Theater-Men for All Seasons
In the beginning, there was light: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn,” “Walk Like a Man.” Pop music then made a sharp turn when The Beatles, Rolling Stones, et. al., swept through America. The light flickered, dimmed, but up through ‘75, ‘76, there were more hits: “Who Loves You,” “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” Sure, Frankie Valli charted big with “My Eyes Adored You,” but that was pretty much it for The Four Seasons.
You could have closed the book on them, and put it away. Some did.
And so, when Rick Elice was approached with the idea of writing a musical about The Four Seasons-
“The first question I said was, Why?”
The other person ticked off song titles, which Elice recognized, although he’d been too young to appreciate the melodious quartet during its heyday.
“But I still didn’t know anything about Frankie Valli or the other three guys in the band.”
Asked if he’d just have lunch with Valli, and with Bob Gaudio, who had been the group’s keyboardist and main songwriter, Elice said sure – and asked if he could bring his friend Marshall Brickman (whose screenwriting credits included “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”).
The four met in a dark Italian restaurant in New York City. Elice didn’t have high expectations. He probably had no expectations at all.
“We sat down with them thinking it was probably just going to be a meal. While we were waiting for the food, by way of making conversation, we asked them to tell us what it was like to grow up being them.”
Elice and Brickman were then furnished with an array of “amazing, interesting, hilarious, frightening, heartbreaking anecdotes.” After which, Elice said: “How come we’ve never heard any of this before? I know the songs, but I don’t know anything about the group.”
As paraphrased by Elice, Valli and Gaudio then replied: “Well, we were never deemed interesting to write about because we didn’t have long hair, we didn’t have exotic accents, we didn’t come from across the ocean; we came from the wrong side of the river.”
From Jersey – or “Joy-zee” – to be exact. But there were other reasons, too. The Four Seasons emerged from an era when a celebrity’s moral lapses were hushed over, and although Valli and Gaudio, as well as guitarist Tommy Di Vito and bassist Nick Massi, projected a clean-cut, all-American image (YouTube tells all!), there was some “rattling” in the closet best not revealed, mainly having to do with mob affiliations and with Di Vito and Massi having spent jail time.
A later generation of tough rockers might have worn those “credentials” with pride.
Elice and Brickman began to see their story, but the surviving Seasons – Massi had passed away – kept contradicting themselves, and one another.
What might have been a project-ending headache for some writers turned into a godsend when Elice and Brickman realized that each act of their musical could focus on one band member’s viewpoint. One Season per season. The show opens with the birth, and birth pangs, of the group (spring), moves on to success (summer), the dissolution of the original quartet (autumn), “and then the winter where the frontman has to weigh the cost of life on the road versus his personal life,” Elice says. “The winter of Frankie’s discontent, as it were.”
The writers hooked up with director Des McAnuff of the La Jolla Playhouse. “We took a shot,” Elice says, “figuring that if nothing came of it then nothing came of it. Fortunately for us, Marshall and me and Dez, the stars really were in alignment on this one.”
Over the course of a lengthy conversation Elice repeats how lucky they were, but one should see it differently: Smart, talented people were given a chance to run with an unlikely project, and they did, homing in on the archetypal themes of family, loyalty, struggle, and persistence, that elevate the story of four men the world was all too ready to relegate to pop music history.
Elice and Brickman were also wise enough to structure their story so that the songs bolster it, as opposed to forcing a narrative around the music. It also took courage for the bandmates to publicly air their once-guarded secrets.
Not only did “Jersey Boys” strike the right chord, it resonated so well with audiences and critics that in 2006 it won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and inspired Clint Eastwood’s big screen adaptation of Elice and Brickman’s script. “It’s certainly the ‘Jersey Boys’ version of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons,” Elice says, “but it gets to go a little deeper in places.” There were others – among them choreographer Sergio Trujillo – who had a hand in the stage version and later were asked to apply their talents to the movie as well.
YouTube wasn’t around when Trujillo began researching how the group moved onstage, which for him meant trips to film and television archives.
“They didn’t really dance,” he says of The Four Seasons; “they just played. So I actually took creative liberties with the way that the seasons were seen. In adapting it for the stage it was important to take a leap forward. It was like, well, if I was a choreographer for this hot group in the 1950s, ‘60s, what would I do with them? And this is what I came up with.”
Trujillo wasn’t dancing in the dark on this one; he’d choreographed two period pieces before “Jersey Boys,” including “Peggy Sue Got Married.” “So as far as vocabulary and knowing the period, I was very well informed.”
The film version allowed for additional choreography, and Trujillo makes note of the finale, “probably the most fun I had on the film.” But he also indicates, much as Elice does, that the stars were aligned for this project.
“It’s one of those zeitgeist moments where it all came together at the right place and the right time with the right creative team – with Dez, with Rick and Marshall, and Bob and Frankie. It’s like one of those very special moments.”
“I’m excited for Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, and Tommy Di Vito and Nick Massi, the original quartet,” Elice says. “Because what ‘Jersey Boys’ does onstage and onscreen is celebrate four American guys who have a real kind of American story. It speaks to a lot of people, and it celebrates them and the courage they had to say to us, Go ahead and put it all up there – onstage and onscreen – warts and all. It was a very brave thing to do. Their courage has been rewarded, and very deservedly so.”
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: June 24 – July 13. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. 8 p.m. Thursday, July 10
How much: From $29.75