Jersey Boys Writers Find Miracle of Theatre and Tony Noms Through Patient Storytelling
By Ernio Hernandez
"Remember: the musical theatre is negotiation by tantrum, that's the way things get done," Jersey Boys Tony Award-nominated co-bookwriter Marshall Brickman recalls the late librettist Peter Stone (Titanic, 1776) telling him when he decided to go into musical theatre.
"But it wasn't true," Brickman explained to Playbill.com. "It was a pretty good group. Des McAnuff, the director, was really ballsy. We brought him a fifty-page sort of scenario thing, no scenes, just a description and he said 'Okay, I get it' and then we went off and wrote it."
Co-librettist Rick Elice said their approach to what has since been termed a "jukebox musical" (a show whose score is comprised of an existing catalog, as opposed to original work penned specifically for the theatre). "We approached it in exactly the opposite way. It seems to me that up until now, the shows that you would describe as 'jukebox musicals' — which may or may not be 'jukebox musicals' — start with a songlist. What we did was we started with a story, a really good story. And the songs came into the story in ways that work dramatically. We never thought about the songs as songs, we thought about them as ways to serve a really good story. And that's how we were seduced into writing it. We had no idea that it was a jukebox musical, we started on it before that term was even coined. We just wanted to write a good play."
Brickman concurs: "Another thing that seems to characterize these 'jukebox musicals' is that the dialogue of the story is such that it's really just glue to hold [the audience until] the next song. But we wanted to make it that the dialogue would be as important, interesting and entertaining and as revelatory as the songs."
The writing duo, newcomers to the musical theatre, had holed themselves up in a room with no idea of what the outcome would be. "We don't know what's going to work, what's not going to work, except we have our gut—that's all you have as a writer," said Elice.
With the show cast and rehearsed, the first-time bookwriters prepared for their first time not watching the show, but watching the audience. "For the first 40 minutes of the show, the audience doesn't hear anything [by the Four Seasons] which is the reason why they bought a ticket. We just don't know if they're going to get up and leave after five minutes and say 'What is this?' We had no idea and we make them wait, like the way you would starve somebody in order for them to appreciate a really good meal. We flirt with them and tease them and really keep them at bay and we just didn't know if the audience would sit still for it."
While the audience finally got the music they had waited for, Elice and Brickman heard what was music to their ears. "At the point where they finally get to the first song that the audience recognizes, you're 40 minutes in, and the audience erupted with enthusiasm. What we learned that night was: in that first 40 minutes, the audience comes to think of the actors as the guys, and by the time they succeed, the audience is so rooting for them, that they respond as though they are the actual guys who wrote the songs and went through all that stuff. And that to me is the miracle of the theatre. The audience believes something that they know isn't true and that gives me goose bumps just telling you about it."
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