There are lots of things that make the Tony Award-winning Broadway smash hit “Jersey Boys” something special. But when the musical was in development in the early 2000s, Rick Elice would probably be one of the last guys you would think of to write it.
An admitted former “New York snob,” Elice wasn’t exactly fond of the characteristics of the Garden State, next door: The sights. The clothes. The smells. You name it. But the more he and co-writer Marshall Brickman (long-time Woody Allen collaborator on films like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”) became entrenched and invested in the story of the astronomical peaks and deep valleys of the legendary 1960s pop vocal group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, the more they saw the potential for something great ... even if few others in theater did.
“It was easy to manage expectations because nobody expected anything to happen of it,” Elice recalled. “People thought it was a joke show like I thought Jersey was a joke state.”
Elice, who later went on to write hit Broadway adaptations for “The Addams Family” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” wasn’t initially sold on the original “Jersey Boys” idea. It was first pitched as a musical in the vein of the ABBA hit “Mamma Mia!” but with Four Seasons songs. A lunch meeting with original members Valli and Bob Gaudio changed their tune, but what really cemented the writers’ interest was a combination of the untold story of this quartet of hard scrabble, blue-collar guys from Jersey trying to make it big and calling up the last surviving original member Tommy DeVito, whose story contradicted much of what they heard from Valli and Guido.
“Marshall and I would argue over who was likely telling the truth,” Elice said. “We looked at each other and the lightbulb went off. Let’s think about writing the show in a way that there is no one version. We were fascinated by the ‘Rashomon’-nicity of it all. This makes it real fun for the audience to play along.”
“Jersey Boys” tells the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in a way where each group member recounts a “season” in the band’s career. Tommy DeVito tells of the group’s founding (Spring); Bob Gaudio recounts the band at its peak with hits like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry,” to name a few (Summer); Nick Massi explains the band’s personal and professional struggles at the height of its fame (Fall); and Frankie Valli weighs in on the original lineup’s unfortunate dissolution (Winter).
Between the musical being chock full of Four Seasons hits and other music from the era and the unique, untold story itself, “Jersey Boys” became an unexpected Broadway hit when it opened in 2005. This included multiple 2006 Tony Award nominations (which included Elice and Brickman for Best Book of a Musical) and three wins, including Best Musical.
Between its 10-year Broadway run, being adapted for the big screen for a feature film in 2014 directed by Clint Eastwood and its current national Broadway tour, which comes to the Lexington Opera House for a four-day run beginning Thursday, Elice is still astonished how “Jersey Boys” managed to seize a moment in pop culture while having the longevity to continue to pack houses to this day.
“Sometimes, you try to do a great job and you end up with something that nobody likes. Sometimes, everything clicks into place and you catch a tiger by the tail,” Elice said. “It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t even happen a lot of the time.”
When the people do turn up to see “Jersey Boys,” they may get wrapped up in the iconic hits, the bonds from being part of a group that turns into extended family or watching a couple of kids try to get out of the trappings of the neighborhood, only to realize certain parts of the neighborhood stay with you wherever you go. These are all things Elice and Brickman discovered in the process of writing “Jersey Boys,” but Elice seems to think it all may have been something the musical’s original “authors” knew was there all along.
“No one could have predicted this (musical’s success), except Bob and Frankie,” Elice said. “They always had this internal gyroscope about it. They are the geniuses ... and we’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.”
Blake Hannon: email@example.com