The 1963 Oldsmobile rounds the curve of a wooded highway. Rumbling drums build to the half-time claps and immortal lyrics of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” as the car speeds forward and then swooshes into the horizon. Biiiiig Giiirrrlllls Donnnn’t Cryyyyyy. Cut to the car’s interior and the first musical interlude. The song fades into the background as the voiceover begins: “That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind.” Do-on’t cry-yi-yi! They don’t cry. Bi-ig girls. Do-on’t cry. “That was before President Kennedy was shot, before The Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad.” My-y girll didn’t cry. I wonder why. The music swells and Baby looks out the window to her green future.
That was the first time I heard the unique sound of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and I’ll never forget it. Bob Gaudio, the song’s writer and original band member, feels the same way about his music: “It’s something that we all grew up with, including me. I think people are reliving their lives. I can almost remember exactly where I was when I heard a song on the radio.” Though I’ve listened to “Big Girls Don’t Cry” a million times, that first memory wasn’t my own. It’s Baby’s, the female protagonist in the movie Dirty Dancing, which goes to show how deeply embedded the music of the Four Seasons is in the layered strata of the American pop psyche. And perhaps their omnipresence offers a big clue to the mystery I’m trying to solve with this article:
How has the show Jersey Boys survived to its second birthday when so many Broadway-style shows have failed in Las Vegas? If neither David Hasselhoff in drag (The Producers, died 2008 after one year), nor bawdy puppets (Avenue Q, died 2006 after nine months), nor streamlined Tony-winning musicals (Hairspray, died 2006 after four months) nor Monty Python with its built-in following (Spamalot, died 2008 after a year and change) could make it, how could the story of some old band—one that didn’t start a revolution—thrive?
Jersey Boys tells the life story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. As VH1’s Behind the Music knows, these musical rags-to-riches tales make compelling plots. Ones with dual appeal: The story makes the music better and the music makes the story better.
Music and story, a more than satisfying answer. But then I realized that’s pretty much what all Broadway-style shows have to offer. In fact there’s even special terminology for the type of show that includes pop songs: the Jukebox Musical. So I was back to square one, looking for the thing that separates Jersey Boys from the pack.
I finally found my answer at the Jersey Boys two-year anniversary reception at the Palazzo. There was Frankie Valli, polished like a shiny gray river rock by so many years in the passing waters of fame. He was talking to a younger, slightly taller version of himself. Then there was Gaudio, tall and graceful with silver hair and at least one small gold earring. He too was talking to the younger, slightly taller version of himself. The effect was dizzying.
With the announcement of Cirque’s new Michael Jackson collaboration, it seems like this city is fast becoming the land of the live-action music biopics. Jersey Boys has something that the others can never have: living inspiration. While the other shows are memorials, Jersey Boys is a breathing monument.
“I can always feel it when I perform in the show, that night or the next day, after talking to him because he sort of brings me back home,” says Rick Faugno, one of the two people who play Valli. “I can almost feel him talking through me onstage. I always do, but I feel it more when I talk to him. Because I just had his voice in my ear, I feel it’s coming out of me, it’s weird.”
So there you have it. Jersey Boys has thrived in the two worst years of the Las Vegas economy because of the music, the story and, most of all, the people.
Looking forward, expect a potential movie perhaps, and maybe even more music. At the reception, Valli told me about his dreams for a new type of occasional collaboration: “I have a thing about Vegas and I’ve had it all my life. It would be a dream if Jersey Boys went on and did their show and if we went on as the second show. So you saw the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Now you can see Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, for real.” Oh what a night that would be.