PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Jersey Boys: A Musical for All Seasons
By Harry Haun
Oh, what a night! The standing ovations started before the show did.
Just before Jersey Boys broke into its Broadway stride on Nov. 6, three of The Four Seasons—the surviving genuine-article: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Tommy DeVito—swept into the newly named August Wilson Theatre, and the first-nighters were on their feet in an instant. They were—OK, we were—jazzed, and the happy ending the Boys had coming was happening.
Then, the show began—only to be stopped, cold, in its tracks, by the Boys' arrival in Hit Falsettoland with "Sherry," a song Gaudio composed in 15 minutes. The audience sat down, and then came another #1 hit—"Big Girls Don't Cry," based on an old Rhonda Fleming retort to John Payne in a 1955 western, Tennessee's Partner (Ronald Reagan had the title role). Finishing us off was their third #1 hit in a row—"Walk Like a Man."
Act II's roof-raising "11 o'clock number," which, incredibly, no recording executive wanted to touch—"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"—had us all back on our feet again.
And, come curtain call, we were all up again, in for a very long stand while Valli, Gaudio and DeVito charged the stage and congratulated their gifted impersonators—John Lloyd Young, Daniel Reichard and Christian Hoff. The missing member, Nick Massi, claimed by cancer on Christmas Eve of 2000, was played by J. Robert Spencer. When all seven hailed a Leichtenstein-like likeness of Massi on stage, there were few dry eyes in the house.
It was like that all evening—up and down, up and down. I got the bends. Oh, what a night!
The musical book that threads the golden oldies together—sometimes plugging them in directly to the heart of the on-stage action—is the first Broadway endeavor of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Beginner's luck, but it's well grounded: Brickman is a Woody Allen collaborator and a film writer-director in his own right; his farthest reach as a musician was providing his half of the "Dueling Banjos" duet in Deliverance. Elice is a theatrical advertising executive who happened to be a poker crony of Brickman.
And therein lies a tale that Elice tells with some relish: "I know Marshall from poker. We have these poker nights. That's how I met him. I've lost a lot of money to him on Texas Hold 'Em, which is one of the games we play. I finally said one night when I was bereft of money, 'I don't have any money to pay my poker debts so how about we write a show together?' He said, 'I don't write shows.' I said, 'OK, well, why don't we try this Four Seasons thing?' We did all the Vivaldi jokes. We sorta vaguely knew about The Four Seasons already, but we sat and listened to the music and got really juiced about it. Then, we met Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, and we just felt spontaneously drawn to it."
They used real names, and quite a few of those real names materialized on opening night—among them, one of the latter-day Seasons, arranger Charles Callello, and, most prominently of all, Bob Crewe, who supplied the lyrics for the Seasons' evergreens and rates a colorfully flamboyant spin on stage by Peter Gregus. "It's very surreal to see your life pass before you like that," Crewe confessed, " to see it happening and think, 'I remember that. I was there.' I'm totally, totally pleased with the whole production."
Because of the group's admitted (in fact, dramatized) mob ties, the high profile hoods from the 'hood were heavily in attendance, starting with an Oscar-winning Godfather (Robert DeNiro) and Goodfella (Joe Pesci)—neither of whom made the exuberant after-party at the barn like Broadway Ballroom in the Marriott Marquis. Pesci, in fact, is one of those aforementioned real names—back then, Tommy's patsy and, later, his boss.
"The Sopranos" were there in abundance as well, beginning with series creator David Chase, Emmy-winning Edie Falco (who'll be back on Broadway herself—April 20 at Studio 54—with Alan Cumming, Jim Dale and Nellie McKay in Threepenny Opera) and Jamie-Lynn Discala, then continuing on down the capo ranks with Tony Sirico, Steve Van Zandt, Frank Vincent and Vincent Pastore (the last two plug-uglies recently seconded their connection by being adversarily co-starred in Vincent Sassone's sleeper feature, A Tale of Two Pizzas). Other Italian-Americans on parade: Valli teen rival Frankie Avalon, Danny Aiello, ballerina Alessandra Ferri, and Dennis Farina.
There were big-time musical big-wigs: Letterman band-leader Paul Shaffer, record producer-turned-Cafe Carlyle crooner Steve Tyrell, Neil Sedaka, who has started up his own Broadway-bound jukebox show down at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida called Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (natch!), Ellie Greenwich, record exec Mike Curb, whose enthusiasm couldn't be curbed (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons are under contract to his Curb Records), deejay "Cousin" Bruce Morrow. And from Broadway, Tony winners like Tommy Tune, Bebe Neuwirth, director Gene Saks, Jerry Zaks, Jerry Mitchell (who's celebrating the 25th anniversary of his first Broadway show, Brigadoon, Nov. 7 at Angus McIndoe—with the original director and lead actress, Vivian Matalon and Meg Bussert), Roger Rees, Joanna Gleason—plus Chris Sarandon, John Lithgow (who starred in the Brickman-directed Manhattan Project), Elaine May and Singin' in the Rain's Stanley Donen (who practiced his Oscar-acceptance song-and-dance with Brickman's Annie Hall Oscar), choreographer-director John Carrafa, Victoria Tennant and Dick Cavett.
The diminutive Valli, who loomed like a giant over the evening, admitted it was no picnic reliving the rough spots life has taken him. "The show has always been hard for me to watch," he said, "There were some very emotional moments that are pretty difficult."
But he's quick to add he prefers the lack of sugar-coating. "When I decided to do this, my feeling was always that the show might give kids who think they don't have a chance some kind of inspiration. Considering where I came from and the way I was brought up, not having very much in life, they could see it doesn't matter what your background is. If you want something bad enough and you're willing to work for it, you can accomplish what you want. I was just very, very fortunate. It took a lot of work, and I must tell you, I was relentless in my pursuit of success. I just was. I worked every minute I could. I didn't play tennis or golf or baseball. My whole life has been music, ever since I started with it."
For one who just made his Broadway bow in the lead role of Valli and did it so well he triggered standing ovations twice, John Lloyd Young seemed eerily grounded at the opening night party. "Tonight was the finish line," he said. "I've been an actor getting a role ready for its opening night. It's all very new right now. The response has been great, but it has been running around in the back of my mind, 'OK, I have to fix this thing. I have to fix that'—y'know, editing. I've been an actor in rehearsal, but I think we're about to embark on something that is going to mean a lot to me and be more than I ever imagined because I'm going to leave the editor behind and just start playing it. Tonight was the first night."
He credits the book with a great set-up. "This isn't a conventional musical so the fourth wall is broken all of the time. You're performing for this audience as if you were The Seasons performing for their audience back in the '50s so you see the entire audience and how they're reacting. The affection and excitement they give off are such a motivation."
Only on a technicality could it be said that Spencer is not making his Broadway debut as Massi—nine years ago he was a swing in Side Show, which is where he met his now-very-pregnant wife, Jenny-Lind Suckling—but it sure feels like the big-time bow to him. "This show connects with so many people on so many levels. Omigod, it's just electric! It makes people feel great, y'know, because it's a real rags to riches, rags, rags, back to riches story. It has a positive message, which is, like, you just keep pushing and things are going to happen. Pretty soon, they'll come your way. Think of all the doors Gaudio had to push through just to get `Canít Take My Eyes Off of You.' And that's the thing about this whole gig that we're in—this business. There are so many people that are behind the doors, sitting behind the desk in those business suits, who think they know what they're doing. And guys like Gaudio have proven them wrong every damn time."
Hoff, who brings a lot of raffish charm to the young DeVito whose debts derailed the musical group, is learning to live with the nightly ovations. "Believe it or not, it has become sorta second-nature," he said. "We have the privilege every night of performing all of the highlights of these guys' careers for the first time—"American Bandstand," the Sullivan show—and then, as actors, we have the privilege of dealing with the breaking up of the band. We are blessed, really blessed. The thing about Tommy DeVito is that his shoes are ready to fill. He's got a great story to tell and a history that gives me some weight."
The real DeVito was positively aglow with his warts-and-all portrayal. "Yeah, I was around what they want to call `mob people,' but I never met a mob person in my life more generous than this guy they're portraying on stage. Gyp DeCarlo [played by Mark Lotito, who also does a pretty mean, hard-nosed, gavel-hammering judge] is one of the nicest people I've met in my life. He works for blind kids, raises money for hospitals.
"The guy who plays me did a heck of a job. The whole cast just floored me. To get to that music and do it so well, to see yourself being played that well—an unbelievable feeling."
Reichard looked the epitome of cool in his Travolta Whites, pointedly ignoring the old fashion rule about not wearing white after Labor Day—"unless it's Prada," he qualified. "All four of us are in Prada suits tonight. We're doing this opening night In Style!"
Despite the illusion of cool, he admitted it had been a pretty emotional evening backstage. "I almost burst into tears a couple of times," he said. "It's so overwhelming. Emotionally you're just getting so much from the audience, and it's so genuine. And, also, you're telling this real story in front of the real people—and the people who lived through it."
Both Reichard and his real-life counterpart, Gaudio, project a clear-eyed calmness in the center of a chaotic storm. The latter admitted the Broadway show sometimes seemed like an out-of-body experience. "There are times when it feels déjà vu, and there are times when I feel I'm just part of the audience," Gaudio said. "When it's déjà vu, it's like your life is flashing before you—so I check myself into the hospital immediately just in case."
He smiled quietly when he's asked if he ever thought the day would come when The Four Seasons saga would fill a Broadway house. "If I told you I did, you wouldn't believe me, would you? But I did. I mean, I didn't think it would happen to this extent, but yes."
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