J-boys meet Leno

Set those TiVo’s (or VCRs if you’re old school).

The San Francisco cast of Jersey Boys — the whole cast, not just the boys — will be on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” this Monday (March 19). Aparently they’ll be performing a Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons medley.

And, speaking of late night, Conan O’Brien will be broadcasting from San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre (current home of Altar Boyz) from April 30 through May 4. You can attempt to get “Late Night” tickets at www.nbc.com/conan/sanfrancisco.

The guest roster has yet to be announced.

A happy ending

Two more letters to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle have brought to a close a nasty little chapter in the otherwise chipper history of the musical Jersey Boys.

As you may recall (see below if you don’t), co-writer Marshall Brickman sent a missive after becoming angered by something director Des McAnuff said in an interview about how he helped structure the book for the show.

McAnuff took the high road in his response (read the whole thing here). He wrote:

While a significant contribution was made to the structure and style of “Jersey Boys,” I do not, and have never, claimed credit for a single word.

And he added some make-nice humor:

Marshall and I are just like brothers; when we fight, we go for each other’s throats. I look forward to many more long dinners, laced with Marshall’s lightning wit, well into our dotage.

Right after McAnuff’s letter is another letter from Brickman.

Here’s a conciliatory Brickman:

As a humorist, I reserve my right to use hyperbole to make my points; but occasionally, as our brilliant (yes, it’s true) director has recently pointed out, damage can be done where none was really intended.

‘Jersey’ battle

A Jersey Boys war of words erupted last week when
Marshall Brickman (right, photo from BroadwayWorld.com), co-writer of the show’s book, responded angrily to comments made by director Des McAnuff in a Feb. 14 San Francisco Chronicle story.

Here’s McAnuff’s quote from the story when asked about how he came to be involved in the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and the story outline originally presented by Brickman and Rick Elice:

“I didn’t like it very much,” McAnuff recalls by phone from San Diego, where he’s in
rehearsals for Aaron Sorkin’s new play, The Farnsworth Invention, at the La Jolla Playhouse. “Marshall and Rick were very gracious about the rejection. And even after I turned them down twice, they were very persistent. So we came up with the outline together. I helped them with the structure.”

And here’s part of Brickman’s response:

Twice we offered him the crown and twice he refused it, it says. Sheer modesty. We offered it to him 139 times. Only after we doused ourselves with gasoline and lit a match did he agree to interrupt his restructuring of the book for “Dracula, the Musical” to heed our pleas and, as a bonus, instruct us in the niceties of the musical theater: how to arrive fashionably late, how to humiliate the cast, how to create an atmosphere of collegiality rivaled only by a board meeting at Hewlett-Packard, how to give interviews that, for sheer fantastic invention, rival anything out of Lewis Carroll.

And just to further demonstrate how clever, Academy Award-winning writers give good feud, here’s Brickman’s final word:

But why be churlish? I owe the man. He wrote our show, ate my dinner, married my wife and fathered my children. For all I know, he may have even written this letter.

On Saturday, the New York Times got involved with a little report on the tussle by Campbell Robertson. Elice, who was reported as speaking on his collaborator’s behalf, said:

We do not dispute nor have we ever disputed that Des was involved with the structure of the play, and he was involved in the outlining process of the show,” he said. “We celebrate that fundamental contribution.

Robertson ends the story with ths: “As for other issues raised by the letter, Mr. Elice said, they are working that out between themselves.”

In the musical, Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio seal a lifetime deal to share their profits with a simple handshake. Sounds like another handshake — and maybe a hug — might be in order.

The boys of `Jersey’

Earlier this month, I sat down with the stars of San Francisco’s Jersey Boys, the quartet driving audiences into a frenzy every night as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You can read the story here.

Here are some tidbits that didn’t make it into the newspaper. If this were a DVD, we’d be in the “special features” section right now.

The players are (pictured above from left) Deven May (Tommy DeVito), Michael Ingersoll (Nick Massi), Christopher Kale Jones (Frankie Valli) and Erich Bergen (Bob Gaudio), and we’re in a suite at the Hotel Diva, across Geary Street from the Curran Theatre, where Jersey Boys is running seemingly until it’s not running anymore.

A discussion about how audience members react with such personal connections to the Four Seasons music leads Bergen to say: “My dad listened to this music. His style was more Motown and doo-wop, but the Four Seasons were definitely in there, and I heard it growing up. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to be doing this show rather than an old traditional book musical.”

May interjects: “Isn’t this a book musical? I don’t know…”

After some discussion, the actors determine that Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman’s book is indeed one of the key factors in their show’s success. The way the script incorporates Four Seasons songs into the framework of a tightly written play does make it a traditional, indeed, very well written, book musical.

Says Bergen: “OK. Write this: Erich Bergen is wrong. Three out of four seasons say Erich Bergen is wrong.”

Cue much laughter and more discussion about why Jersey Boys works so darn well. After much praise is heaped on director Des McAnuff and the creative team, Ingersoll theorizes that people are drawn in by the true story of these New Jersey guys and their rough lives, which involved prison stretches for Massi and DeVito. Later, after fame struck, life didn’t necessarily get any easier.

“One of the points of the show,” Ingersoll says, “is that in life, you never reach a point where everything’s good — no matter how much success, money or fame you have. There’s always another side to the coin. Think about us. We’re on the road, away from home for a year. I’m away from my wife for a year. She visits, and this is a dream job for me. The guys would say the same thing. Nothing could be better in that way. But the fact remains I’m not seeing my wife for such a long time. There’s a price to pay. It’s never just: I’ve arrived! Everything’s great! This show thrives on showing the reality of that.”

The reality of the show is so convincing, in fact, that when audience members hang around the Curran stage door for a post-show chat, fans call the actors by their character names.

“We walk out that door and we’re still Bob, Frankie, Tommy and Nick,” Bergen says. “They’ll say things like, `When you wrote that song…’ And I have to remind them I’m just an actor. But they don’t want you to be an actor. They want you to be the real thing.”

The huge success of Jersey Boys in New York and now in San Francisco means more productions are forthcoming — probably London and another touring production (that might actually tour to places other than San Francisco). There’s been talk of a movie, of course. And Bergen theorizes that in 10 years, every high school in the country will be doing Jersey Boys.

Says May: “If you take all the profanity out of the show for the high school version, it’ll be 45 minutes long!”

Jones chimes in: “I cannot wait to see a high school guy singing in Frankie Valli’s voice. I think it might be easier to reach those notes when you’re still in puberty.”

And finally, here’s a fact you need to know about each of these actors.
Jones is a Rubik’s Cube expert. He can solve the puzzle in under three minutes.
Ingersoll has a black belt in Tai Kwon Do and may do some teaching while he’s here.
May is a professional photographer.
Bergen produces a podcast called Green Room Radio.

For information about Jersey Boys, visit www.shnsf.com.

Lunch with a ‘Jersey’ boy

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.

‘Jersey’ mail

No question Jersey Boys is one of the most exciting Bay Area theatrical events of 2006. Let’s hear from a couple readers who have their own thoughts on Jersey Boys.

Jan Brown of Livermore castigated me for not mentioning the show’s foul language in my review.

Point well taken. F-bombs explode all over the stage in Jersey Boys. Ms. Brown wrote that she would not recommend the show strictly on the basis of language and sexual content (there’s a scene with prostitutes but no nudity or actual sex).

The language is definitely strong, but I have two words for you: New Jersey.

To my mind, you can’t tell the story of four guys who come from the depths of the Garden State and its mobsters, petty thieves and macho mugs without the R-rated language. This is, after all, the same territory as The Sopranos.

So if you go to Jersey Boys (and you really should if you want to have some fun in the theater), consider yourself warned.

Tracie Pyers of San Bruno wrote with a keen observation. She celebrated a recent birthday by seeing Jersey Boys on Broadway with the original cast and says Christopher Kale Jones (left), who plays Frankie Valli at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, was just as good, “if not better than” Tony Award-winner John Lloyd Young, who plays Frankie on Broadway.

Here’s what Tracie wrote:

I saw the NYC cast on the Today show and started thinking about a trip to New York. I was turning 40 in September so it seemed like it would be the perfect treat. It was wonderful to anticipate the show and I must have logged on to youtube.com and watched their Tony performance a million times. Still the New York show and the treat of seeing a Tony-winning show on Broadway was unbeatable. We loved it so much and wanted to see it again here in San Francisco. I was prepared to be a bit disappointed, thinking that the San Francisco cast somehow wouldn’t be able to carry it for me, like the orginal and Tony-winning cast in NYC. But I have to tell you that I was not at all disappointed with the San Francisco Cast. I did feel that Christopher Kale Jones was as good if not better than John Lloyd Young as judging from the audience’s reaction, they felt the same way.
The NYC Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff) won the Tony for his performance, and boy could you tell. SF’s character (Deven May) played him a little older. Not bad but I did really appreciate the NYC Tommy and everything that went into his performance.

Who Loves You

Last night, the Curran Theatre in San Francisco was the center of the golden oldie universe.

The Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys kicked off its national tour, but it doesn’t look like the show will be going anywhere for a while. If the phenomenal audience response last night — not to mention all the curiosity at the office from people who hardly ever talk to me, let alone about theater — is any indication, we’ll be seeing a lot of these Jersey boys in the coming months.

You can read my four-star review here, but I feel the need to review the opening-night audience as well. If you’ve ever been to an official press opening, you know how weird they can be. You’ve got stodgy old critics like me, pens in hand, who don’t respond much, and then you have all the invited guests (that is, people who got their tickets for free) over-reacting, so the response is far from natural.

That wasn’t the case Sunday at Jersey Boys, which, if you don’t know, is the musical biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The mostly middle-age (and older) crowd whooped and hollered and carried on such that the show stopped no fewer than three times — after “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” in Act 1 and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in Act 2. The actors had to hold while the audience made repeated attempts to tear the roof off the theater. My personal favorite Seasons song is “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night),” which opens the show (in its hit 2000 French hip-hop version), reappears in an Act 1 deflowering scene, and then keeps the blood pumping at the top of Act 2.

Perhaps the audience reaction had something to do with the fact that the real-life Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Tommy DeVito (not to mention songwriter Bob Crewe) were in the house and took the stage at the curtain call to take bows with their theatrical counterparts.

I can’t say enough about the fab four at the story’s center. Conveniently, three of them have Web sites, so you can check them out for yourselves.
Christopher Kale Jones (Frankie Valli): www.christopherkalejones.com (currently under construction, but now that the show’s open, surely Christopher will get around to finishing up the site)
Michael Ingersoll (Nick Massi): www.michaelingersoll.com (a slick site)
Erich Bergen (Bob Gaudio): www.erichbergen.com (a My Space page that includes four songs, including one of my new favorites, “Bless the Broken Road”)
Deven May (Tommy Devito): Deven May Photography (how much talent can one guy have?)

These guys are stars in the making. Who needs Broadway when the tour is this good?

And there are juicy rumors afloat out there that Steven Spielberg is interested in making a Jersey Boys movie. Guess we’ll see how Dreamgirls does to determine if or when the movie gets made.