With the national tour of Jersey Boys settling in for what appears to be a nice, long run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, I was curious about how such a seemingly simple premise — tell the story of how the Four Seasons became the Four seasons and use as many of their songs as possible — turned into such an electrifying show.
I had lunch a while back with Rick Elice, co-author of Jersey Boys with Marshall Brickman (an Academy Award-winner for his Annie Hall script with Woody Allen), to find out the secrets behind Jersey Boys’ success.
How did you meet Marshall?
The great director Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain) introduced us, and we became poker buddies on the over-educated, over-analyzed, over-indulged Upper West Side of New York we have always called home. I’d lost an embarrassing number of quarters to Marshall over the years (I won’t tell you what we really play for — it’s not a high-stakes game, but Texas hold ’em has had an adverse effect on my life. I’ve lost at least $43 over the years). Marshall and I hit it off. Our families liked each other.
You have to understand Marshall was, like Stanley, sort of this icon to me. He’s a great, funny guy — very much like how his movies are. I was seduced by the idea of working with him one day. I always imagined in my fantasy it would be on a film.
How is it that Jersey Boys became your first collaboration?
I had worked in advertising for 18 years, and a former client of mine called me about doing a show based on the Four Seasons catalogue. Mamma Mia! was new-ish at the time, and I said, “Someone’s already done this.” But I was encouraged to meet with the guys involved, so I called Marshall and said, “How’d you like to work on this Four Seasons thing?” He said: “Great. I love Vivaldi.”
Did he really say that or has that become the anecdote?
I haven’t the vaguest idea if he said it or not, but he probably did. That’s the nature of our repartee. All we have is badinage. We don’t do much talking as a rule. If he were here, you’d have the whole dog and pony show. Now it’s just dog, which is sort of dull. My comedy is reactive. Marshall is snap, snap — incredible.
Anyway, so you agree to meet with two of the original Four Seasons: Bob Gaudio (primary songwriter and business guy) and Frankie Valli (the voice)…
We’re in some shadowy Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. We order food, and while we’re waiting, I say: “Tell me about yourselves,” or some similarly witty remark. They start describing what it was like to grow up in New Jersey as blue-collar, Roman Catholic, Italian, undereducated, ambitious kids. Bob was somewhat more educated — he was born in the Bronx, but his family moved to Northern New Jersey, basically, to save his life. Frankie was from South New Jersey, many brothers and sisters, first-generation American, parents almost didn’t speak English. Everywhere was the Mob. Crime was a huge pull. No way to get away from that pull unless you educated yourself or joined the army or became a star. There were two pictures on everyone’s wall: the pope and Frank Sinatra. Obviously, Frankie wasn’t going to be the pope, so like everyone else, he wanted to be Frank Sinatra.
Then they started talking about walking offstage and into a waiting paddy wagon, or attempted robberies that backfired, and Marshall and I began to lean in and say, “Oh, really? What happened next?”
This is part of what makes Jersey Boys so interesting. We know the Four Seasons songs, but we don’t really know anything about the Four Seasons themselves.
Exactly. I know every detail about the bands I like — the Beatles, the Kinks, the Dead, the Who — but with the Seasons, I didn’t even know a lot of their songs were their songs. Frankie said that was because the Seasons were never written about. There was no glamour quotient because they were dropouts from across the river, and the New York sobs, the culture elite, never thought they’d sell magazines.
If you see pictures of them then, they look like a basketball player (Gaudio), two bookies (Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi) and a jockey (Valli). They didn’t look like other groups.
There’s a great scene in The Deer Hunter, with Christopher Walken and DeNiro and the guys playing pool and singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” at the top of their lungs the night before they ship out to Vietnam.
“Those are our fans,” Frankie said to me. “While you were marching on Washington, our fans were shipping out to Vietnam. They were the guys pumping gas and flipping burgers.”
We listened to all this and said, “Would it be possible to do this warts and all?” They said we should try.
So how did you shape the show?
There was so little written about the Four Seasons, but one article was key: a 1987 Time magazine business article about Frankie and Bob’s handshake guaranteeing each other a 50-50 split of whatever they make for life. That was their recognition that their whole was greater than the sum of their parts. Since he was 20, Bob had an internal business gyroscope. He’s a naturally talented businessman and composer. And Frankie has a remarkable four-octave range. They knew they needed each other to get what they wanted, and their business deal holds true to this day.
That article about the handshake was inspirational in making this relationship the core of the show. We knew the story would be non-traditional because there are no women as primary characters. Primary relationship with these guys was each other.
Nick Massi had passed away by this time, but did you seek out Tommy DeVito (seen below with Valli and Gaudio) in Las Vegas?
We did, and he said, “Don’t listen to Bob and Frankie.” I’ll tell you what really happened.
Did Frankie and Bob know you talked to Tommy?
They didn’t expect us to do that, nor did they think there was a reason to do that. We risked upsetting them, but we weren’t looking to do a whitewash. With Tommy, Marshall and I had our Eureka! moment. Ask four guys what happened, and you’ll get at least four different answers. then we knew how to write it, so we started seriously digging, compiling, then talking, talking, talking. As the great librettist Peter Stone said: “All musicals are talked into existence.” What we shaped was very unconventional. We wrote it as a play, not a musical, and it plays like a play. There are whole sections with no music, and then other sections where the music is like a tidal wave.
Director Des McAnuff’s contribution was extraordinary in shaping the show and allowing it to unfold on a stage with almost nothing on it.
We weren’t interested in making it polite or watering it down. We wanted their story, and there were lots of arguments with Frankie and Bob about what makes a better story. at the same time, we didn’t want to do a documentary. This is something for the theater: a compelling story, characters you care about, music to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck and make you thank God for the day you were born. I won’t settle for anything less. I’m a theater kid. That’s all I insist on and everything I insist on.
So why does it all work so amazingly well?
I can’t tell you what the alchemy is. I know the music is amazing, the story is really good and Marshall and I did a good job taking a thousand disparate anecdotes and constructing something that has coherence and that the audience understands. Des McAnuff did a superb job shepherding Marshall and me through the writing and making it all captivating on stage. But what happens when the audience is there is more than any of those things. It’s the extra bit, and I suppose with any hit show there’s something magical in the relationship between the stage and the audience. With our show, I think it’s that people are familiar with the Four Seasons’ music but not with the guys. The audience may not be in a band, but they know what it’s like to want to belong, to be respected, to find home. There’s a universal found in the specifics, which is what good drama is about.
And then there’s the uplift the audience has at the end. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in a lifetime of theatergoing. I can’t believe the way the audience behaves at the end of the show. They leave happy, and we are all wildly moved by that. It makes people feel young, spry, sexualized, ready for action, happy to be alive. That’s the most precious and irreplaceable thing about Jersey Boys.
Elice and Marshall are working on another musical with Tommy Tune set to direct. They’ve also been hired to do a musical adaptation, and they’re writing a play about a boy who wins the lottery. Elice reports “tremendous interest” in a movie version of Jersey Boys, but he says there’s much to be done before that happens.
Gaudio and Valli were back in the recording studio last year to make an album for Sony of non Four Seasons ’60s songs. Members of the Broadway cast of Jersey Boys were pulled in to provide back-up vocals.
For information on the San Francisco production of Jersey Boys at the Curran Theatre, visit www.shnsf.com.