Sunday, June 22, 2008
By Paul Lieberman
The Four Seasons musical plays in one time zone or another.
LAS VEGAS — Before “Jersey Boys” had its tryout run in 2004 in San Diego, La Jolla, Calif., the two central real-life characters on which it’s based — the diminutive singer Frankie Valli and the keyboard-playing songwriter Bob Gaudio — feared that was not the right locale to unveil a musical about the Four Seasons.
“This was not even close to being our audience, or what we perceived to be our audience,” recalled Gaudio, “the non-blue collar La Jolla — Beach Boys territory, you know, and surfers. It would be the last place we would pick in the world to premiere a Four Seasons story.”
They were relieved, naturally, when the audiences stood and cheered the young actors playing them in younger days, and when theater staffers started telling stories about addicted fans, like the man who came three straight nights — with three different women on his arm.
But by the time the show gravitated to Broadway the next year, the “jukebox musical” craze fueled by “Mamma Mia!” had dimmed with the failure of “All Shook Up,” based on Elvis’ music; “Lennon,” which used the ex-Beatle’s songs; and “Good Vibrations,” which tapped the songbook of their old West Coast rivals, the Beach Boys.
True, “Jersey Boys” had something most of those didn’t, a compelling story — the tale of Newark, N.J., homeboys who battled criminal records, the looming mob and their own clashing personalities to turn out hit after hit — but there was lingering uncertainty up to opening night, recalled comedian Stewie Stone, who went out to dinner then with Valli and another old singing idol, Frankie Avalon. When they tried to reassure Valli that the show would be a smash, he responded, “You never know,” and said it wouldn’t make much difference to him anyway.
“No matter what happens,” the Four Seasons singer noted, “I’ll still be on the road on Monday singing ‘Sherry.’ ”
Well, “Jersey Boys” continues to sell out on Broadway two and a half years later, and there are companies doing it in Chicago and London, and there’s a touring version getting standing O’s “here, there and everywhere,” as Gaudio puts it.
What’s more, last month, the show opened at the new, custom-made Jersey Boys Theatre in Las Vegas, in the just-opened Palazzo hotel. A Toronto company comes next. Then Australia.
(The touring company opened a monthlong stand in Cleveland last week. A review can be found on page D2).
There are so many incarnations of the show, or new ones in the works, that they have a “Frankie School” in New York to teach all the lead actors how to sing in the falsetto that anchored such chart-toppers as “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).”
Each night “Jersey Boys” plays in one time zone or another. It ends by informing the audience what became of the original Four Seasons: how bass player Nick Massi, always the afterthought (the “Ringo”) is dead now; and how bad boy Tommy DeVito lives in Vegas, supposedly exiled to its golf courses by the Mafia; and how their boy genius songwriter Gaudio gravitated to Nashville, passing days now on his yacht; and how Frankie Valli alone is still singing, “like that bunny on TV with the battery,” the show tells us. “Chasing the music.”
Of course, that’s a stage version of things, so a little theatrical license is expected. But there’s one big factor those sum-ups don’t take into account — what the show itself, and its success, has done to their lives.
You think Gaudio really is lounging on some lake with new “Jersey Boys” productions to launch around the world? “I’ve got a boat,” he says, “that I haven’t seen in two years.”
You think DeVito wields only a putter these days? Approaching his 80th birthday, he’s back in the recording studio with his guitar in hand.
Frankie? OK, true to his word, he’s still singing “Sherry.”
But he says, “I wish I could turn the worry button off.”