‘It Was Not a Valentine’: An Oral History of Jersey Boys

Frankie Valli and his legendary band found a second life—and a place in Las Vegas lore—as a hit musical. Now a third life might beckon on the big screen.

Sh-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-ry Bay-yay-bee.

Need we say/sing more?

A radio hit in 1962, the Four Seasons’ “Sherry” was reborn as a 21st-century Broadway anthem via Jersey Boys. Featuring lead singer Frankie Valli’s sky-scraping falsetto, the tune also doubled as a full-throated cheer for the Garden State, which needed some pop-culture cachet that wasn’t the bloody, crime-ridden world of The Sopranos. Overcoming other longstanding jibes at the state’s expense—Smokestack Central, Tollbooth Capital of the World, “A Turnpike Runs Through It”—Jersey Boys lent New Jersey an upbeat hipness.

The Storytellers

Frankie Valli

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Four Seasons lead singer.
Continues to tour and will perform on Broadway in the fall.

Bob Gaudio

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Ex-Four Seasons member.
Left the group in 1971 to concentrate on composing and producing.

Des McAnuff

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Director of Jersey Boys. Won Tony Awards for directing Big River and The Who’s Tommy.

Marshall Brickman

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Co-writer. The Oscar-winning screenwriter later co-wrote book for Broadway’s The Addams Family musical with Rick Elice.

Rick Elice

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Co-writer. Adapted novel Peter and the Starcatcher as a Tony-winning Broadway play.

Travis Cloer

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Portrayed Frankie Valli on Broadway and in Las Vegas, where he still performs the role.

Rick Faugno

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Originated the Frankie Valli role in Las Vegas. Won acclaim for starring in the film Virgin Alexander.

Michael David

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Producer ofJersey Boys. Went on to produce Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods on Broadway.

Chockablock with decades of hits, the turbulent and tuneful—and bracingly honest—musical about the Four Seasons begins its biographical tale on the streets of Newark in the 1950s, but began its theatrical odyssey in the back of a Manhattan eatery in 2003. Consigned to the playlists of oldies stations, the Four Seasons had by then faded into nostalgia for some people, forgotten by others. That was about to change. Broadway was waiting. In the wings, so was Las Vegas.

After conquering the Great White Way, Jersey Boys arrived here in 2008 and quickly became a staple on the Strip. Theatergoers still file into the Paris Las Vegas showroom six nights a week, and the Four Seasons have belatedly joined Sinatra on the great Vegas playlist. Now Jersey Boys is embroiled in an industry drama as it attempts to cross over to the big screen. Call it “Follow the Bouncing Studios.”

Starting out as a Sony Pictures property—after what was described as “fevered” and “spirited” bidding for the film rights in 2010—the planned movie adaptation shifted to Warner Bros., began casting and was to start production this month. Helmed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) with a screenplay by the musical’s co-writers, Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (Hugo/Skyfall screenwriter John Logan was also said to be involved), it was headed toward a release later this year. However, Variety reported in November that Warner Bros. backed out over concerns that the Four Seasons story wouldn’t appeal to overseas audiences.

As we went to press, film producer Graham King (The Departed) was reportedly fiercely determined to get Jersey Boys in movie theaters and has approached other studios, including 20th Century Fox and Paramount, to negotiate a deal. However, Elice and Brickman say that as far as they know, the movie is on schedule.

Reaching the big screen would be a fitting end to the long Jersey Boys journey from creation to sensation. A tale of persistence, faith and a little luck, it began humbly enough when Elice, the former creative director of Broadway ad agency Serino/Coyne, received a call from a former client who held an option on the Four Seasons catalog.

Rick Elice: I picked up the phone—the lesson is you should always pick up the phone—and the man says, “What do you think of the Four Seasons?” I said, “I love Vivaldi!” He said, “No, the band with Frankie Valli, the guy with the high voice.” I didn’t know much about the band, but when he rattled off the song titles, I was familiar with many of them. I associated many from being a kid in summer camp in upstate New York. I had been trying to find a project to collaborate with the great Marshall Brickman, who is a poker buddy of mine. I said, “Would you like to do a Broadway musical about the Four Seasons?” He said, “I love Vivaldi!“ We made the same lame joke, which probably meant it was meant to be.

Marshall Brickman: I didn’t really want to do it because I didn’t know the Four Seasons. I’m a banjo player. But Rick gave me this double-album CD of their greatest hits, and it really knocked me out. Very simple but powerful stuff.

Elice: I invited him to join me at the back of a very dark restaurant on West 46th Street in Manhattan with Frankie and Bob Gaudio. I think we figured it would be one of those lunches we would cancel the morning of, but suddenly we realized it was time to go.

Brickman: We meet them and they’re a little guarded. It was like speed dating, where you decide if you want to go on a date with these guys.

Elice: Frankie is a very well-turned-out guy and Gaudio is very tall and handsome and he’s got this great-looking wife and this little diamond stud in the ear, just dripping with cool. I thought, “Wow, they didn’t seem like Axl Rose and those big-haired rockers.”

Brickman: After a bottle of Italian wine, everybody opened up.

Frankie Valli: We just talked about everything from the very beginning of our careers. Even before we even got to do this, we decided we wanted to be a play for Broadway. Bob looked at me and said, “You know, if we do this we have to tell the truth. Are we ready to do that?”

Bob Gaudio: We had many offers to do something, but most of them were movies or TV, something we thought would be nice but would be a quick burn, one time and not meaningful. It was a gamble, because no one had been knocking on our door to do a Broadway show.

Elice: They started to tell us about the mob, what the music business was like, how hard it was to be successful, how hard it was to repeat and navigate the shark-infested waters with the Mafia breathing down their back. I didn’t know any of it, that some of the guys were in prison for awhile, that (band member) Tommy (DeVito) learned to play guitar in prison. It was like the mother lode of everything good theater is supposed to be. We pushed the food aside and started to pay attention.

 

With their interest piqued, Elice and Brickman commenced writing a script—in Broadway parlance, the “book”—mining the memories of the three surviving Seasons. (Member Nick Massi died in 2000.)

Brickman: It was not a valentine, it was a real story about guys who had jealousy and hit on each other’s girlfriends. The guys quite understandably reserved the right to approve the script. But when we first shopped this script around to New York producers, no one was interested. Some were so disinterested they never got back to us. The last resort was a [producing group] called the Dodgers. There was this guy, Michael David, who is a kind of visionary, as it turns out.

Michael David: I received a call from Rick, who I had known for years. We set up a meeting, and he brought Marshall with him. Marshall said, “Who is this?” and sang a little bit of “Sherry.” I said, with my memory fading, “That’s the Seasons.” He said, “That’s the idea.”

After a deal was struck with the Dodgers, director Des McAnuff (The Who’s Tommy) was approached to mount the show for a tryout in 2004 at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, where McAnuff was artistic director. Over two acts, the show was separated into four “seasons”—spring, summer, fall and winter—each narrated by a different band member.

Des McAnuff: My initial reaction was that it wasn’t for me. But after a couple of meetings we came up with a vision of the piece that satisfied all of us. Doing a new musical involves a lot of hitting each other over the head with ball-peen hammers and amputating limbs. Poor Marshall and Rick were locked in a windowless room in beautiful Southern California, grumpily producing these rewrites.

Elice: We eventually enfolded Tommy [DeVito] into the mix and called him in Las Vegas, where he lives. What became fascinating weren’t the similarities in what they were telling us, but describing events with different points of view. Tommy would say, “Oh, don’t listen to them, I’ll tell you the way it really happened.” That was the eureka moment in terms of the structure of the show. It would be an interactive game with the audience in a Rashomon kind of way. Who do you believe? The audience might love and believe Bob, or they will recognize that Tommy is a bullshit artist from the first words out of his mouth. We decided to give Frankie the edge in terms of the larger truth by saving his section for the end, so it gives him a privileged position with the audience.

McAnuff: I said, “It’s the story of three microphones going to four microphones, then going down to three and then to two and going down to one for Frankie.” And I wanted the actors to play instruments and have authenticity. If you were doing a musical about a band, you needed to put them in rehearsal or the studio or at a concert or a club.

Brickman: There was difficulty in casting. This was 2004, and Broadway was littered with the corpses of so-called “jukebox musicals.” There were ones about the Beatles, Elvis, the Beach Boys, and they all failed—and then we came in last. Nobody wanted to go to La Jolla for four months, out of town with a jukebox musical. No actor was willing, but we got a wonderful actor [David Norona, who played Frankie] who lived in San Diego. He came in and knocked it out of the park.

While Valli and Gaudio retained veto power over the book—and used it in omitting certain details and protecting the identities of some people in their lives and careers—there is an unsparing honesty to much of it, including DeVito’s jewelry heist and prison time, their interactions with mobsters and Gaudio’s sexual awakening. One episode in particular—the death of Valli’s daughter—was painful to the singer, but made it into the script.

Valli: They got a bit more personal with me. With the loss of a child who ended up overdosing on drugs, they did it where they wheeled the child in on a gurney. It was very bold, but it didn’t feel right to me. [The death was changed to occur off-stage.] Des wasn’t a director who was afraid to take chances. To go through the loss of a child is something that never leaves you. I still have those moments for as many times as I’ve seen the show where I have to put my head down and put myself in a place where I’m not really listening.

Travis Cloer: I haven’t spoken to him about [portraying Valli in that scene]. I give him his space about it. I know it still upsets him very much. I’m told there are times at the show when he gets up and leaves because he knows that scene is coming.

Elice: The shocking thing is that there is the daughter in the play who dies from an overdose, but Frankie also lost [a stepdaughter] who locked herself out of her apartment, climbed out on the fire escape to try to get through the window, fell and died. If you put that in the show, no one would believe it. It would be too horrible and seem like it was fiction.

Gaudio: We were also concerned with someone coming out as the total bad guy. I guess that would fall in Tommy’s world. He was a lovable rogue. Still is. He has done many things, some of which are not in the show. But he’s a charming guy and he was OK with it—and when he was, then we were.

Yet the writers found themselves in touchy territory with a character based on South Jersey mob boss Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, a member of the Genovese crime family. When band members wind up in debt to a Brooklyn mob in the musical, the DeCarlo character brokers a compromise, resulting in Tommy DeVito—who worked as a driver for DeCarlo between gigs—relocating to Vegas.

Elice: One night we got this message to go to a parking lot outside of a supermarket and wait for a pay phone to ring. So Marshall and I went. This guy on the other end says, “I want you to understand that Gyp DeCarlo may be dead but he is not forgotten in our community—and I understand from the Internet that he is a character in your play.” You think, My God, Tony Soprano is on the phone. He says, “Write down this number. You will fax us all the pages on which the character of Gyp DeCarlo appears. If you don’t, I’ll just say I know where you live.” We just wanted to write a musical; we didn’t want to die.

Gaudio: I was quite amused. I couldn’t imagine those two Upper West Side, New York Jews hearing something like that.

Elice: We faxed the pages and never heard from him again. But a few months later, Gyp’s son, who owns a restaurant in Little Italy, invited the cast for complimentary dinners. It became like a family once we were all on Broadway.

As Jersey Boys took shape, decisions were made—and then remade— on aspects of the show, including selecting songs to use from among the Four Seasons’ massive catalog. Twenty-eight were chosen, and while top-10 Valli solo hits “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “My Eyes Adored You” were included, a disco-era favorite, “Swearin’ to God,” was not.

Valli: I wanted that song in there so badly I cannot begin to tell you. There was another I had a hit with that I thought would be incredibly dramatic called “To Give,” a representation of the way I saw life. Several songs I felt strongly about, but silence is golden.

Gaudio: They tried [“Swearin’ to God”] in an early rehearsal. Des was like, I have to try it, the lyric is perfect, but I said the missing link here is the Four Seasons didn’t sing on that record. What are they doing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when Frankie sings “Swearin’ to God”? It obviously wasn’t the right moment, but it didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. That was also the case with my favorite song that I have written, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).” Des tried it, but he said it just wasn’t feeling right. I said, “OK, do what you think is right.”

Other issues McAnuff grappled with included costumes, lighting and building the narrative to a rousing climax, the latter confounding him.

McAnuff: It was a real roller-coaster ride shaping this musical. We get to the end of the show with “Rag Doll” and it’s, OK, it’s feeling good but not as good as it had been. We get to “Oh, What a Night,” and I’m going, “This is a disaster! How can we have gotten to the last number and have it misfire so badly?” One mistake we made was to put them in tuxedos for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It didn’t seem like the Seasons, it was distancing. We put them in black and white suits. The second thing, which may sound ridiculous, is that it was colored light. I said to our lighting designer, Howell Binkley, who won a Tony for this, that you couldn’t use colored light. It had to be white light, just as austere. It was the most remarkable transformation.

Debuting in San Diego on October 5, 2004, Jersey Boys, as a so-called “jukebox musical,” gave critics pause, but not audiences. As Daryl H. Miller’s review in the Los Angeles Times noted: “It’s unlikely to be embraced by theater critics or rock historians. But nostalgia-hungry audiences will scream for more.” Encouraged to take it to Broadway after concluding the show’s West Coast run on January 16, 2005, David was responsible for attracting investors.

David: Broadway was crowded. Fundraising was relatively easy in California. Many of them had not seen a Broadway show before, but they were so enthusiastic they committed early on. The more difficult raise was from those folks who see (producers and shows) on a regular basis. To them it seemed very speculative. It’s not like the money didn’t come in, it was just relatively new money to Broadway, not old money.

Bowing on Broadway with a month of previews, Jersey Boys officially opened on November 6, 2005. With David Norona opting to remain in San Diego, actor John Lloyd Young created the Frankie Valli role in New York, winning a Tony Award as best lead actor in a musical, one of four Tonys accorded Jersey Boys, including best musical of 2006. After Young’s departure he was replaced by actors including Travis Cloer, while Rick Faugno created the role in Las Vegas as the show fanned out across the globe.

Rick Faugno: It’s the hardest role I’ve ever done. It is 28 songs, 200 lines of dialogue. Trying not to crash and burn is the goal, to bring the character to life and do justice to the songs and not kill yourself in the process.

Cloer: It’s not something you fake your way through. I watched a lot of YouTube, and there are several things Frankie does. He stands more on one leg, and when you look at his face, he looks like he’s in pain a little bit. He gets that scrunchy face.

Faugno: The falsetto is difficult, but the most difficult is that “high belt” he has, when he sings full out. People don’t realize it’s the most exhausting part. It takes a long time to learn to blend that seamlessly, to give it a beautiful sound but also an edge.

When the show was branching out into national tours and out-of-town productions, Las Vegas became a candidate as a host city. The producer gives partial credit for its Strip arrival to a local columnist.

David: Early on Las Vegas seemed like a place that would be open to the show. (Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist) Mike Weatherford had the idea a couple of years earlier. He went to a preview in New York, then called the Dodger office and asked if he could come by. For some serendipitous reason I said “Come over,” and he said, “You know where this would work great is where I live.”

Mike Weatherford: For [a 2006 story] about the Broadway-to-Vegas movement, I was going there to see Phantom, Hairspray, Spamalot and The Producers. Michael Gill, who manages Jersey Boys here in town, was then co-producer of Hairspray. [He] said, “While you’re up there you really should see Jersey Boys,” which just opened, because he said it was a natural for Vegas.

This, as it turned out, was because Gill was already trying to score the rights to a Vegas production. … Because Michael David was nice enough to do an interview, he wound up well-quoted in the story. How much that helped bring the show here? I will at this point let him give me all the credit he wants.

On May 3, 2008, Jersey Boys opened at the Palazzo Hotel, but not before the creative folks and the business folks ironed out some details.

Elice: We were presented with a plan to bring the show to Las Vegas, but they said we had to rewrite the show, it can’t be two acts like on Broadway; it can’t be longer than 90 minutes without an interval because the audience won’t sit through it. That wasn’t fun to us. Bob and Frankie were fantastic in that negotiation. They just said no, we’re not going to do it until we get what we want, which was just a slight adjustment to the show.

Gaudio: Rick and I went to Vegas before we went to San Francisco and saw Phantom at the Venetian. I had seen the Broadway version, and at the end of Act I when the chandelier drops, it’s such a fabulous moment, and then you take an intermission and talk about it. But when the show just continued it wasn’t so effective anymore. We thought with the end of Act I for us with “Dawn,” it had such a visual with the lights that we can’t imagine going right into the next scene, and it bothered us. But Marshall and Rick wrote a version without an intermission and we previewed it in San Francisco. We determined it didn’t work, so we left the intermission in—but a shorter one. It worked. We were spot on.

After making a new deal, Jersey Boys closed at the Palazzo on New Year’s Day 2012 and reopened March 3 at its new home at Paris Las Vegas, where it remains today. As the struggle to greenlight the movie version plays out in studio boardrooms and the Hollywood trade papers, Brickman, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning script of Annie Hall with Woody Allen, rejects the reports that Warner Bros. backed away due to concerns about the movie having limited appeal overseas.

Brickman: Take what you read in the trades with a grain of salt. If you look at the history of other companies we’ve got in places like London, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Singapore, what could be farther from Newark? The show does work for a variety of audiences, in different ways. A certain part of the show is idiomatic, with the language. But there’s something about the story that seems to resonate across international lines and cultural and language barriers. I don’t know why a movie telling the same story, albeit in cinematic terms, with the same music wouldn’t get the same response.

Reflecting on the Jersey Boys journey, the last word goes—as it does onstage—to Frankie Valli.

Valli: Everybody knew what we did in the music business, but very few people knew what we went through, the turmoil. We were always worried that if people found out that any member of the Four Seasons had done time, the radio would stop playing us and record companies and the public would reject us. When we got to the point where we wanted to be a play, Bob and I looked at each other and said, “At this point, who cares?”

The success of this show is about real guys and real facts. There are many other people out there who have great stories if they are willing to not be afraid and tell the truth.

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topics: Jersey Boys
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