Joey Cornish is making his West End debut, having recently joined the cast of Jersey Boys as Joe Pesci and second cover Frankie Valli at the Trafalgar Theatre, which is currently booking until April 2023. Last year, Joey played Aladdin in the digital pantomime of Aladdin, and he trained at both the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, after receiving the Catherine Zeta-Jones scholarship. Whilst training, Joey was cast in a number of shows, with his first being the Welsh translation of Sweeney Todd, and he went on to play Pippin in Pippin, and his final year production of Spring Awakening – in which he was cast as Melchior Gabor – was unfortunately unable to open due to the pandemic. Catching up with Joey, he talks about playing Joe Pesci and being second cover Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys at the Trafalgar Theatre, last year’s digital pantomime of Aladdin and his training.
You’ve recently joined the West End cast of Jersey Boys at Trafalgar Theatre, what is it like performing as Joe Pesci?
Being part of the Jersey Boys cast is an absolute honour and getting to work with such kind and talented cast, crew and creatives is a dream. Joe Pesci is such a high-energy and loveable character and so much fun to portray. It’s actually Pesci who brought the Four Seasons together, so getting to be a part of that journey every night is great.
What originally drew you to the musical and how is it performing The Four Seasons music?
I really think Jersey Boys is one of the best jukebox musicals around. It’s one of the few that I’ve watched and forgotten that it’s a jukebox! The way the writers have seamlessly weaved the Four Seasons’ songs into their real life is genius. Of course, the songs are super catchy and well-known but, for me, it’s the writing that brings it all together. The script is so clever and warm and funny but also heartbreaking and thrilling at times – the fact that it’s all based on the band’s real life is the icing on the cake.
How was it getting into character for the first time and seeing the audience response to the musical?
Hearing the audience’s response after the finale on the opening night was a memory I think I’ll keep with me forever. For many of us, it was the first audience we’d performed in front of since before the pandemic. So to get to hear an audience enjoy again was amazing. Another memory that stands out for me is the first time I tried on one of the famous red Four Seasons jackets. As someone relatively new to the industry, having graduated in 2020, it felt like everything had started to come together for me. All the years of training and hard work had paid off.
You are also second cover Frankie Valli, how has it been rehearsing for the role?
Covering Frankie has been one of the most rewarding challenges of my career so far. It’s an absolute mammoth of a role, from singing the high falsetto vocals to getting my teeth into Frankie’s emotional highs and lows as the show progresses. It’s one thing to get to sing the Four Seasons’ great music, but you’re also portraying real people and their real-life stories. So, of course, as an actor, you want to do everything possible to do it justice.
What are you enjoying most so far from being in the cast and making your West End debut with the show?
Frankie has a line in the show that says “Family is everything” and it’s something you’ll hear cheesily quoted quite often backstage. It really is like one big family. As an actor in theatre, you expect your West End debut to be something very special. But what I wasn’t expecting was to build such a strong bond with my castmates so quickly. Providing a few hours of fun and escapism for audiences at a time where it’s needed more than ever is really special, but to do it with a close group of friends is even sweeter.
Why would you encourage booking tickets and who do you think the musical will appeal to?
I honestly think there’s something for everyone in Jersey Boys. I’m sure a large majority of people will know of the band, or at least already know a handful of the songs in the show. The story itself is gripping – like I’ve said, it’s crazy that it’s based on a real story because so much happened in their lives. It all kind of takes place in this 20th-century American gangster world like an Al Pacino or De Niro film. It’s no surprise that Joe Pesci actually based his character in Goodfellas off of one of the Four Seasons. It’s warm, funny, thrilling and – above all else – really good fun.
How was the experience playing Aladdin in the digital pantomime of Aladdin last year?
It was a really interesting experience having to film a stage production. Especially with something like a pantomime. It’s so heavily reliant on audience participation that performing to a few cameras in an empty theatre was challenging. Everything you do as an actor has to be so much smaller on a screen, yet panto is so big and energetic. We had to try and find the balance between the subtle of a screenplay and the inclusivity and engaging nature of panto. Figuring out how to strike that balance was an interesting challenge.
Can you tell us about your training at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and how was it receiving the Catherine Zeta-Jones scholarship?
As a proud Welshman, I always wanted to study at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I remember passing it in the car as a child and thinking “That’s what I want to do”. The training you get as a musical theatre student at RWCMD is amazing. There are only around 15 people on the masters course, so you get so much attention and a really personalised experience. I learned so much from some incredible industry professionals and made some of the best friends I’ve ever had along the way. Receiving the Catherine Zeta-Jones scholarship was an absolute honour and a real help towards my training.
You previously trained with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, was there anything that encouraged you to train there?
I studied on UWTSD’s Welsh-Medium performing arts course, Perfformio (Performing Arts). I was mostly drawn to the course as it’s drama school level training through the medium of Welsh. It’s only a two-year course, so it’s very intense but I learned so much in that time and it gave me a fantastic foundation on which to build my career. To be able to study in my native language and earn a degree in just two years was ideal.
During your training, you performed in a number of shows including Spring Awakening, Pippin and Sweeney Todd, can you tell us about them?
Sweeney Todd was my first show at drama school and it was a mammoth of a task as we did the Welsh translation. Welsh is such a beautiful language to sing in, but Sondheim scores are difficult and intricate enough to wrap your head around in the original language. To get the wordy Welsh version down was a task – but so worth it.
Pippin and Spring Awakening are two of my favourite musicals of all time. I was a huge fan of both before we even did them – I’m pretty sure it was my hinting at the head of course that sparked the idea for Pippin. Playing Pippin was an absolute dream. There are so many themes in that show and that character specifically resonated with me as a young man. He just really wants to find his place and his reason in the world and that really resonated with me at the time.
Spring Awakening was very bittersweet. Melchior Gabor has always been a bit of a dream role for me. I think the writing in that musical – both book and music – is so complex and layered, it really reflects the period of adolescence that the characters in the show are going through beautifully. Unfortunately, we were a week away from opening when the pandemic hit so we never got to perform it. But I have a hope that one day I’ll get the opportunity to work on that show again!
Where does your love of theatre come from and was it something you always wanted a career in?
We have such a love for music and theatre in Wales. We have annual music, poetry and acting competitions called Eisteddfodau, which you’re encouraged to take part in from a young age. My parents and grandparents were always driving me to and from piano lessons, singing lessons and youth theatre groups. It always felt like more than just a hobby to me.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
I’m a sucker for any musical with a really thick orchestration. I have a really vivid memory of hearing the Wicked overture for the first time and being blown away. The vocals in The Lion King gave me a similar feeling when I heard those harmonies live for the first time. I love it when the music hits you with a wall of sound. The first piece of theatre I watched after the pandemic was the West End transfer of Amélie in the Criterion Theatre and I have to say that was one of the most moving things I’ve seen. I don’t know if it was because I’d missed watching and hearing live theatre so much, but that music and the talent and blend of the actor-muso cast was incredible. One show I’m desperate to see done (or be in!) is the stage version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think it’s easily one of the best scores ever written. It’s absolutely beautiful.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I find just spending time with family and friends the best way to recharge on a day off. Whenever I get the chance, I love to go back home and see my family and take my dog for a walk amongst the greenery and mountains that you don’t get in London. Mind you, having only lived in London for just over a year I am still really taking advantage of the extensive restaurants and bars while I’m here. I love going out and trying new places and new foods with good company.
What are you looking forward to most for continuing your run in Jersey Boys at the Trafalgar Theatre?
I’m really looking forward to getting some Frankie Valli shows under my belt. I love playing Pesci, it’s so fun to play every night, but to play the man himself is such a thrilling challenge and I can’t wait to get going! I’m also so excited to see how everyone else’s performances develop as the year goes on and to watch all the other covers go on and play their cover roles. Having rehearsed with them and having been on that journey with them from the rehearsal room to the stage, I can’t wait to see all their hard work pay off!
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