The birth of ‘Jersey Boys,’ thanks to two New York Jewish guys
As unlikely as it was for a group of guys from the New Jersey projects — who were affiliated with mobsters and occasionally incarcerated — to rise to the top of the 1960s pop charts, what may be even more improbable is that when their story was finally told, it was told by two sheltered Jewish guys from the Upper West Side of New York.
“No one was in a hurry to tell this story,” said Rick Elice, who, along with Marshall Brickman, co-wrote the book for “Jersey Boys” — the story of how Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks, became one of the biggest pop sensations in America with hits such as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Oh, What a Night.”
“Jersey Boys,” which won four Tony awards in 2006, including Best Musical, returned to Pittsburgh on Sept. 22 and will run through Oct. 4 at the Benedum Center.
Elice recalled his and Brickman’s first meeting with Valli and Four Seasons’ songwriter Bob Gaudio in a small Italian restaurant on 46th Street in New York. The scene could have been something out of “Jersey Boys.”
Valli and Gaudio had already pitched their story to several other playwrights but had been met with skepticism and rejection. But when they began detailing their experiences in the music industry and in their personal lives over lunch that day, Elice and Brickman were transported into a completely different world.
We fell in love with their stories,” Elice said. “A good story is a good story. They had very interesting lives, even as they were contradicting themselves as they spoke. They were very interesting and idiosyncratic. I thought, ‘We lucked out here.’”
From the beginning, Elice and Brickman were confident that they had the makings of a pretty good show, even though they were treading in unfamiliar waters.
“Marshall and I are from the Upper West Side, we’re left-wing, Jewish, over-indulged, over-analyzed snobs,” Elice said. “I thought of New Jersey as the joke state. We were raised in New York to look down on New Jersey.”
But Valli and Gaudi opened their eyes.
“It was enlightening for us to discover these people who were vintage American heroes,” Elice said. “It was a revelation to us, only because we were so close-minded and obnoxious in a way that a lot of New Yorkers can be. We thought we knew what people in New Jersey were like, and they were not very interesting.”
Valli and the rest of the Four Seasons handed over their stories to Elice and Brickman so that they could relay them to the rest of the world.
“They trusted us; they gave us their lives,” Elice said. “And it turns out they were right that people would be interested in their lives. It was a great lesson in humility.”
Elice noted the staying power of the Four Seasons, which continued to produce chart-toppers throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The group sold 175 million records worldwide — all before they were 30 years old. But the press largely ignored them for decades.
“These guys stuck around and their music evolved,” Elice said. “But they were not written about.”
Newspapers and magazines turned their attention instead on the emergence of artists like the Grateful Dead, and the bands of the British invasion such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. The Four Seasons, on the other hand, were not eager to let the public peer behind the curtains of their unconventional lives.
“The Four Seasons were publicity shy,” Elice said. “They thought their stories would have been career-enders. And they weren’t written about because the cultural elite didn’t think they were worth writing about. They came from the wrong side of the river, and not from across the pond.”
And yet the Four Seasons provided the soundtrack to the lives of many people coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, including the blue-collar young men who were being shipped off to fight in Viet Nam.
Elice recalled one of the early scenes in the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter,” in which a group of men are in a steelworker bar not too far from Pittsburgh, ardently singing along to the jukebox blasting the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” just prior to heading to Vietnam.
“It blew my mind,” Elice said. “I asked Marshall [Brickman], remember that scene in ‘The Deer Hunter’? I realized how boxed off I was from blue-collar culture. That song was an anthem to those guys. I wondered, ‘Why did the director build that scene around that song?’ That song spoke to them, and it spoke for them.”
Elice first became a fan of the songs of the Four Seasons after hearing them played by a counselor at Camp Pontiac, the Jewish summer camp he attended as a child. Raised in a traditional Conservative household, Elice had considered becoming a cantor before he discovered theater.
“I loved to sing, and I loved the songs and the liturgy,” he said. “We had a wonderful cantor at the temple where I grew up. To me, he was extraordinary. But I got bit by the theater bug, and I was done in by the theater.”
While a career in theater is not the easiest route in life, Elice said, it has been good to him. His successes include co-writing the book, along with Brickman, for “The Addams Family,” and authoring “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which garnered nine 2012 Tony Award nominations. He is currently writing a musical for Disney Theatricals with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on the film “Make Believe” and “Superfly,” co-written with Seth Zvi Rosenfeld.
“Jersey Boys,” which was made into a film in 2014, not only has been a crowning achievement for Elice and Brickman, but also has regenerated popular interest in Valli, now 81, and the Four Seasons.
“‘Jersey Boys’ has certainly revitalized what was already a substantial concert career,” Elice said. “Frankie Valli is a huge star again.
“I still speak with him with some regularity,” Elice continued. “He said, ‘The show has changed all of our lives.’ The show has repositioned them as legends in the music business, and put them right back on center stage again.”
In the end, Elice said, the tale of the Four Seasons is “a very compelling story about the things you let go of [for the sake of career], what you sacrifice, and what you refuse to give up.”
“Things are only worth what you are willing to give up for them,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.