‘Jersey Boys’ returns to Peace Center
Paul Hyde, [email protected] 9:56 a.m. EDT October 21, 2015
Almost from the beginning, Des McAnuff realized he had a hit on his hands.
McAnuff, the veteran Broadway director, had been handed an outline or “treatment” of a musical about the rock ‘n’ roll group The Four Seasons.
“As soon as I read that treatment, I knew we had a substantial piece of theater,” McAnuff said, speaking recently by phone from New York City.
“I immediately put the show into production, casting the actors and designing the sets, even before we had a full script.”
Eleven years and four Tony Awards later, that blockbuster musical, “Jersey Boys,” is returning to Greenville.
The show’s national tour arrives Tuesday at the Peace Center for eight performances through Nov. 1.
The tour enjoyed capacity houses during its first visit to the Peace Center only two years ago. The musical’s Broadway company, meanwhile, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
“Jersey Boys” tells the story of how a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks became one of the biggest American pop sensations of all time.
Four actors, playing their own instruments, portray the members of The Four Seasons from the group’s earliest years in the 1960s. The musical features a cast of 19 to flesh out the broader story of the band's struggles and successes.
It’s a warts-and-all tale that involves band infighting, substance abuse, marital troubles, run-ins with the law and dangerous encounters with the Mafia.
Despite all that, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi managed to release a string of No. 1 hits and sell 175 millions records — all before the four celebrated their 30th birthdays.
The musical features the Four Seasons’ big hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” “December, 1963 (“Oh, What a Night”) and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
“The songs are fantastic,” McAnuff said.
The Four Seasons’ upbeat, irresistible music gives the show universal appeal, said Aaron de Jesus, who plays front-man Frankie Valli in the national tour.
“What I love about this show is that it really resonates with audiences of all backgrounds,” De Jesus said, speaking on the phone from East Lansing, Michigan during a recent tour stop.
“Just last week, an older gentleman from Venezuela came up to me after the show at the stage door,” De Jesus said. “He clearly didn’t not speak English. Luckily, I speak Spanish. He told me with tears in his eyes and an emotional voice what a moving experience he had in the show.
“Even someone who doesn’t speak the language can go on this journey with us,” he said.
The national tour has visited big cities, medium-sized markets such as Greenville and smaller towns as well, De Jesus said.
“I really enjoy going to some of the smaller cities that don’t necessarily have the opportunity to have a big show like ‘Jersey Boys’ come to town,” De Jesus said. “Plus, it’s a great way to see the country.”
De Jesus understudied the role of Frankie for three years in the Las Vegas company of “Jersey Boys” before moving into the lead role for the tour only a few weeks ago. Frankie’s high-flying music requires a rare voice capable of negotiating a wide tenor and falsetto range.
It also demands stamina: Frankie almost never leaves the stage.
“It’s not an easy role but it’s fun to sing all those great songs,” De Jesus said. “Staying healthy for the show is the top priority for me.”
McAnuff said the idea of “family,” in its broadest sense, is also central to the popularity of “Jersey Boys.”
“This is about four guys who get out of a very tough neighborhood,” McAnuff said. “They do that by playing music but also forming their own family. I think the story is about the family you choose rather than the family you’re born into. I think all of us at sometime have gone through this whether it’s playing on a basketball team or women forming sustaining friendships with other women. I think that’s what makes it universal, that everyone can relate to this kind of manufactured brotherhood.”
In addition, Americans are fascinated by the music business and pop culture heroes, McAnuff said.
“Celebrities have replaced royalty,” McAnuff said. “We gravitate toward stories of celebrity just as in the days when Shakespeare was writing about Henry V.”
“Jersey Boys” has been seen on stage by an estimated 15 million people around the world. A big budget film version, released last year, grossed $67 million.
Theater-goers should note: The show contains strong language and is intended for mature audiences only.
Writing ‘Jersey Boys’
The show’s success came as little surprise to Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the book of the musical with Rick Elice.
“The music is great and it’s a good story,” Brickman said, speaking to The Greenville News at Manhattan’s Bar Centrale in 2013. “It has everything in it. It has love, it has loyalty, it has jealousy, it has humor, and it’s about a kind of family — The Four Seasons. We cram a lot into two-and-a-half hours without it seeming overstuffed.”
Brickman and Elice said the project came together swiftly and, astoundingly, without stress.
“(Broadway playwright) Peter Stone, who wrote a lot of well-received Broadway shows, warned me that musical theater is ‘negotiation through tantrum,’ that there’s a lot of fighting and screaming,” Brickman said. “But writing ‘Jersey Boys’ was nothing like that. It was very smooth and the whole thing happened very quickly.”
Elice and Brickman conducted countless interviews with Valli and Four Seasons founding member Bob Gaudio, who wrote many of the group’s big hits.
From the outset Valli and Gaudio insisted that the musical tell the unvarnished story of the group — including the boys’ involvement with petty crime and encounters with the Mafia.
“To their eternal credit, they said go ahead, put it all out there,” Elice said. “It must have been very hard to have the Mob breathing down their necks — and yet they survived. They managed to not get killed, to not be owned by the Mob. It was a pernicious, pervasive influence in their lives and yet they survived, and we love survival stories in this country.”
Because the band members sometimes contradicted each other when relating their separate versions of events, Brickman and Elice decided to let each band member in the musical narrate a different part of the show.
The band members agreed on one thing: The Four Seasons were the Rodney Dangerfield of rock bands in the 1960s: They got no respect.
“They weren't the guys who were written about in the magazines,” Elice said. “There was no glamor quotient. They didn't have long hair, they didn’t have exotic accents, they didn’t come from across the pond. Their main fans were the guys who looked like them — blue-collar guys who worked at gas stations. They weren’t guys who went to college and protested the war. They were guys who shipped out and fought the war. That’s all in the musical.”
In the show’s first incarnation at the La Jolla Playhouse, and later on Broadway, the musical succeeded based largely on word-of-mouth, thanks to many of the same blue-collar fans.
“There was practically no advance sales before we opened on Broadway,” Brickman said. “It was the guys in windbreakers from New Jersey and their families who helped to spread the word.”
Elice and Brickman said they were an unlikely pair to create a musical based on The Four Seasons.
Elice spent 17 years marketing Broadway musicals. Brickman worked extensively in TV and film. He’s best known as the co-writer of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and other films with Woody Allen.
But neither Elice or Brickman had written a musical before.
“Creating a musical was a bucket-list issue for me,” Elice said.
But Brickman was more skeptical about the show initially.
“When Rick first approached me about writing a show about The Four Seasons, I said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Brickman recalled. “I do wake up screaming sometimes thinking that I almost passed on this thing since it has changed my life. I think God was talking to me, saying, ‘Don’t be a schmuck, do this show.’”
Growing up, though, the two weren’t even big fans of The Four Seasons.
“We were these over-educated New York snobs,” Elice said.
Brickman, as a young man, played folk music with The Tarriers, later creating the pre-Mamas and Papas group The New Journeymen with John and Michelle Phillips.
“I was a folk music singer and banjo player out of Brooklyn,” Brickman said. “When Rick brought me into this project, he gave me a double album of the greatest hits of The Four Seasons. I listened to it and I was knocked out because there were all these songs I knew from everywhere but I didn’t know they were all Four Seasons songs. That’s when I became a fan.”
“Jersey Boys” premiered in 2004 at the La Jolla Playhouse at the University of California, San Diego. At the time, McAnuff was artistic director of the playhouse. He would take the show that next year to Broadway, where it won four Tony Awards, including for best musical. It also won a Grammy for best musical show album.
McAnuff, a two-time Tony Award-winner, would later lead Canada’s acclaimed Stratford Shakespeare Festival for five years. A busy director who is known particularly for developing new projects, McAnuff has staged about 40 plays or musicals since “Jersey Boys” premiered 10 years ago.
For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
YOU CAN GO
What: “Jersey Boys,” the musical, by Bob Gaudio (music), Bob Crewe (lyrics) and Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (book)
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28-29; 8 p.m. Oct. 30; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Oct. 31; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 1
Where: Peace Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $55 to $85 (Note: The show contains strong language)
Information: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org