Zach Jones Makes His Broadway Debut in 'One Man, Two Guvnors'From Route 72 to the Great White Way
“Oh, you would be perfect!”
If you hang around show business types long enough, you’ll be bound to hear that a few times. And whether the statement – or exclamation, usually – is heartfelt or the sort of damning false praise that really means “I’d be much better in the role, but you should try for it, too” is really no matter; hear it enough and it sort of loses its meaning.
But once in a very great while the statement proves to be prophetic. Such was the case with Zach Jones.
Jones, originally from Manahawkin but who now lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, recalled talking with a friend who had just returned from an audition for a new show coming to Broadway after a successful run in London’s West End.
“I had a friend who was auditioning for the percussion chair,” Jones said recently in a telephone interview, “and he said to me, ‘You gotta do this; you’d be perfect.’”
After auditioning, Jones was offered a job, and he recently made his Broadway debut playing drums in the comedy “One Man, Two Guvnors.”
Now, a few detours are necessary to understand just how accurate his friend’s statement was.
Jones, 24, has been around music and the theater virtually all his life. His father, Dave, is a long-time musician known to many on Long Beach Island as well as a luthier and eponymous proprietor of Dave Jones Guitar Repair in Manahawkin. Music was always a part of the family, which includes his mother, Michelle, and sister, Natalie.
Jones, a professional musician since graduating from Southern Regional High School in 2005, has been playing music for years. “I started playing drums when I was 9 years old,” he explained, “and I’ve been singing for just as long. Along the way, I’ve learned to play guitar. Over the years, I’ve picked up some basic keyboard skills, as well.”
In addition to providing music lessons to private students, Jones has been involved with a number of independent music projects that allowed him to relocate to Brooklyn in 2010.
In addition to his musical experience, Jones said he also had long experience doing theater in Southern Ocean County. “I did shows with Our Gang (Players), back when they were at the Surflight Theatre. From that, I did the Surflight summer program in 1995 and 1996.”
But how does a British comedy come to employ a drummer form New Jersey?
Wait, it gets better.
“One Man, Two Guvnors,” adapted by Richard Bean, is based on Carlo Goldini’s 1743 “Servant of Two Masters” and tells the story of an out-of-work musician who agrees to work for a local gangster. Seeing how easy the work is, he then agrees to work for a rival. Madcap hijinks ensue.
The play, however, is told in the commedia dell’arte style, popular in the 16th through 18th centuries, in which largely improvised scenes are separated by musical interludes.
It is those musical interludes that feature Jones, but only occasionally.
The music for the show is provided by the Craze, a fictional skiffle band. Skiffle, originally popular in the United States in the early 20th century, later became a minor popular music craze – hence, the band’s name – in England during the 1950s and gave hope to the musical aspirations of a generation of British musicians, including a little combo called the Quarrymen. That band later changed its name to the Beatles.
The play, set in 1953 in the English seaside resort of Brighton, features music by Grant Olding, who also appeared as the lead singer in the original National Theater production in London.
Olding described what initially made Jones noticeable at the audition. “He’s got the sunniest disposition,” Olding said on the telephone from England. “He comes into the room and just lights it up. He makes everyone happy. His energy is fantastic.”
When Jones auditioned, he auditioned for the lead singer. When the producers did a little digging online, “they found out I played the drums,” Jones explained, and a unique opportunity presented itself, apparently making casting decisions that much easier.
“The producers were looking for some young guys who could be believable as English musicians,” Jones explained. With the doe-eyed good looks of a young Paul McCartney, the charisma to lead the band and the ability to sing with an English accent, Jones fit the bill. His ability as a drummer just added to the mix.
Jones had a wonderful audition, according to Olding. “He’s a great player, first of all,” he said. “And he’s fearless. In the show, he would have to be able to play six or seven instruments, some of which he’d never played before. I’d just throw things at him and say, ‘OK, now try this.’ And he’d be happy to have a go. That’s the sort you’d want to spend time with.”
“I was offered the job as a swing,” Jones said, explaining that a swing covers a number of roles; in Jones’ case, he covers both the guitar-playing lead singer as well as the drummer in the Craze. “There are four members of the Craze and two swings.”
As lead singer he gets to front the band, of course. As the drummer, he has the fun of playing not only the drums, but also the washboard and the spoons, staples of the homespun sound that is skiffle. Also included in the mix is the tea chest bass, English successor to the more American wash tub bass.
“Skiffle had the same influences as early American rock ’n’ roll,” Jones said, “but it was filtered through very English sensibilities.”
Despite the reserved English filter, Jones said he was drawn to skiffle’s rawness and the almost proto-punk attitude of its early practioners. “It’s great. They would just grab something and play it loud,” he said, chuckling.
The same influences that impacted skiffle’s origins touch on Jones’ own musical tastes: jazz, folk, country, blues. “Well, the Beatles, of course,” Jones responded when asked about his musical influences. “But I love a lot of old country and western stuff. A lot of early American roots music. Little Feet. The Band. Levon Helm is a major influence for me.”
Helm, a multi-talented drummer, singer, stringed-instrumentalist, author and actor who fronted the influential Band and passed away on April 19, would seem to be a natural inspiration for Jones. “I had picked up his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, months ago, and it was sitting on my bookshelf. I started reading it just before he died.”
Olding described Jones as a bit of an old soul. “The play is set in 1953 and, in a way, Zach lives in 1953. He could play the show, stylistically, perfectly.”
Jones has had the opportunity to go on stage a number of times since “One Man, Two Guvnors” opened April 18. He officially made his Broadway debut at the matinee performance on April 25.
He also performed two songs as the lead singer with the Craze at the Manhattan Theater Club’s annual spring fundraising gala on April 30.
“It was really cool,” Jones said. “Every year, they invite a couple of shows. They invited us at the last minute and it was on a Monday night, which is our night off, and the lead singer didn’t want to do it, so I went on.”
With eight performances a week, it’s not surprising the lead singer took advantage of a night off. Covering two roles, Jones should get plenty of opportunities to perform.
When not waiting around the Music Box Theater in Manhattan to see if he will be needed for the evening’s performance, Jones is involved with other projects, as well. He plays drums with a rock trio, VELTA, and guitar in the Stone Lonesome, a more folky, acoustic set-up. In both bands, Jones teams with his long-time collaborator Emily Long.
He has also has been hired as a sideman with such musicians as Robbie Gil, Martin Rivas, Evan Watson & the Old Orchard Band, Bess Rogers and Allison Weiss. “I’m fortunate to get to work with a few artists I love,” he said.
In a show with seven Tony Award nominations and a slew of rave reviews, Jones should be busy for the foreseeable future, which he said he appreciated. “I’ve sat in the audience a few times. It’s very funny. I love this show; I’ll find myself even sitting behind the drums and I’ll be cracking up.”
Olding credited much of the critical and commercial success the show has enjoyed so far to Jones and the rest of the players in the Craze. “They’ve really taken it musically to another level,” he said. “It’s a joy to see it go so well with the audience and critics alike.”