Jersey Boys, a fan's review
by Charles Alexander
Oh What a Night in La Jolla
Judging from the theater listings these days, you would think it’s pretty easy to mount a hit musical. Just take a bunch of pop hits, find some setting or device for stringing them together and, viola, you have Mamma Mia, Movin’ Out or Smokey Joe’s Cafe. But the best musicals are more than music. Great musicals have great stories—stories full of laughs and tears, love and heartache, triumph and disaster. Such a musical has come to life at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. Called Jersey Boys, it is the mostly true story—a fascinating and largely unknown story—of the Four Seasons, three working-class Italian tough guys from Newark, New Jersey (plus one from the Bronx) who became one of the best-selling groups in pop-music history.
As a biographical play about early rock stars, Jersey Boys is reminiscent of Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story, which chronicled Holly’s struggles to make it big and then the troubles that befell him after he reached stardom, all set to fabulous songs. The Four Seasons, two of whom were ex-convicts, had more struggles than Holly did and a larger number of hit songs, and while they didn’t die, Holly-style, in a plane crash, the sudden death of the lead singer’s daughter is a powerful enough dramatic moment in Jersey Boys. Will theater audiences go for it? You bet. Buddy was a modest success on Broadway (225 performances) and an absolute blowout in London, where it ran for more than 12 years. As for this new Four Seasons musical, the wildly enthusiastic response (cheering, standing ovations every night) by audiences at the La Jolla Playhouse suggests that Jersey Boys will have a long run on Broadway and beyond.
Jersey Boys has everything a great musical needs. The crisp, funny and often poignant book comes from Marshall Brickman, the screenwriting veteran who co-wrote Annie Hall and Sleeper with Woody Allen, and Rick Elice, co-author of the play Double Double. The imaginative staging springs from the skill of director Des McAnuff, who won a Tony for his direction of The Who’s Tommy. The actors are superb, from Christian Hoff, who captures the snarling bravado of band leader and guitarist Tommy DeVito, to David Norona, who recreates lead singer Frankie Valli, high notes and all, with a fidelity that fans will consider impossible until they see and hear it with their own eyes and ears. Valli himself, now 70, attended auditions, and when he heard Norona, he said, “That’s me.” The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is too good: fans know that the Four Seasons couldn’t dance, but these theatrical Seasons sure can. And driving it all is some of the best pop music ever written, chiefly by original Seasons keyboard player Bob Gaudio and Seasons producer Bob Crewe, who collaborated on such classics as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Bye Bye Baby.
A wise editor once said that the art of good writing is knowing what to leave out. That’s another way of stating the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid. In Jersey Boys writers Brickman and Elice have followed that principle admirably in telling the Seasons’ complicated story, creating an engaging drama out of what could have been a real mess. Their successful strategy was to focus only on the rise and demise of the original Four Seasons: DeVito, Valli, Gaudio (played by Daniel Reichard) and bassist/bass singer Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer). The play moves from their getting together to their days singing backup for other acts to their sudden success with Sherry to the problems that led every member except Valli to stop performing. The climax is the original foursome’s triumphant 1990 reunion when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What is left out? While the first part of Jersey Boys makes a running joke of the group’s many names before they settled on “The Four Seasons” (the Four Lovers, the Romans, the Topics, etc.), the play never mentions that the group actually released records under these names or that the first record released by “The Four Seasons” was a dud called Bermuda. Watching Jersey Boys, you would think that the first recording they ever released was Sherry. There is no hint of Valli’s severe hearing loss that left him nearly deaf for many years until some operations helped ease the ailment. The most significant historical inaccuracy is that the play has Massi and DeVito leaving the group at about the same time when every fan knows that Nick left years before Tommy did.
Fans may quarrel with this jumbled chronology, but they should understand that this is drama, not history. The audience is told that the group gets together in the 1950s, but then the play stops giving dates. Rather than being bound by chronology, Jersey Boys becomes a timeless story that never loses its dramatic focus. And that focus stays squarely on two unfolding disasters: DeVito’s financial mismanagement, which drove the group deeply into debt and led to his departure, and the horrible toll that stardom and touring took on Valli’s family life, creating domestic turmoil that may have contributed to the drug-related death of his daughter Francine. This is a simple, compelling story about the hard road to the top of show business and the high costs of staying on top.
Jersey Boys begins in a surprising, delightful way, with a rapper and a female chorus singing Ces Soirees-La, the recent French hit version of December 1963 (Oh What a Night). That song fades and time turns back to Silhouettes, sung by Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Tommy’s brother Nick DeVito. This is an early version of what would become the Four Seasons (Nick DeVito would leave long before Sherry). Tommy steps forward as the play’s first narrator to explain that Ces Soirees-La is “our song…Oh What a Night…French… top ten in Paris, 2003.” (Fans know that Oh What a Night was recorded long after Tommy left the group, but let’s not get picky.) Tommy brags about how some guys from New Jersey created music that’s “all over now…countries I never heard of.” Flashing a terrific sense of humor that will ring true to long-time Seasons fans, Tommy admits that “Jersey is a joke state…where you have to drive to a landfill next to a dump next to a turnpike to cheer for a team that’s from New York anyway.” But Tommy proudly proclaims that the Seasons “put Jersey on the map” (yes, long before the Boss came along). How did they do it? With another chorus of Silhouettes, Frankie Valli enters, adding his stunning falsetto to the harmony. Their ticket to stardom, Tommy says, was a “kid from the neighborhood with a voice like an angel.”
The play quickly delivers its biggest revelation: that Massi and both DeVitos were small-time hoods who spent considerable time in jail, a fact that has rarely, if ever, been written about. In Jersey Boys Tommy DeVito is sentenced to six months for robbing a jewelry store. He indicates that this is hardly his first trip through the “revolving door” at the Rahway Correctional Facility. When Tommy gets out of jail, Nick Massi goes in, apparently on a breaking-and-entering charge (a B&E in the play’s parlance). Valli is involved in these capers but is let off the hook by a cop and a judge because he’s still a teenager. When Massi finishes his sentence, the group is at last ready to get down to serious musical business. (Nick DeVito remains in jail for unnamed offenses and is never heard from again, at least in this play.)
For a long while success is elusive. The low point comes at a Lovelock, Nevada club, where the boys sing the ridiculous I Go Ape as the sparse audience walks out one by one until no one is left. They retreat, disheartened, to New Jersey—but then comes the turning point: a manic little guy named Joe Pesci (yes, the same Pesci who would go on to acting fame) gets the group together with Bob Gaudio, a kid from the Bronx who had shot to stardom by writing Short Shorts as a member of the Royal Teens but then had sunk just as rapidly back into obscurity. He was a self-described “one-hit-wonder.” When Pesci brings Gaudio into the Silhouette Club to meet the group, the band is playing I’m in the Mood for Love/Moody’s Mood for Love, and Gaudio complains that this music “is for my grandparents.” But then he starts paying attention to Valli’s singing and is mesmerized. “I dropped out of high school to tour with Short Shorts,” Gaudio says. “I shared a bus with Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, and I never heard a voice like Frankie Valli’s. After eight bars, I know I need to write for this voice.” It’s an electric moment when the four guys who would become the Four Seasons gather around the piano and blend their voices for the first time on Gaudio’s Cry For Me.
The next big break comes when Valli introduces Gaudio to producer Bob Crewe, bringing together one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time. But for starters Crewe just wants the group to sing backup for his solo artists. There’s a fascinating scene in the studio with the boys backing such singers as Miss Frankie Nolan on I Still Care and Hal Miller on An Angel Cried, both written by Gaudio. When the group—now called the Four Seasons after getting the name off the neon sign at a New Jersey bowling alley—finally demands that Crewe record them, they sing Gaudio’s Sherry for the producer over the telephone. “It’s a hit,” says Crewe, “if I don’t fuck it up.”
We know he didn’t fuck it up. The performance of Sherry on American Bandstand is Jersey Boys’ first show-stopper—literally. When the song ends, La Jolla audiences have been erupting into prolonged ovations. The crowd is transported in time back to 1962, and the original Four Seasons are faithfully reproduced. It’s an amazing piece of theater.
After several more huge hits, trouble sets in. Valli’s marriage dissolves, and his daughter Francine starts running away from home. Tommy DeVito, who was never fit to be the group’s business manager, runs up gambling debts with the mob and neglects to pay the Seasons’ taxes, putting the group in a million-dollar hole. In a tense meeting presided over by neighborhood elder statesman Gyp DeCarlo, the always loyal Valli declares that the group will pay back all DeVito’s debts. But the creditors insist that DeVito be kept under a form of house arrest in Las Vegas until his debts are paid. Gaudio decides that if DeVito can’t go on tour and the Seasons must take on his debts, they will be buying him out of the group. Massi leaves as well because of an “ego thing,” he later explains. “Everybody wants to be up front. But if there are four guys, and you’re Ringo—better I should spend some time with my kids.”
Even amid all this drama, the writers provide plenty of comic relief. The meeting about DeVito’s debts is broken up by a hilarious tirade from Massi on the burdens of sharing motel rooms with Tommy and living with his less-than-perfect hygiene. “He would wear the same underwear three days in a row,” screams Nick. In another scene Frankie is having a fight with his girlfriend Lorraine (a fictional composite character), who complains that he is still working for Tommy and under Tommy’s spell even when Tommy is stranded in Vegas. “Maybe we should get married,” Frankie says. “You and Tommy?” Lorraine replies. “I don’t think that’s legal in Nevada.”
The supporting cast adds enormously to the texture and comedy of play. The talented young black actor and singer Tituss Burgess plays, among other roles, the French rapper Yannick; singer Hal Miller; a deejay who played Sherry continuously for hours and hours and the Ohio cop who arrests the Seasons for inadvertently skipping out on a motel bill. Asking for Frankie’s autograph, the cop insists it be addressed to “Love Muffin.” Peter Gregus plays Bob Crewe as a charmingly gay musical genius, who takes a shine to the handsome Gaudio in more ways than one, though nothing unseemly ever happens between the two. The trio of Sarah Avery, Marisa Echeverria and Jennifer Naimo handle all the female roles with aplomb and take a star turn as the Angels singing My Boyfriend’s Back. According to Jersey Boys, the touring Seasons hired the Angels to be their warm-up act and to warm their…..well, you know. “We weren’t saints,” says Massi. “You sell 100 million records and see how you handle it.”
The use of the Seasons’ music is brilliant. After they belt out Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Dawn (Go Away), chronology is cast aside and the later songs are used cleverly when they fit what’s happening in the play. The lyrics take on new meaning when set against the lives of the Seasons. Bob Gaudio, for example, sings December 1963 (Oh What a Night) to describe his sexual initiation on tour. (“As I recall it ended much too soon,” smirks Tommy.) There’s My Eyes Adored You after Frankie leaves his wife Mary; Beggin’ when they go to DeCarlo for help with Tommy’s debts; Stay and Let’s Hang On when Frankie and Bob are trying to keep the group from breaking up; and Bye Bye Baby when Lorraine walks out on Frankie. After the group disintegrates, Frankie naturally sings Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me): “I’ll be strong. I’ll try to carry on, even though you know it won’t be easy when you’re gone.”
Two numbers stand out. Frankie’s Fallen Angel after his daughter’s death is the most moving scene in the play. And the more joyous Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Frankie’s first big hit as a solo artist, is another show-stopper.
Perhaps the most memorable speech is Gaudio’s tribute to Four Seasons fans. “We weren’t a social movement like the Beatles,” he says. “Our fans didn’t put flowers in their hair and try to levitate the Pentagon—maybe they should have. Our people were the guys who shipped overseas—and their sweethearts. They were the factory workers, the truck drivers, the kids pumping gas, flipping burgers. The pretty girl with circles under her eyes behind the counter at the diner. They’re the ones who really got us, who pushed us over the top.”
The Four Seasons really were the group of the urban working class at a time when the richer suburban leisure class loved the Beach Boys. There was some overlap between the two sets of fans of course, but Beach Boys’ lyrics like “everybody’s gone surfing, surfing U.S.A.” did not strike the same chord as these lines from the Seasons: “Money I don’t have any. I’m down to my last penny. But, darling, don’t cry over me. I’ll be a big man in town.” Many young Seasons fans rose out of the working class to become very successful, but few became media bigshots or music critics. Maybe that’s why the Seasons have never received as much serious attention as they deserve.
Jersey Boys will help to correct that injustice. The play will introduce today’s young people to Seasons music and remind older folks how fantastic that music is. The play will greatly enhance the Seasons’ already prominent place in pop-music history. Whereever Jersey Boys plays, Frankie, Bob, Tommy and Nick will be big men in town.Charles Alexander 10/15/04