Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 2004
Maybe you thought it was bubble-gum music. It was sweet, generally upbeat and often extremely high-pitched: The unique sound of the Four Seasons and their falsetto-voiced lead singer, Franki Valli. The Hall of Famers sold 150 million records, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll” and “Let’s Hang On.”
But music is just part of the story of The Four Seasons, now being dramatized in a world premiere musical, Jersey Boys, debuting at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“They had a very tough, blue-collar lifestyle,” says director Des McAnuff.. “Two of them did time in federal penitentiary – for grand larceny. So here you had this irony of criminal behavior juxtaposed with innocent-sounding pop songs.”
McAnuff and book writers Marshall Brickman (an Oscar and Emmy winner) and Rick Elice (an actor/writer/director) were convinced that the Four Seasons’ quintessential rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll story was highly theatrical.
“It’s a real American story,” says McAnuff. “These were first generation Italians. Loyalty and family were paramount. And money played a big part: Payola, the Mob, corruption in the music industry. The personal sacrifices made for success – relationships, marriages and worse. The show is about everything that leads to the success of a band and what pulls it apart. Part of the theme is: Can you forget where you come from?”
Four Seasons composer Bob Gaudio hasn’t forgotten. “It was a wild ride,” admits the 62 year-old Gaudio, who collaborated with Bob Crewe on all the vintage songs in the show. “I was with the group for 10-12 years, until the mid to late ‘70s. But I felt I wouldn’t live very long if I continued to do the road thing.”
Gaudio was playing piano in a jazz quartet with acclaimed actor Joe Pesci (also a singer/guitarist) when Pesci introduced him to Valli.
“When I heard that voice,” Gaudio admits, “it blew me away.”
McAnuff felt the same. His very first record album, purchased in 1962 when he was 10, was the Four Seasons’ “Sherry.”
“Along with millions of other people,” he says, “I fell in love with their sound, which was as much about Bob Gaudio’s musical genius as Frankie’s singing talent and enormous range.
“I think a running theme in their work was ‘I’m not good enough for you.’ These were self-esteem and class issues. In the early ‘60s, the war was just heating up. Their fans were like them, more working class than middle class; the kids who went to Vietnam, not the ones who protested it.”
“I think the show is gonna surprise some people,” Gaudio concedes. “Some of it is funny; but some of it is a little dark. There are a lot of heartfelt moments, and some very serious ones. Myself, I’m not Mr. Fun. I’m a pretty serious guy. But the music is very upbeat; you just can’t beat the combination of poignant lyrics and uplifting melodies. We had a strong impact, a unique sound, and of course, Frankie’s voice.”
Surprisingly, McAnuff had no trouble casting the singing roles, and there are even some local connections. Christian Hoff, who plays Tommy DeVito, performed in The Who’s Tommy at La Jolla Playhouse and on Broadway. And J. Robert Spencer (who portrays Nick Massi, now deceased) appeared in Lucky Duck last summer at the Old Globe.
Frankie Valli, who’s still performing, served as advisor on the new show. He’s maintained ongoing contact with his Four Seasons composer, who read several drafts of the script.
“I think it’s brilliant,” says Gaudio. “There are some things I’d rather not have talked about, some things maybe aren’t 100% necessary or accurate. But I’m comfortable with it. It reads well, and it’s really an unusual show. It’s not a musical, not a parody and not a documentary. The best description is ‘a play with music.’ It’s something different, a new niche for the catalogue show – very different from Smokey Joe’s Café [the songs of Lieber & Stoller] or Mamma Mia!” [a story superimposed on the songs of ABBA].
“I’ve never done anything like this show,” says McAnuff. “It’s an intriguing hybrid, with people onstage who play and sing [12 of the 18 performers play instruments]. This will appeal to anyone who likes rock ‘n’ roll. And those who don’t like musicals; people here don’t stop what they’re doing, look into each other’s eyes and sing.”
It’s been quite a run for McAnuff. He directed the mammoth “Frank Sinatra” spectacle at Radio City Music Hall last year, then helped develop and directed Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, which begins previews on Broadway November 12. His production of Dracula, the Musical, also first seen at the La Jolla Playhouse (2001), opened on Broadway last summer, and he’s got productions of The Wiz and a musical of Dr. Zhivago in the works. The future of Jersey Boys is yet to be determined, but New York producers will be watching. The hope is that they, the audience, and the remaining Four Seasons will come out singing, “Oh What a Night.”
[The La Jolla Playhouse world premiere of Jersey Boys runs through November 21 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the campus of UCSD; 858-550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.com]
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.