoor track. I never played basketball on a team, but I'd play in my backyard every day.

    STARS: Is it true that the kids in the audience sing along with the show?

    JJM: Sometimes! A couple of performances ago, this little kid started singing full-voice during one of the really tender duets. I kept waiting for his mother to clap her hand over his mouth, but she didn't. I almost broke, and so did Arielle [Jacobs, who plays Gabriella], but we held it together.

    STARS: Do lots of kids wait for you at the stage door?

    JJM: In Philly and Detroit, it was kinda like a mob scene. I've always enjoyed signing programs after shows, but this is a whole different level. When I was a kid, I used to practice signing my name -- like a freak. So this is what I always wanted.

    STARS: High School Musical is about having the courage to be what you are rather than what other people want you to be, but the idea that some of the kids involved in the musical might be gay is avoided. I don't imagine it's addressed more directly in the show, is it?

    JJM: I've never seen the movie, but from what I've heard, the character of Ryan in the movie is a little bit straighter. In our show, they costume him in in the brightest hot pinks and stuff. He's definitely more flamboyant in our production. It's pretty clear that he's gay, but it's not actually in the script, and [director] Jeff Calhoun told us not to make a joke about it.

    STARS: How about Troy? In real life, wouldn't some of the kids at school label him gay for wanting to be in the musical?

    JJM: When his friends find out that he's into singing, they just tell him he's letting them down. He's the most popular guy in the school, and they're his friends, so I don't think they'd ever call him gay. I was picked on when I did shows in high school, but never by my friends.

    STARS: How long are you signed on for the show?

    JJM: I have a one-year contract, going till next summer, and then I'll see how I feel. I do miss being in New York. I'd like to come back and do something cool. West Side Story is one of my dreams; we're all salivating over that. South Pacific is coming up at Lincoln Center, and I would have loved to play Lieutenant Cable. But I'm having a great time on the road. There's a lot of really good singing for me in this show. I get to rock out, be tender, and sing legit. It's a great opportunity.

    Published on Saturday, July 28, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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