Las Vegas Sun

December 11, 2018

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For actor Joseph Barbara, ‘Grease’ is a life lesson in perseverance

Guest Columnist Joseph Barbara

Joseph Barbara and his family.

Guest Columnist Joseph Barbara

Joseph Barbara. Launch slideshow »

‘Jersey Boys’ Fifth Anniversary

Deven May, Bob Gaudio, Rob Marnell, Jeff Leibow, Frankie Valli, Graham Fenton and Travis Cloer celebrate the fifth anniversary of Launch slideshow »

Editor’s Note: As Robin Leach winds down his traditional summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy and heads to the East Coast for a brief visit before returning to the rigors of Vegas DeLuxe, many of our Strip personalities have stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. We continue today with actor Joseph Barbara, “Gyp DeCarlo” in “Jersey Boys” at Paris Las Vegas.

I have three sons. In the course of being a dad, I often find myself quoting “Rocky” movies. I love the lessons about hard work and taking your best shot. I love that in “Rocky III,” he took success for granted, got his butt kicked, doubted himself and eventually summoned up the courage and will to win again. In the six “Rocky” movies, we see him lose three times, but we never see him give up.

That’s life. My 10-year-old son wants to find a cure for cancer. My 7-year-old wants to be an NFL quarterback. Yeah! Aim high. You’re going to fail. You’re going to lose. Don’t stop. Show business taught me this.

I grew up in Central Florida in a time when everyone imitated “The Fonz” from “Happy Days” and danced to the soundtrack from “Grease.” I wanted to live in the 1950s, play that music and wear a leather jacket. So, the closest I could come to that was being in a production of the musical “Grease” (because who knew there would ever be a Tony Award-winning show titled “Jersey Boys”?).

Our high school director wouldn’t do it. So, I put together a rag-tag bunch of kids, taught them the music and choreography, called a friend with a band, borrowed some bleachers, a picnic table and a truck, and set up our gym like the set of “Summer Nights.” We busted into the number in the middle of a pep rally, and the place went nuts.

If you want something, you’ve got to go out and make it happen. It was fun, but it wasn’t enough. Years later, I was living in New York doing an off-Broadway play, and the word hit the street that “Grease” was being revived, of all places, on Broadway. In my lifetime? I quickly signed up at Broadway Dance Center and took every dance class I could. I told my agent it didn’t matter if I was in the ensemble — third guy from the left — I just had to be a part of it.

There was a protocol to setting up auditions. You never showed up unsolicited at a casting director’s door. So, I volunteered to be the delivery guy and deliver an envelope of headshots to his office hoping that a chance face-to-face encounter might spark some interest. The casting director himself came to the door. I handed him the envelope.

He took it and started to close the door, but I stopped him, introduced myself and told him my headshot was in the envelope. Perhaps I could audition for the show? “You’re too old,” he said and started to shut the door again. I put a shoulder out to stop it, explained that I was only 25 and that John Travolta was 25 when he did the movie. “You’re too old,” he said and shut the door.

That couldn’t possibly be the end. It was like 7 seconds. So, if the guy making decisions said I was too old to be one of the Greasers, I’d audition for the “Teen Angel” — you know, the Frankie Avalon part. I “borrowed” a white suit from my play, bought a boom box and recorded the accompaniment to “Beauty School Dropout” on a cassette.

The next day, I went back to the casting director’s office, marched in proudly wearing the full-on white suit with a ruffled shirt and announced that since I was too old for “Danny” or “Kenickie,” that I would like to audition for “Teen Angel.” I figured even if he said no, I would ask for 30 seconds, press play and sing, “Your story’s sad to tell …”

Before I even said a word, he threw me out of the office saying that the role had been cast. Now, there was an “open call audition” the next day, but there were many reasons it seemed pointless; oftentimes they were more of a formality. Plus, the casting director had already decided without seeing what I could or could not do that I wasn’t right for the show. Still, I had to go.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and took the subway in from Brooklyn, got in line and waited for about 5 hours, put on the white suit again and sang what I thought was a really good rendition of “Beauty School Dropout.” The casting director wasn’t there, but there was an assistant. She sat there with her head in her hand and her elbow resting on the table, expressionless.

When I finished, she said thank you, and I turned and left.

I couldn’t let it go. What if she didn’t really have any pull? Undeterred, I wrote a letter to Tommy Tune, the Broadway star who was a producer of the production who I had met for 5 minutes a few years back. In the letter, I reminded him how we “knew” each other and that, given my dreams, I really needed to be considered for “Grease.” After some detective work, I got his address and gave the letter to his doorman, who promised Mr. Tune would get it. I waited for weeks — nothing.

‘Jersey Boys’ at Eiffel Tower

Launch slideshow »

A month later, I received a callback from the open call. It was a huge moment! I went in for the creative team and of course sang “Beauty School Dropout,” the song that got me the callback (and because I was “too old” for anything else). They said “thank you” and asked me to leave.

As the days and weeks went on, I heard nothing, and the show opened. The theater was next to my gym, so I had to look at it every day. It was tough, but I was OK with it. I could sleep well and look at myself in the mirror every day knowing that I truly gave it my best shot and exhausted every possibility. It just wasn’t meant to be.

A year later, after numerous auditions and jobs, I landed a contract role on the NBC soap opera “Another World.” The character grew in popularity, and I began being featured in soap magazines. One of the interviews was done over lunch in a midtown pub, and, wouldn’t you know it, “Grease” was on the TV at the bar. I became distracted and proceeded to launch into the original version of “You’re the One That I Want” titled “All Choked Up.”

The magazine editor says, “Have you ever auditioned for the Broadway show?” After I fell off the chair laughing, I reluctantly told him my tale of rejection. A week later, I was sitting in my dressing room at NBC and the phone rang. It was my agent. She said, “I just got a call from the producers of ‘Grease’ on Broadway. They’d like you to audition for Danny Zuko.” What?!

Apparently, the story got back to someone who worked in the production office of “Grease.” The rest is history. At intermission of my opening night, the director came to my room and said, “You may be the best Danny Zuko we’ve ever had.”

I love this business because of what it can teach you about life. In 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky says to his son, “It ain’t about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, how much you can take and keep moving forward.”

Yeah, Rock, I agree. That’s the one thing I really want to teach my kids.

Check out our other guest column today from Keith Thompson, conductor of “Jersey Boys,” and on Sunday Derek Stevens of the D Hotel and producer Jeanie Linders.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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