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Big boys don’t cry: The redemption of a once and future ‘Jersey Boys’ star

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Call it a comeback: Bergen, second from left, was unceremoniously fired from Jersey Boys, but will appear in the big-screen version.
Photo: Sam Morris

When Erich Bergen ended his run in the Strip production of Jersey Boys, the headlines weren’t kind. Here’s a breathless one in all caps from the Review-Journal in October 2009: “ERICH BERGEN’S FIRING ‘NEVER BEEN FULLY EXPLAINED TO ME’”

Not the sort of press an ambitious young actor aspires to, especially not as the postscript to his acting breakthrough in the role of Four Seasons songwriting master Bob Gaudio in the Vegas production of Jersey Boys. Such public grousing about the perplexing injustice of having been dismissed wasn’t the most dignified way to handle the situation, as many press-savvy friends—including me—told him.

That’s why what happened last week was so remarkable. Four years after being axed, Bergen was cast in the same role for Clint Eastwood’s film version of the Tony-winning musical.

In other words: Bergen looked like roadkill. Now he’s killing it.

Impressive, right? Instructive, too. Vegas turned out to be a proving ground for Bergen, not only as an actor but also as a person and a professional.

Consider that he was 20 when he was cast as Gaudio for the first national tour of Jersey Boys. Two years later, he opened the Vegas production with all the Strip’s hype and excessive celebration.

Success came to Bergen early and fast. He also had the ego boost of knowing that most Jersey Boys stars were a decade older than him. The others were made to look younger for earlier parts of a story that spans the quartet’s lives from teens to middle age; he was a kid being trusted to play an older, more experienced man.

But Bergen wanted more. In Vegas, he sought performing opportunities and publicity wherever he could find it. He arranged splendid one-man shows at the now-defunct Liberace Museum and teamed up with me in the summer of 2009 to produce a Michael Jackson tribute concert at the Palms that raised more than $100,000 for music education programs in Clark County schools.

Then came the fall. A few weeks after our event, Bergen was “let go.” He’d missed too many performances due to “questionable” illnesses and injuries, he was told. The Strip and Broadway communities saw the situation for what it most likely was—a cautionary tale for other Jersey Boys leads that the producers didn’t cotton to a star making too big a name for himself separate from the show.

Bergen lashed out in the press when he should’ve moved on quietly. Then he was injured further to find the long-adoring media now saw him as a prima donna who blew it. Journalists are fickle like that.

Eventually, he shut up and stopped worsening a no-win situation. He also moved on from show horse to workhorse, booking stage parts in experimental shows at small theaters from LA to Lincolnshire, Illinois, as well as forgettable TV roles on Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives. Having spectacularly lost his place as the toast of the Vegas Strip, he started over from ... if not the bottom, then at least the middle.

For his newfound humility and patience—and, of course, his abundant talent—Bergen is being rewarded. By now, perhaps a couple dozen men have performed as Gaudio in various Jersey Boys productions, but he’s the only one who was publicly fired, and he’ll be the only one who plays Gaudio in what will be the most-seen version, Hollywood’s.

Bergen can’t talk to reporters yet about how he landed the role or how he feels, but he did confirm that he auditioned. The film is handled by a separate gang from the stage production, so it’s possible—though unlikely—they didn’t know of his earlier troubles. I’m in awe of the chutzpah it takes to even take that chance, to put himself up again for the part that nearly killed his career.

Now Bergen gets to write his own new headlines, as he did on Facebook—albeit not in all caps—when he confirmed his coup.

“In about a year,” he wrote, “let’s all go to the movie theatre and watch it together, shall we?”

I’m in. Let’s meet in Vegas.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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