THE BRICKMAN COMETH
How do you get from Rio to the Garden State? Just ask Marshall Brickman, co-author of the new musical Jersey Boys
BY CATHY J. SMITH
You could write a book on the Marshall Brickman nobody knows, once you check off the one thing everybody knows: that he was a Woody Allen collaborator (and, arguably, on the basis of the screenplays they did – the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, the Oscar-nominated Manhattan and the also-ran Manhattan Murder Mystery – the best of the half-breed.)
This brittle, urbane, distinctively Jewish wit was – for starters – born in Rio de Janeiro. “I wanted to be near my mother,” is the practiced one-liner he glibly presents by way of an explanation. Entering the University of Wisconsin as a physics major, he soon changed his tune – to tunes.
“I switched my major to music because it occurred to me very quickly I should be having some fun in college in additional to memorizing organic chemistry formulas,” he says. “The music was something I enjoyed doing in my room. Then someone said, ‘Why don’t you join this group?’” So he did – just like that – going the folk singing route, first as one of The Tarriers (following Alan Arkin into that franchise), then as one of The New Journeyman. And, like crazy clockwork, this stint turned into something else.
“Since I could tune up faster than the other guys in the group, I got to do the talking. In the coffeehouses of the 60’s, there was always this one guy who would tell jokes while the other guys were tuning up. That was me.” Brickman has always wanted to be a performer – until he actually got his wish. “I did try to do a stand-up act out of some demented idea that it would be fun. It was terrifying. I wasn’t cut out for it.”
Terror of performing sent him into TV, where, with less wear and tear on the ego, he could safely slip jokes to Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, earning an Emmy for the latter.
“You have to thrive on rejection to be a performer. Any performing I did was done hiding behind an instrument. It was something to hold on to. A lot of people grab on to the mike. I used to grab on to a guitar or banjo.” He held on tight for his most famous reach as a musician, collaborating with Eric Weissberg on the soundtrack of Deliverance. The album achieved gold status twice.
It’s hard to imagine a more improbably man for Four Seasons than Marshall Brickman, who’s just as amazed as the next guy that the above pinball path has brought him at last to Broadway. He and Rick Elice have concocted the book for Jersey Boys, the songbook biography for that fabulous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame foursome (Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi), and it bows Nov. 6 at the August Wilson Theatre (formerly the Virginia).
How, then, did it happen? “You know how you make a lunch date three months in advance and then that day comes and you have to do it? You actually have to go to lunch. This was the same thing,” Brickman explains. “Rick said, ‘Ever hear of The Four Seasons?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, they want to do their Mamma Mia!’ I said, ‘It’s been done.’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t we meet them and we’ll see?’ I was free so we sat down with Bob Gaudio, who wrote most of the music, and Frankie Valli, and they told us the story of their lives. I said, ‘This is like Shakespeare. It has love and hate and music and betrayal and jealousy, all the things that we get at home. This is great raw material.’
“They didn’t have any idea, really, what they wanted to do, but as soon as we heard them talk about their actual lives – growing up in blue-collar New Jersey, the involvement with the mob, their whole rise and fall, the 175 million records that they sold – I figured that if it’s not a home run, it is at least a triple.”
Director Des McAnuff stepped up to the plate and workshopped the show last year at his La Jolla Playhouse. It was the most successful production ever done there. “After the fifth preview, we were selling out, and everybody was afraid to change anything. It wasn’t a classic workshop where you pull things out and try new stuff.”
Between songs like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Rag Doll” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Brickman and Elice manage to squeeze in some truth about The Four Seasons. “‘The good idea always wins.’ Mike Nichols said that. You can’t beat this material. Tommy, who pulled the group together, did little jobs for the mob, driving guys to card games and picking up stuff. These guys used to get arrested in the middle of a set. It they hadn’t become a hit group, they’d definitely be dead or doing time. They’d be the first to tell you that. They were pretty courageous to let us expose their private and public lives to scrutiny. Theirs is the classic Depression story. They kept reinventing themselves. The group had 19 different names, different personalities, till they came together as The Four Seasons.”
And the rest is not only history but now a Broadway show – another sharp career turn for Brickman. “I’ve never had any life design,” he admits. “This is something I constantly tell my children. My life is no example of how to plan a life. My one principle – if there is one – is to try and be with people I enjoy having lunch with. Basically, that’s my secret.
Originally published in the October 2005 Issue