'Jersey Boys' digs beyond a band's doo-wop roots


When you're writing a show about real, living people, you tread a bit carefully.

"We had to be diplomatic and discreet, for the protection of the authors," Marshall Brickman said with a laugh.

The co-author of some of Woody Allen's best movies - "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Sleeper" - Brickman is a man quick with a quip. But he was only half-joking. OK, maybe three-quarters.

"They were pretty mobbed up," he said of three of the four young men who became Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. "It was like the real-life 'Sopranos.'"

The show Brickman has co-authored, in his first venture into theater, is "Jersey Boys," a musical about the lives and times of the quartet, which went far beyond its doo-wop roots to become one of the biggest pop singing groups of the 1960s.

The 175 million records sold by the Four Seasons - they named themselves after a bowling alley in Union that turned them down as a lounge act in the early days - included "Sherry" (their first big hit), "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Rag Doll," "Oh What a Night" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

The show has been lumped, pre-arrival, with many other recent "jukebox" musicals - "Mamma Mia!," "Good Vibrations," "All Shook Up," "Lennon" - but Brickman said there's a fundamental difference. While the score of "Jersey Boys" also consists of old songs, they are not used to tell a story.

"This is not a typical book musical," he said. "The songs [from the Four Seasons' catalog] are presented, with a couple of exceptions, as performances - in concerts, the recording studio, rehearsals.

"They're not really the type of numbers that you can use to tell the story, which is very strong. There's success, jealousy, betrayal, death. The book carries much more weight in this show."

The musical was created with the cooperation and approval of two of the band members, Valli, whose falsetto lead singing was the group's signature, and Bob Gaudio, who wrote most of the music.

Brickman said that when he and co-author Rick Elice met with them, one of the first things he asked was, "Do you have guts enough to do this?" Their response, he said, was a game "Yes."

He said three of the four - Valli (whose real name is Francis Castelluccio), Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi - grew up in a tough Newark neighborhood and were not unfamiliar with organized-crime figures; at times, they engaged in petty criminal activities, such as breaking and entering.

"If it wasn't for the music, they've said they would have ended up in the trunk of somebody's car or doing time," Brickman said. "Bob, who was from New Rochelle, was a little more middle-class."

Even after the group reached the top, there were stormy times, in its members' relationships with women and with each other.

Massi, who left the band in the mid-1960s, died in 2000. DeVito has lived in Las Vegas for many years, Brickman said, and was not involved with the production.

Although the show deals with heavy subjects, he said, there's also humor in the story of the group's rocky road to undreamed-of success.

"It's not really a dark piece," Brickman said. "There are plenty of laughs. I would call it a show with a lot of emotions.

Originally published on September 11, 2005