“I will stick with this as long as I can always be like I am right now: proud, with my head held high, knowing I created this with my three best friends,” the 1987 Central York grad and Broadway star says in a recent phone interview. “If I have time for it, if I have passion for it, I put my all into it. I'm very blessed and incredibly grateful every day of my life for it.”
Spencer met those three best friends — Christian Hoff, Michael Longoria and Daniel Reichard — about eight years ago when all four were cast in leading roles in the original Broadway run of “Jersey Boys,” an award-winning musical about the singing group the Four Seasons.
“We were doing ‘Jersey Boys' on Broadway, and we were being asked left and right to come and perform,” he says. The group couldn't perform the music from the show for legal reasons. “What we were able to do is perform the other music of the 1960s.”
Classic rock: Singing music of the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys and other big names, the foursome made the leap from Broadway to their own touring singing group just a few years later. For Spencer, now in his 40s, it's a natural outgrowth of a childhood immersed in music.
“I grew up listening to all decades of music, and I vividly remember as a child, whenever I'd get in the car with my parents, I'd always ask them to put on the classic rock station,” he says. “In a lot of ways, the music of that era taught me how to be a singer, it taught me how to be a musician. ... I know that my gift was crafted in that yellow station wagon with the wood paneling, listening to the classic rock and roll station.”
A drummer since fourth grade, Spencer talks beats and arrangements with the percussion section of the Midtown Men's backing band. Each of the four members has his own area of expertise, he says.
“The four of us in the Midtown Men were all musicians before we ever were actors,” he says. “Chris is talking to the guitar players, Daniel's over at the piano and Michael is usually talking to the horn section. ... We bring a lot of creativity and variety to the table because we know music and we know how we want it to sound.”
Making it their own: Creating their own sound is a passion for the Midtown Men. The group isn't interested in a by-the-numbers tribute or a note-for-note remake of classic tunes; there's a sense that the music is a living thing to be both respected and reinvigorated with a new approach.
“The songs that we choose have to resonate with us personally and as a group,” Spencer says, “but also ‘What can we give it so the audience can take that home with them?' ... We always give it a new fresh sound and arrangement.”
He describes the group's take on “Can't Buy Me Love,” translating the catchy Beatles classic into a Las Vegas lounge style.
“It's completely different from (Paul) McCartney and (John) Lennon; we give it that really Frank Sinatra horn-layering arrangement,” he says. And, of course, updates are always on the horizon. “We're going to be throwing some new stuff, new groups, new songs into the show for the new year.”
All smiles: The audience gets to see “best friends on stage cutting it up, singing great music, having a good time,” Spencer says. “If the audience sees you're having an organic and authentic good time on stage, then they're having a good time. ... The thing I always guarantee audiences is that they're going to walk away with a smile on their face.”
Spencer, too, will have an extra-large smile on his face on Jan. 17, when the Midtown Men hit the stage at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center. It's a homecoming, a chance to reconnect with friends from his days at Central York High School and York Little Theatre.
“I'm just so excited to get back to York. ... I'm hoping it can be a great reunion for me and my high school friends,” he says. “I'm very, very excited to get back, and I want people to get themselves to the theater, because I promise you it's going to kick off the new year in such a positive and uplifting way for everybody.”
See the show and get the music
The Midtown Men will deliver singing, dancing and comedy featuring the music of the 1960s at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, 50 N. George St., York.
“After every show we sell our CDs, we meet fans, we take pictures,” says Midtown Men member J. Robert Spencer. “It's one of our highlights. We love it.”
Tickets are $49-$59. For more information, call 846-1111 or visit www.strandcapitol.org.
The Midtown Men have out a Christmas single, “All Alone on Christmas,” written by Stevie Van Zandt, in addition to an album of classic 1960s hits. For more information on the group, visit www.themidtownmen.com.
— Reach Mel Barber at email@example.com.