Features, Music

How this N.J. actor reinvented an iconic ‘Jersey Boys’ role

After 11 years on Broadway, four national tours and a Clint Eastwood-directed feature film, the role of conniving “Jersey Boys” anti-hero Tommy DeVito has become iconic.

The part, based on the real Belleville-bred doo-wop singer opposite Frankie Valli, is categorically clever and commanding, no matter who plays him.

But now, as the Tony-winning stage show that chronicles the rise of the Four Seasons endures off-Broadway at New World Stages in New York, a new kind of Jersey boy has reinvented the part with an extra dose of Garden State attitude.

John Rochette in Jersey Boys
John Rochette (second) performs as Tommy DeVito in “Jersey Boys.” (Joan Marcus)

John Rochette, 39, grew up in East Hanover and spent his summers roaming the Seaside Heights boardwalk. Today, he lives in North Caldwell, the town Tony Soprano called home in the hit HBO series (Tony’s house is within walking distance).

While studying public relations and theater at Rutgers University, Rochette traveled the state to participate in local productions. He met his wife Leslie during a stage production of “Happy Days” — the two had a “showmance,” he laughs — and they were both cast in the “Jersey Boys” national tour.

Rochette stepped into the role of Tommy DeVito in November after years of playing Norm Waxman, the “Jersey Boys” loan shark who ultimately brings Tommy down.

“But my heart was always set on Tommy,” he said.

There was just one problem. Tommy DeVito’s character is typically portrayed as big, brutish and gruff. Rochette is wiry and funny — a self-proclaimed “laidback, drummer guy” (he played in local bands growing up).

To win over casting directors, he knew he’d have to do things a bit differently.

Rochette figured he’d have to play up Tommy’s charm more so than his aggression or intimidating stature, and he thinks his approach might better match the character.

“There’s no violent crime, it’s just scheming” Rochette said. “He’s not intimidating. So he needs to have charisma so people will follow him. If he was just a huge prick, the band would have dropped him years ago.”

Even the way he moves in the show is different from other actors who have played Tommy. Associate choreographer Danny Austin remembers Rochette coming in to audition for Tommy quite a few times. He recalled an afternoon watching Rochette practice a solo, but he was moving differently from the other actors, in a way Austin couldn’t put his finger on. He asked Rochette to do the moves over and over again and took a step back. Suddenly, he could hear it, too: That “drummer guy” was coming through in Rochette’s dancing.

“This guy is an incredible musician, and what he’s hearing in the music, I wasn’t hearing,” Austin said. “Once I got him and his connection to the music, I totally was in there with him. In true Jersey style and principle, he’s tenacious. He’s a trailblazer.”

Austin is grateful for that. In a show that’s been around for as long as “Jersey Boys,” he doesn’t want every new Tommy DeVito to be a carbon copy of the last.

The man himself

A couple months ago, Rochette phoned Tommy DeVito — the real man, who is now 91 and living in Nevada — to introduce himself and pay his respects to the man who inspired the role that would change his life.

“You do all these shows where you’re playing a fictional character, these fake, imaginary characters, and then you turn around and do a show like ‘Jersey Boys’ where you’re representing real people,” Rochette said. “It’s important to remember that.”

They got to talking about the streets they grew up on, local sports teams, their families.

“He said, ‘John, you’re stand-up guy. You ever need anything — anything — call this number.’” Rochette recounted. “He kinda gave me a claim check,” he said, like the one loan shark Gyp DeCarlo gives Frankie in the show.

Before Broadway

Since those early days at Hanover Park High School when he joined musical productions as an excuse to talk to girls, Rochette has had a knack for bringing an original spin to his roles.

“He’s really just been a star all along,” said Helen Britez, the high school choir director. “He’s selfless and humble, and he’s really always been that way.”

Rochette starred in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” his senior year. Until he met Britez, Rochette said he never saw himself as an actor.

“I was the world’s biggest Dave Matthews fan, wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers hat with drumsticks in my back pocket,” he said.

Where does someone like that find a place in the world of Broadway?

He knew he didn’t fit into the mold of “Oklahoma!” or “Carousel,” where romance goes awry on a bucolic countryside. He didn’t want to tap dance or wear makeup and tights. Then he saw “Jersey Boys.”

“Holy s***,” Rochette remembers thinking. “This is how I fit in.”

He remembers actors playing instruments on stage, drum sets and guitars sliding in from the wings and rising from the floor. No tap dancing. No tights.

Maybe he wasn’t just “drummer guy.” Maybe he could be “actor-drummer guy.”

Or maybe showbiz has always been in his blood. John’s parents met during a production of “Brigadoon” in 1962. His father Donald was the leading man, his mother the lead dancer.

Donald grew up in Newark, where Frankie Valli was born, just one city over from DeVito’s hometown of Bellville. He had classes at Newark’s Arts High School with famous singer Connie Francis and Charlie Calello, who would go on to join the Four Seasons after bassist Nick Massi left the group.

Years before “Jersey Boys,” Rochette landed the part of Woody in “Finian’s Rainbow,” the same role his father had played decades earlier.

“Watching your son do a part that you did when you were his age is the strangest thing,” Donald said. “But the strangest thing was how he seemed to do the same things I did. He delivered certain lines the same way. We had the same quirks, and he didn’t even know I was ever in that show. I didn’t tell him until after it ended.

“I told him, ‘You were good, but I was better.’”

This story originally appeared on NJ.com.

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