ON THE RECORD: Broadway's Jersey Boys and Allan Sherman's "My Son, The Box"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Broadway's Jersey Boys and Allan Sherman's "My Son, The Box" This week's column discusses Broadway's newest hit Jersey Boys and Allan Sherman's six-disc set of song parodies, "My Son, The Box."
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JERSEY BOYS [Rhino R2 73271]
Story telling, that's the trick. Jersey Boys succeeds where other jukebox musicals have tended to fail for a simple reason: the authors and director grab us with a story about two minutes in and never let up. Yes, the songs were written long before anyone dreamed that they'd be sung by characters in a Broadway musical ago; and no, the lyrics don't necessarily dovetail nearly with the action. But the plot propels the characters — in this case, the singing group The Four Seasons — and the actors propel the songs. It all works very nicely; the first act, especially, which doesn't let up until literally exploding with "Sherry." (No, not Sheridan Whiteside of The Man Who Came to Dinner; Sherry, as in "She-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-er-y bay-ay bee.")

The new compact disc, from Rhino, compresses Jersey Boys's 33 songs into 53 minutes, with bits of dialogue interlaced in places. (The CD offers an idea of the humor of the dialogue, but the severe abridgement only hints at the craft of the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice). Thus, we get a few montage-like tracks that serve the plot more than the music, but the meat-and-potatoes (or should it be the meatballs-and-spaghetti?) of the CD are the tracks featuring the Four Seasons sound. Bob Gaudio, the fourth Season and the principal songwriter during the glory days of the group, also produced the cast album "for Gaudio/Valli Productions." Needless to say, he knows his stuff. Jersey Boys is the first original cast album from Rhino, which specializes in nostalgia (and whose catalogue includes the original Four Seasons albums). Methinks they are going to do very nicely with this one.

The Valli in Gaudio/Valli productions is Frankie Valli, whose distinctively high pitched voice defines the sound we think of when we think of "Dawn," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and the others. John Lloyd Young re-creates Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, and goes a long way towards propelling the show. I myself wouldn't know Frankie Valli if I stood next to him under the marquee of the August Wilson Theatre, but Young sounds pretty much like my memory of the songs. More importantly, his performance is totally convincing. Young is certainly the hardest-working person at the Wilson, unless you want to count the principal onstage drummer (who is very good and deserves a mention in the cast listing). There is something especially encouraging about watching a new musical full of actors with little or no Broadway experience, all of whom give convincing performances. Credit must go to director Des McAnuff (who does his best work here) and casting director Tara Rubin. And to Young, Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard, J. Robert Spencer and the rest.

A somewhat disgruntled observation. Jersey Boys is labeled, in large letters on the billing page of the CD (and the theatre program), "music by Bob Gaudio" and "lyrics by Bob Crewe." I don't begrudge Gaudio his credit, as he is one of the heroes of the story and I would guess one of the driving forces in the project. But anyone sitting listening to the cast album, without the liner note booklet and a magnifying glass, might assume the billing to mean that Gaudio wrote the music for "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "I'm in the Mood for Love" and 13 other songs that parade before our ears. He didn't, of course.

The situation is more extreme with Bob Crewe, the manager/producer of The Four Seasons; his name, in those teeny-tiny credits, is on a mere seven of the thirty-three songs we hear. Yet he gets full, sole credit as lyricist. (Even with such favorable billing, the actor playing Crewe doubles in an assortment of roles. At one point in the second act, after Crewe has been firmly established as a character, this is especially awkward.) I don't begrudge Crewe his spotlight — he wrote four of the biggest hits of the evening, and was key to the group's success. But "lyrics by Bob Crewe" indicates that he wrote all the words the people sing. There are some who might say, he wrote the "big" songs like "Sherry," so what does the rest matter? Because Crewe didn't write "Sherry." Yes, all the songs are properly credited in the back of the book, as it were. But somewhere down the line, at least some younger listeners and fans of the show will understandably assume that these two guys wrote all these songs, including those by Broadway's own Dorothy Fields. But this is all beside the point. Jersey Boys is compiled with songs from the jukebox, yes, but let's not call it a jukebox musical. A strong, canny and joyful musical, is more like it.

MY SON, THE BOX [Rhino Handmade MCSR 3027]
Allan Sherman (1924-73) was a comedy writer for people like Lew Parker, Jerry Lester, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen and Phil Silvers. (The length of the list attests to Sherman's penchant for getting fired.) Sherman was born in Chicago, the son of a racing car driver from Alabama. Yes, a Jewish racing car driver from Alabama.

Sherman's claim to fame, at least until 1962, was the TV game show "I've Got a Secret," which he co-created in 1952. He produced the show until 1958, when he was fired. Transplanted to Hollywood as a television gag writer, his off-the-cuff show tune parodies made him popular on the living- room circuit. When your next-door neighbor invites you over to entertain his friends, you go — especially if you live next to Harpo Marx.

When Sherman decided to record a novelty album, the legal department warned him against using show tunes. Sherman turned to folk songs and others by less prominent authors, like "Glory, Glory Harry Lewis," "My Zelda" (AKA "Matilda"), "Jump Down, Spin Around, Pick a Dress o' Cotton," "Melvin Rose of Texas" and "Mammy's Little Baby Loves Matzoballs." "My Son, The Folk Singer," they called it; the cover shot showed a short-and-chubby, shirt open-at-the-throat, guitar-strumming, bare-footed Sherman, looking not very much like Peter, Paul, Mary or Harry (Belafonte).

The 1962 album skyrocketed through the charts upon its release; it has been described as the fastest-selling LP up till that time, selling over 500,000 copies in a month and quickly going gold. (Believe it or not, people invited friends over, served canapes and put the platter on the Victrola.) Sherman followed it up two months later — things moved quickly in those days — with "My Son, The Celebrity," which was highlighted by "Al 'N Yetta" ("Alouette"), "Won't You Come Home, Disraeli" and "Harvey and Sheila" ("Hava Negila").

"My Son, The Nut" came in 1963, with Sherman's biggest hit. He took the "Dance of the Hours," from Amilcare Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda, and turned it into "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" ("A Letter from Camp"). The song was everywhere that summer, with the single version alone selling over a million copies. Sherman was a mega-star, setting records at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and Tanglewood, and filling in for a week as vacation replacement for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." But the one joke soon wore thin. There were five more albums, with quickly diminishing returns. Sherman lost his recording contract with Warner Bros. in 1966, and he was all but washed up.

Rhino, the folks who have given us Jersey Boys, have also released "My Son, The Box." This is a six-disc compilation of just about everything they could find in the archives, including outtakes, some industrial show material and other miscellanea. (This is not a complete Allan Sherman; there is an existing demo of Sherman singing the songs from The Fig Leaves Are Falling, the 1969 musical flop he wrote with Albert Hague, which is not included.) How does the material hold up? Well, it's very Jewish. (Sherman's parody version of My Fair Lady, for example, inevitably includes "With a Little Bit of Lox.") Still, it's very funny. The humor is stretched and a wee bit obvious at times, but Sherman keeps on coming up with gems that are almost startlingly good. (His "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is about the aforementioned Harry Lewis, a velvet cutter who works for one Irving Roth. He dies in a blaze on July 4th, when "he was trampling in the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored.") Six discs of this seemed daunting, but whenever I thought I'd had enough, Sherman came through with another uproarious zinger.

"My Son, The Box," "an individually-numbered, limited edition of 4,000 copies," is available online only (from Rhino.com) with a notably high price tag. If this limits its appeal to diehard Sherman fans, so be it. Rhino also sells a one-disc collection, "My Son, The Greatest." I haven't listened to the first three Sherman albums since they came out (when I was in fourth grade), and never listened to the others. I find them as funny today as I did then, or almost so. And let me report that my six-year-old is absolutely in stitches from the doings at Camp Granada and the "statue of a naked lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be" that Sherman receives on the fifth day of Christmas.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.