From “Sherry” to “Oh, What a Night,” the music of The Four Seasons was pervasive during the early to mid-1960s and beyond. The band was a virtual hit machine.
One would imagine that the writers of the biographical play “Jersey Boys” were drawn to the vast musical range of Frankie Valli, the upbeat rhythms of Bob Gaudio and the light but eclectic lyrics of a group that popped up on the Top 50 constantly. Interestingly, when the writers were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, neither had had much exposure to The Four Seasons.
“I’m a red-diaper baby,” said Marshall Brickman, who wrote comedy for Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett before teaming up with Woody Allen on the scripts of such films as “Sleeper,” “Manhattan,” and “Annie Hall,” for which they won screenwriting Oscars. “My parents were progressive. The Four Seasons were not high on my list of music when I was growing up. I listened to Pete Seeger, the Weavers and Woody Guthrie. When all the people who are now coming to our show were in the back seats of their convertibles making out to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,’ I was singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
Co-writer Rick Elice, who was captivated by the theater at an early age but spent many years at an advertising agency before trying his hand at writing a theatrical production, was too young to remember when The Four Seasons had a hit song every season. Still, he and Brickman “appreciated the scope of their work” as they became acquainted with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio.
For Brickman and Elice, the attraction went far beyond the music and was about something else entirely — the chance to tell a great story about four gritty young men growing up in the shadow of the mob and succeeding in spite of it. “Marshall and I had ‘eureka moments,’ because it was a true story, a good story, an untold story and more than writers could possibly wish for. It was like winning the lottery,” Elice said. “The Four Seasons had never been written about, because the cultural elite didn’t think they were exotic enough and because they came from the wrong side of the river.”
Brickman compared the experience of doing “Jersey Boys” to making a dinner date six months in advance and never expecting it to happen. Although many biographical plays are short-lived and only one in a thousand makes it to Broadway in the first place, Brickman and Elice knew they had to give this one a shot.
”Jersey Boys” was developed in La Jolla to avoid the gravitational pull of Broadway. Brickman and Elice came in at the end of a season with a number of failed productions about singers, so they ran into a great deal of skepticism about their idea of doing a “jukebox production.” Producers were having a hard time getting theaters and investors to put on such shows, but, as Elice put it, “the stars were in alignment.”
As Brickman said, “We loved the story of The Four Seasons, and we discovered that we were knocked out by their music, which had real authority and real voice. The success of the show is in debt to the music. The songs are designed to get you moving.”
Elice added, “From the first performance, we knew we had caught a tiger by the tail. I never saw an audience behave like this in the theater. People acted as if they were at a rock concert. They sang and danced with the music. There were standing ovations at the end of the first act.”
“Jersey Boys” has captivated audiences since 2005. This is its second performance run at the Segerstrom Theater in Costa Mesa. At around the same time, the movie, also written by Brickman and Elice, will be making its debut. Both writers believe that the movie remains true to the original concept they created, and both emphasize remaining true to their Jewish roots.
“Being Jewish is about who I am as a man and how I do my work,” Elice explained. “It informs my sense of humor and how I hear characters when I write. Being Jewish is so much of who we are, how we think and how we see the world.”
Brickman said, “Being a Jew informs everything I do. Jews always had something witty to say. The national character is about self-deprecating sarcasm with warmth mixed in. There’s a great sense of irony.”
For Brickman, Judaism is “not so much the religious thing” but the cultural aspect that is important. He believes that Sholom Aleichem stories are “seminal and important to attitudes that leaked into other cultures,” adding that “every wave of immigrants has its own sense of defining attitudes and character.”
Humor has suffered, according to Brickman, because “we’re all so homogenized.” Humor, he said, is “a corrective that points out deficiencies and incongruities and helps you own them.”
Elice, who loves working in the theater and thinks there is nothing more “thrilling, terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time than being in the theater,” has another view. He looks forward to “the day we can celebrate world peace,” and he believes that the answer lies in live events like the theater.
“When people are enjoying a collective socializing experience, they are understanding what we all have in common,” Elice said. “Instead of dividing the world into us and them, they are in the midst of a thousand people. That’s why we still have live theater, and there’s nothing more powerful and wonderful.”
Segerstrom Center for the Arts welcomes back “Jersey Boys,” the Tony, Grammy and Olivier Award-winning hit musical about Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, playing in Orange County from June 24 to July 13, 2014.
”Jersey Boys” is the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi. This is the story of how a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks became one of the biggest American pop music sensations of all time. They wrote their own songs, invented their own sound and sold 175 million records worldwide — all before they were thirty.
Tickets are available online at SCFTA.org, at the Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa or by calling (714) 556-2787.