Straight outta Jersey

A new musical recalls the glory days of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons

Sunday, October 23, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

In the early 1960s, in the months leading up to the Beatles-led British Invasion, the Newark-based 4 Seasons shook up the pop world with their own Jersey Invasion, topping the charts with songs such as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man." Merging the sweetness of doo-wop with the vitality of rock 'n' roll, these hits still emit a youthful glow.

But the 4 Seasons themselves -- falsetto-voiced lead vocalist Frankie Valli, singer-guitarist Tommy DeVito, singer-keyboardist Bob Gaudio and singer-bassist Nick Massi -- were no innocents. "Jersey Boys," a new Broadway musical that opens Nov. 6 (and is now in previews), is about their songs, but also their friendship, their fights, and their flawed lives. Members spend time in jail, associate with mobsters, run up huge gambling debts and cheat on their wives and girlfriends.

"There's a lot of reality here: There are things in this play that people never knew about us," says Valli, 68, who was interviewed extensively by the show's writers, as were Gaudio and DeVito. (Massi died in 2000, before the process began). "Back in the day when we were having success, if you had any kind of a dark past, it was usually swept under a carpet. Nobody talked about it. "We live in different times, which is great. It gives people who have had problems an idea and an opportunity to see themselves as becoming successful, as they grow older. You know, once they straighten their lives out."

Valli was born into a blue-collar Newark family. He listened to jazz on the radio, cut classes at Central High to catch big bands at the Adams Theatre, and entered show business by singing in local nightclubs.

"I lived in a project my whole (youth)," says Valli, who birth name is Francis Castelluccio. "I was growing up in an environment where no one was sending you to college. It was finish high school and go to work. There were people who made it, as accountants and lawyers or whatever. But it took extra drive."

The play follows the group from its hardscrabble pre-stardom days through its breakthrough and breakup, while also touching on Valli's solo career (which yielded hits like "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "My Eyes Adored You") and offering a glimpse of the musicians as older, wiser men.

It doesn't mirror real life exactly: Massi, for instance, leaves the group right after DeVito. In reality, he went his own way years before.

"There's this expression, 'Based on a true story,'" says Rick Elice, who co-wrote the "Jersey Boys" book with Marshall Brickman. "That's certainly true for 'Jersey Boys.' It's not a documentary, it's a piece of theater. And theatrically speaking, the conflict of the group was between Tommy, Frankie and Bob. So while we did originally write it to accommodate history, with Nick leaving first, it made no dramatic sense. The theater piece wanted Tommy to leave first."

Valli says "Jersey Boys" captures "as much as you can capture, in two hours, of 25 years, or whatever. I'm just amazed.

"The first time I saw it, it was a little spooky: watching somebody play you, or watching somebody play people you knew so long. The second time it got a little easier. By the third time, I was comfortable."

Gaudio, 62, says the play is accurate "more than I care to admit ... I won't say that there haven't been some liberties taken, but nothing that impairs the enjoyment of the whole evening. "They dance a lot more than we did," he adds, with a laugh. "But by and large, they've represented everyone fairly."

As the play shows in its early scenes, the group went through many different lineups and names before settling on Valli, DeVito, Gaudio and Massi, and the 4 Seasons.

Gaudio was the last to join, and also added the final piece of the puzzle by writing (or co-writing, with producer Bob Crewe) most of the group's signature songs.

"We had a lot going for us, but the missing ingredient, in my opinion, was always the material," says Valli. "You can't make the suit without the fabric: the song is always what a hit is about." "Jersey Boys" also underscores the point that the 4 Seasons was not just a vehicle for Valli, but an ensemble where everybody contributed something vital.

"They were all brilliant in their own way," says Crewe. "Nick had an uncanny way of working out vocal parts, and he played a really solid bass. And Tommy was a wonderful tenor, and played a great rhythm guitar."

A key moment in the play comes when Gaudio writes the band's first hit, "Sherry." He calls Crewe, who, immediately realizing its potential, gives a one-word evaluation: "Bingo." Did it really happen like that?

"Yes, in a way," says Crewe. He had seen Valli singing falsetto in a club, he says, "and I asked Bob if he could go home and write a song that incorporated that incredible sound. And he did work it out, and called me. I was so pleased when I heard how it turned out, and it helped me make a decision: I had to decide whether I was going to pay the rent, or go in the studio. We went in the studio, which was the best decision I ever made."

Another key segment in "Jersey Boys" focuses on the struggle to make the ultra-romantic ballad "Can't Get My Eyes Off You," recorded by Valli without the 4 Seasons, a hit. The song, which came out in 1967, came to define Valli as a solo artist.

"It was Frankie musically coming of age," says Gaudio, who co-wrote the song with Crewe. "It was a departure, and it was a concerted effort to not sound like anything he had been part of with the 4 Seasons."

From 1962 to 1967, the 4 Seasons were on the charts constantly. "Dawn (Go Away)," "Rag Doll," "Let's Hang On!" and "Working My Way Back To You" were among their many smashes. Massi left in 1965, followed by DeVito, in 1970. In 1971, Gaudio stopped touring with the group, in order to concentrate on songwriting and production.

Valli kept the group going with many different musicians, while also releasing solo records. In the '70s, though, they had just two Top Ten hits: 1975's "Who Loves You" and 1976's "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." Valli continues to tour regularly, and is also recording a jazz album and acting in the hit HBO show, "The Sopranos."

John Lloyd Young, who portrays Valli in "Jersey Boys," says the first thing he did when he got the role was travel to Las Vegas to see Valli in concert.

Later, Valli dropped in on a rehearsal and gave him some pointers, he says, "but I have to say I didn't hear a single one of them. I was so shocked that he was there, and scared that he was going to see an imperfect performance, because we were at a rehearsal studio."

Eventually, they spoke in more depth. "But as an actor, whenever I'm researching any role, it's always best to go to secondary material," says Young. "If you try to get it from the people themselves, they're not objective. What I did was talk to Bob Gaudio."

And what did Gaudio say? "The thing that sticks out the most in my mind was I asked him what his impression of Frankie Valli was, when he met him the first time," says Young. "And he said, 'He was a little man with a big heart.' That meant a lot to me, in terms of approaching the character."

Daniel Reichard, who plays Gaudio in "Jersey Boys," had as little contact with Gaudio as Young had with Valli, Gaudio says.

"I had a couple of conversations with him but we did not hang out, and I think that's terrific," says Gaudio. "Because frankly, I don't know what the hell I was all about when I was that age! It's a good thing that he didn't pick up what I am now, because I was someplace else then."

Gaudio, who is producing the show's original cast album (due in stores Nov. 1), has seen the show many times, both in its late-2004/early-2005 run at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., and in its Broadway previews.

"The audience reaction is always astounding," he says. "When you're (a professional musician), and you're creating, and making music, you really don't get an a chance to be the audience. To be, now, standing in the back, and watching the response and feeling that audience love, is quite amazing."

Young, who is in his late 20s, has felt that love too. He says it was daunting at first to be playing someone who is not just alive, but an icon. But the audience's affection for Valli makes it easier. "This is a little disingenuous, but I don't want to disappoint my parents," says Young, who did not appear in the La Jolla production. "I don't want to step on anyone's toes, from that generation -- he sort of belongs to them.

"On the other hand, what I've noticed, now that we've started performances, is that that was an unfounded worry. I'm an unknown actor on Broadway, in my first show, and I get entrance applause because the audience is waiting to see Frankie Valli: They love Frankie Valli so much. So my suspicion is that as long as I don't screw up they're going to love me, because they love him.