By Steve Schonberg, editor-in-chief
“Yeah, thanks for the reminder,” Erich Bergen said recently with a laugh about his upcoming 30th birthday on New Year’s Eve. It’s the first milestone birthday when it’s truly acceptable to complain about age, but besides this eye-rolled response, Bergen seems uninterested in capitalizing on it. Instead, he’s busy planning his evolution as a performer.
The actor and singer, currently standing out on the small screen as Secretary McCord’s sassy – but stuffy – assistant on “Madam Secretary,” isn’t counting down comfortably to his birthday and the new year, either. He’s challenging himself to step out of his comfort zone, with a special two-night jazz performance, and by thoughtfully selecting projects and areas for artistic growth.
“I feel like in my 20s, I really got to do the things that I pretended to do in my bedroom when I was a kid in front of the mirror,” Bergen said. Those fantasies-turned-reality have added up to an admirable career: starring in the mega-hit “Jersey Boys” (as Bob Gaudio) both in Las Vegas and for the big screen adaptation helmed by Clint Eastwood, having a featured role in a hit series, as well as other TV appearances, along with concerts and stage shows.
“I was 20 years old when I started in ‘Jersey Boys’. It all came true,” Bergen noted. “What’s interesting is that it all happened in a way that didn’t feel like a departure from the person I was when I was ten years old, if that makes any sense. I didn’t feel that in my 20s I necessarily stretched myself as an artist. I was simply given the opportunity to do the things that were in my head since I was a child,” he added. “What I want to do next is push myself to do the things I haven’t thought of yet. That’s musically, and that is as an actor, and mostly as a writer and a creator.”
Beginning on Sunday, Bergen will get a head start on his list. He’ll perform a new and intimate, jazz-inspired show at New York’s iconic Birdland jazz club (12/27-28). “I don’t think of myself as some brilliant vocalist so I’ve always put on a [big] show. I’m much more comfortable with lots of theatrics,” Bergen shared in contrast to these upcoming performances. “This is quite scary for me to do it like this, where it’s literally just the piano and I, and focusing on the type of material that I don’t normally do.”
This will be Bergen’s third time performing at Birdland in the last year, the last two occasions in a show custom fit to his inherent and dramatic flair. “This time around, the thought of doing that big, whole thing again was sort of overwhelming,” Bergen said about this return engagement. “I called my friend Angelo [DiLoreto], who did a lot of the arrangements for the [last] show. He’s this young guy, genius jazz pianist and I said, ‘What do you think of the idea of us doing a sort of old fashioned… intimate, fun, off the cuff, sort of classic New York night?’ For me it was a chance to do something that I’ve really never done before.”
The show, which will include a special guest appearance by celebrated jazz vocalist Jane Monheit (Sunday only), may be in a format that Bergen is just beginning to explore but with source material he knows well. “In honor of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, we’re going to be looking at a bunch of songs that were made famous by him, including ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ which I’ve always loved the chorus of, because The Four Seasons also covered it,” Bergen said. “We’re [also] taking some ‘Jersey Boys’ songs and rethinking them… songs that I’ve sung so many times by this point. Not having three other voices on stage with me, it’s hard to do a lot of those songs. Rethinking them has been a challenge but I think we’ve cracked the case on two of them.”
As intimidating as it might be for any performer, Bergen included, to question and stretch their own talents, when done well it can mark a personal and professional evolution as they improve their craft – for the benefit of the audience. That’s not to say it’s without its stakes and anxieties:
“There is a format to [this style] of nightclub performance and what I like to do is break that up a little bit. When I do the big shows and it’s the big band, that’s blowing it out of the water. That is the extreme end where you’re putting more instruments on a stage than you would normally for a nightclub show or a cabaret show, and then doing it this way is also experimenting with the art form,” Bergen said, adding, “Can I still get across who I am with just a piano, and how do I do it without hiding behind a horn section and back up singers to fill spots? That, for me, is sort of the scary part about this.”
Yet, Bergen seems determined to constantly expand his skill and perception among fans. “I really feel that it’s when you do a high profile film and then a high profile TV show and you start to fill in your side projects … for me, it’s concerts… and stuff like that, you start to, for lack of a better term, coast,” he said. “You can start to give everyone the version of you that they are expecting. You’re making good on your promise to be who they expect you to be.”
Next for Bergen? “We have a TV show that I just finished writing the first two episodes for that is in development right now. I don’t know what will ever become of it, if anything. If nothing does become of it, what I was able to do by writing it was to get something that other people responded to and said, ‘yes, this is good’ – which was a huge, huge thing for me, just for my brain. As a writer in that way.”
He then added with confidence, and a revealing honesty, “I think the next thing that I would really like to do are the things that I haven’t thought of yet, or to do the things I have thought of [but have] been too scared to do. Musically, that may be doing something that’s a little bit more, for lack of a better term, commercial. As a writer, it’s actually just writing as opposed to saying, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough.’ As an actor, it’s about not just falling on my bag of tricks and pushing myself to be a better storyteller and to go places that I haven’t gone to yet.”
Happy birthday and Happy New Year, Erich Bergen. Sounds like it will be.
For more information and tickets to see Erich Bergen at Birdland, visit www.birdlandjazz.com.