'JERSEY BOYS'

Stages: Frankie Valli, the 'Jersey Boys' Soprano, Still Happy to Take a Bow

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Frankie Valli doesn't call "Jersey Boys" a musical; he consistently refers to the Broadway show as a play. So does Rick Elice, co-author of the hit that won the 2006 Tony Award for best, um, musical.

The two have a point. Sure, audiences turn up large in New York and wherever the international smash has expanded (it's now at the National Theatre for a 10-week run). And yes, they reasonably expect to hear the 1960s and '70s chart-toppers Valli cranked out with and without the Four Seasons -- pop candy from "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man" to the lounge standard "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

But it's the dark "Behind the Music"-style drama that's clinched the theatrical appeal of "Jersey Boys" -- the true tales of growing up tough in Newark and making hit records, with mobsters as part of the scenery and big-time loan-sharking as a major plot twist. A young Joe Pesci hung around with the neighborhood guys, adding to the "Goodfellas" aura, and while the fictionalized Tommy DeVito that Pesci played in Martin Scorsese's 1990 film is not based on the Tommy DeVito of the original Four Seasons, the guitarist-singer's massive debts and mob ties did indeed lead to a major turning point for the band by 1970.

"It's the real 'Sopranos,' " jokes "Jersey Boys" co-writer Marshall Brickman, "with a real soprano."

He's referring to Valli, of course, whose soaring range and gutsy delivery helped define the Four Seasons' radio-ready sound. The group's music is handled with care (and flair) in director Des McAnuff's Broadway staging. The actors who play the Seasons sing and play their own instruments; the songs aren't pressed into the service of a made-up narrative, the way familiar tunes were creatively repurposed in, say, Abba's "Mamma Mia!" and the Billy Joel-driven "Movin' Out."

Instead, Elice (pronounced "Ellis") and Brickman took McAnuff's suggestion, piecing together a stage biography that leads fairly naturally to live performances of the group's songs. And once the theatrical team heard what Valli, DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi had lived through, they figured they'd better tell the saga fairly straight -- even if that meant doing it from four points of view (one for each season, natch).

Bass player Massi split from the group in 1965 and died in 2000; DeVito was bought out. Gaudio and Valli forged a handshake partnership that has long outlived the band. It was Valli and Gaudio -- a teenage songwriting success with "Short Shorts" who went on to pen hits for the Seasons and produce records for Michael Jackson and Neil Diamond -- who peddled the notion of a Broadway show to potential writers.

"Bob and Frankie had approval over the final script," says Elice, chatting with Brickman after a Saturday night performance of the show in New York. ("Jersey Boys" was the first musical for the urbane Brickman and the eager Elice, but it won't be their last. They're hard at work on "The Addams Family" musical, scheduled to star Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth on Broadway in the spring.) The pair approached DeVito by phone, warily; from Las Vegas, DeVito said: "Don't listen to those guys. I'll tell you what really happened."

"Hearing Tommy chime in with another version," Elice says, "that was the eureka moment for us."

Though jukebox musicals were in iffy favor after a string of Broadway duds, "Jersey Boys" found a sweet spot. McAnuff's savvy staging and the Damon Runyonesque characters -- plus a base line of respect demanded by Valli and Gaudio, who didn't want their story given the cartoon treatment -- chased any silliness away from the project. And when the show debuted at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in 2004, the group's fans, firmly ensconced in Broadway's ticket-buying demographic, showed up in droves.

"We had no idea," says Brickman, a head writer in the late 1960s for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and a co-writer of Woody Allen's classic '70s films "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." "There was a whole subculture under our radar."

"And guys," Elice adds immediately. "Lots and lots of guys. More than you would ever see at a regular Broadway musical."


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