Writer Rick Elice talks about the Jersey Boys phenomenon
By Diane Snyder
Forget about show-stopping finales. In Jersey Boys, the smash-hit musical about the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, the pinnacle of excitement comes about 45 minutes into the first act. That’s when back-to-back presentations of three of the group’s biggest hits — “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and
“Walk Like a Man” — are greeted with enough thunderous applause to start a downpour.
“At that moment the audience has forgotten they’re watching four actors and they root for these four guys as though they really are The Four Seasons in their youth,” says Rick Elice, one of the show’s book writers. “The response is so sincere and enthusiastic and over the top that it’s impossible to believe anything else.”
It’s also somewhat surprising. After all, The Four Seasons may have been one of the most successful groups of the 1960s, but history hasn’t institutionalized them the way it has the Beatles or other bands of the era. But Elice thinks that’s one reason why fans are so hungry for their music and the incredible story of four Italian-American kids from the wrong side of the New Jersey tracks who could just as easily have ended up in prison as on the pop charts.
While other musicals have tried to capitalize on a group’s catalog of songs by integrating them into the plot, writers Elice, Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff agreed that their staging should be presentational, as if The Four Seasons were performing the songs to an audience, not singing them from one character to another.
“In the first act the songs are presented pretty much chronologically, as they took place within the life of the band,” explains Elice. “In the second act, the music is more cunningly chosen to reflect either directly or by contrast what the band is going through at the point where things start to fall apart.”
Jersey Boys was born when Elice was contacted by a former client who had the option on The Four Seasons catalog. But as he and Brickman interviewed the three surviving Seasons, they faced a predicament over how to tell the group’s “true” story when they couldn’t even figure out what it was.
Elice and Brickman met with Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli, the two Seasons who, way back when, formed a business partnership with a handshake that still stands today. “They started to describe what it was like to be blue-collar kids, first-generation Americans, Roman Catholic, high school dropouts who were flirting with careers in crime,” Elice recounts. “It was the archetypal American rags-to-riches story: You start with nothing, achieve success and then try to navigate your life through the waters of success.”
But when they contacted Tommy DeVito, the initial driving force behind the group until gambling debts put him on the outs with the mob, “He said, ‘Don’t listen to them, I’ll tell you what really happened,’” Elice recalls. That’s when they decided to structure the show the Rashomon way, by letting each character tell his own account. As Tommy says at the beginning of the show, “You ask four guys, you get four different versions.”
About the Show
They were just four guys from Jersey until they sang their very first note. They had a sound nobody had ever heard… and the radio just couldn’t get enough of. But while their harmonies were perfect on stage, off stage it was a very different story – a story that has made them an international sensation all over again. Go behind the music and inside the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in the Tony Award®-winning true-life musical phenomenon, JERSEY BOYS. From the streets of New Jersey to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this is the musical that’s just too good to be true.