InterviewHow the Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons Went From Jersey Lore to Broadway HitAs Jersey Boys prepares for its New Jersey premiere, Tony-nominated book writer Rick Elice shares the oral history of the Tony-winning musical.
October 11, 2017
Before Rick Elice made his Broadway debut as a writer, he was an actor. Then, he became a copywriter at Serino Coyne, one of theatre’s top advertising agencies. Moving up the ranks of the growing company, Elice climbed all the way to creative director and EVP—writing and producing his play Double Double on the side—before leaving the agency in 1999 to pursue an opportunity as a creative consultant to Walt Disney Studios.
While working at Disney, he received a phone call that would lead to his first of three Tony nominations: “It was a [former] client of mine who said, ‘Would you like to do sort of a Mamma Mia! musical? I have the rights to the Four Seasons music,’ and I said, ‘Oh! I love Vivaldi. What a great idea.’” For all his clever writing, Elice wasn’t kidding. “He said, ‘I don’t mean Vivaldi, you moron, I mean Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.’ And I said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’”
Four Tony Award wins—including Best Musical—and four additional nominations to boot, the musical redefined the form of the modern jukebox musical. Jersey Boys was a verified hit that ran for 12 years on Broadway and spawned productions in London, Las Vegas, Sydney, multiple tours, a major motion picture, and will soon be rebooted Off-Broadway.
But how did the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Season go from an idea no one on Broadway wanted to touch to a moving work of theatre? Elice shares an oral history of the making of the show:
Though Elice was skeptical of the viability of a musical about the pop group, he agreed to meet with this client and brought his friend, writer Marshall Brickman, along. The duo decided to take the leap (“There’s nothing to lose but our own time,” Elice thought) and met with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio before writing and pitching some material. Valli and Gaudio approved and asked, “What should we do now?”
“I said, ‘It just so happens that all the producers [in New York] are former clients of mine.’ Marshall and I went around to a bunch of people, all of whom said no. And then the Dodgers [of Dodger Theatricals] said yes. They said yes really not because we’d written the show yet, but because they understood immediately that if you were one of the 125 million people who bought a record in 1967, you would be right in the sweet spot of people who are the right age for ticket-buying. So they said, ‘Who do you think should direct it? What about Des McAnuff?’ and I said, ‘It just so happens I know Des.’”
In another turn of serendipity, the first record Des McAnuff ever had as a kid was Sherry & 11 Other Hits by the Four Seasons. He signed on.
“By then it was the end of the fall of 2003 and Des said, ‘I have a slot in August at La Jolla. Do you think you guys can write it by April?’”
So Elice and Brickman began meeting regularly with Valli and Gaudio.
“Story is the key thing. What would happen when Marshall and I went to the dark little Italian restaurant on 46th Street and met Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, and they started telling us the stories of their lives when they were making these records, and we started leaning forward like you do when you’re hearing a really good story, and then we started looking at each other like, ‘Could this be?’ And then saying to them, ‘Did that really happen? You’re not making this up?’ Their story was so good, they as characters were so compelling, that we thought we had hit the motherload as writers. They had a great story to tell and they were characters that you really cared about. That’s what you look for in theatre.
“What they wanted to do was make sure that they were going to be taken seriously, and not be treated as cartoons, Jersey joke characters. They wanted to be taken seriously. Once we demonstrated that we were willing to do that, they were very forthcoming. The problem was never Bob and Frankie; the problem was Marshall and me. We were a bit snobby towards them, at the beginning. And then, over the course of talking to them and getting to know them and their families and hanging out with them, we acquired what I think is the most important thing for any writer to have which is humility. We realized that yeah, Mozart’s fine, Vivaldi’s wonderful, but Bob Gaudio wrote amazing songs. Bob Gaudio is touched by God, as a composer, as much as anybody. And Frankie Valli, as an artist, is an extraordinary, unique artist. They really achieved something, and they achieved something that was important to a lot of people.
Elice and Brickman had juicy material to work with, but a two-and-a-half hour musical can only fit so much story. What they needed to find was a form.
“We had always proposed that the story would be divided into season. It occurred that there were four seasons and four guys. One thing we noticed in talking to them and in talking with Tommy DeVito separately—the other surviving member of the group—and Bob Crewe, was that they all had different versions of the things that had happened. They would frequently contradict each other. Marshall and I would look at each other and go, ‘Well, who do you think is telling the truth?’ In conversations with Des, we got to the point where we thought, ‘Well, why should we have to decide who’s telling the truth? Why don’t we do something unusual here?’
With each member of the Four Seasons telling their version of the origins of the record-breaking New Jersey quartet, the team decided the show would be narrated in four acts.
“The birth of the band in the spring and the full blossom of success in the summer and the falling apart of the original group in the fall and then, last of all, the winter as Frankie’s discontent, as it were. We thought, ‘Well, Frankie’s the star, so Frankie will have the last word, and Tommy is the great way in because he’s a total bullshit artist so he’ll open the show giving the audience all this bullshit, and then Bob Gaudio will appear and say ‘Don’t listen to what he said, I’ll tell you what really happened.’ It became this wonderful, nifty, useful way to structure the storytelling and gave us a great way to figure out what to include. Four seasons, each narrated by an individual that would contradict each other was a great organizing principle.
The cherry on top are the four monologues by each of the guys at the end of the show, just before the finale song; each man says their final piece. But Elice and Brickman hadn’t intended for the show to end that way.
“We had written four speeches, so that the actors would have something to dig their teeth into. They ended up becoming the speeches at the end of the show. But we didn't know that they were gonna be at the end of the show. We put them at the end of the show because we just loved the way they sounded at auditions.”
Auditions led to that breakthrough in the script, but finding the show's Four Seasons was another challenge altogether. The team found their Bob Gaudio in Daniel Reichard and Nick Massi in actor J. Robert Spencer, but they were half a group short. McAnuff suggested Christian Hoff for Tommy DeVito based on previous work. Hoff had largely stopped performing and couldn’t fly to New York to audition; McAnuff cast him and Elice met him on Day One of rehearsal. (Hoff would go on to win a Tony Award for his work as DeVito.) Meanwhile, David Noroña played Frankie Valli in La Jolla but decided not to move to New York with the show. John Lloyd Young had auditioned for the La Jolla production, but didn’t make the cut. This time around he proved himself and went on to win a Tony for his Broadway performance as Valli. John Lloyd came back in, it was, essentially, a year later. He came back in, and he had just, clearly, busted his ass over the course of that year, to be fantastic. He came in, and he blew us all away, and got the job. We weren't just looking for a singer, we needed someone who could really act the hell out of those scenes and really make an audience care about him. It is a Herculean role. The guy sings 30 songs in the course of a show. He's on stage without a break for the entire second act. And you have to really train for it. Frankie Valli was the first one to say, ‘I never could have done this.’ Frankie never performed eight shows a week. Week in, week out. Month after month, after month. Every person who plays that part is heroic. Because they really live monastic lives. You can't mess around, and play Frankie Valli.
Looking back, Elice remembers the first moment things started clicking—thinking Jersey Boys could actually become something.
“I remember the very first goosebump moment that I had, was the second day of rehearsal, when they broke down the song, ‘Cry For Me,’ which is the song where Gaudio shows up and sits at the piano and sings the song. And one by one, the other three join in. We could have written it absolutely out as a scene, and instead, we thought, let's see if we could just tell it through music. Let's see if we can turn this pop song into a book song. In real time, we were watching the creation of the group, which is exactly what the scene is about. Suddenly, all four of them were singing, and burst into tears. I thought, this is everything that I love about what musical theatre does, that you can't do anywhere else.”
The chemistry worked. The story worked. And audiences communed with the New Jersey characters.
“When audiences started to come, and we saw men, of the age of guys who were in the group, and we saw their heads, nodding, at places in the show, we realized what we had created for these guys- The guys who were not the cultural elite, the guys who were not made, who got on buses, and went to Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. But the guys who actually went to Vietnam, and fought, and came back, and were disrespected. The guys who saw, onstage, four band members, who kind of looked like them, and talked like them, and sounded like them. I was standing in the back of the theater, when the show was new, seeing heads nodding, I thought, ‘Wow.’”
Photos: See Jersey Boys Take Their Final Broadway Bow