BWW Interviews: JERSEY BOYS' Writer Rick Elice Discusses the Show's Beginnings
The national tour of the Tony Award-winning best musical Jersey Boys is starting an engagement at the Durham Performing Arts Center on October 30th. To commemorate the occasion, it was my honor to interview the show's book writer Rick Elice to find out more about this show which has become an international phenomenon.
Elice was initially approached with making a Mamma Mia!-style show with the music of the Four Seasons. Not the project Elice had in mind, he agreed to meet with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio for lunch nonetheless. He invited his poker buddy, Marshall Brickman, with whom he'd been hoping to collaborate, along for the meal. The conversation quickly became interesting when, as Elice told me, "Frankie and Bob started telling us about the band and how they got together, and how they rode the rocket when they hit, and the pressures of success and the terrors of failure, and the constant presence of the mafia in their lives." Having never heard stories like this about the band before, Elice and Brickman were curious as to why these things remained largely unknown by the general public, despite the fact that almost everyone knows the music of the Four Seasons. Elice recalled the explanation given by Valli and Gaudio as to why these stories were untold, "they were never really written about because they were blue collar local guys without any glamour quotient – they didn't have long hair, they didn't come from across the pond, they came from the wrong side of the river. They sold records not to girls, but by and large to guys, from the age to 15 to 25 or so, guys who looked just like they looked, and were just like they were. Guys don't buy magazines, so they were never written about."
Elice and Brickman realized they didn't need to make up a story using music from the Four Seasons – the Four Seasons could actually be the story. Elice describes the moment, "we looked at each other and thought, this isn't just based on a true story, it's based on a good story, and it's also based on an untold story, and we suggested that this untold story should be the show." Valli and Gaudio seemed interested, and allowed Elice and Brickman to begin writing some things, which they seemed to like. Elice commends the members of the Four Seasons, saying, "they were very courageous to say 'put it all up there, warts and all.'" At that point, the writing duo contacted eventual Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff to direct the piece. Before heading to Broadway, the show played at the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California, braving "Beach Boys territory" to try out the show.
The structure of the show is one of the elements which makes it stand out. Instead of telling the story in a traditional, linear, single-narrator fashion, Jersey Boys presents the audience with four narrators – four sides to the same story. The decision to frame the piece in such a way came from Elice and Brickman's in-depth conversations with the members of the band. Elice recalls, "While the events that occurred happened to all of them, their versions of those events are different, and they contradict each other all the time when they talk about their lives and their experiences, and sometimes they even contradict their own version from yesterday or last week… and you try to figure out who the real truth-teller is, and then one day, we had our eureka moment, which was when the third surviving member of the original quartet, Tommy DeVito, who was in Las Vegas, said, 'Don't listen to what they're telling you . I'll tell you what really happened.' And suddenly we thought, we don't need to figure out who's telling the truth, all we need to do is let the audience decide, and we'll present four different versions, because after all there are four seasons, and there are four guys in the group. So we divided the group into four sections as a neat little structure, which is spring - the moment in time when four guys who never expected to meet meet and create the band, the birth of the band, if you will; the full bloom of success, that's the summer section; the fall which is the dissolution of the original quartet which happened after a few years, when everything was going great for them except the mob was going to have one of them killed; and last of all, the winter of Frankie's discontent, as it were, when he has to face life without this group or having a solo career, or trying to both, and the cost of those decisions on his personal life."
When I asked Elice what he found to be the driving factor in making Jersey Boys so popular and keeping it on Broadway and in the public's eye for years now, he said the show has a universal theme. Elice referenced A Chorus Line, and the way that show impacted so many people who had never been dancers. In a similar way, Jersey Boys is impactful on many people who have never been rock and roll singers. He told me, "I don't know if I can set out trying to write a universal theme, but I think Marshall and I lucked into one for Jersey Boys and I think that's that is at some point in our lives, almost everyone has been part of a group: a band, or a ball team, or a cast of a show, or a company, or a secretarial pool, or a bowling league, a think tank consortium, what have you, and these groups tend become second families, sometimes very dysfunctional families, sometimes the bonds are stronger than with our real families, and sometimes we take them for granted and we screw them up. So, while Jersey Boys tells the story of this particular band, it's hard not to be touched by those common eternal issues of wanting to belong, wanting to achieve, wanting to be respected, wanting to find home. I can tell you, I'm nothing like Frankie or Bob or Tommy or Nick, the Four Seasons, I'm nothing like them, but I recognize what they go through and what happens to them because I've gone through my version of it, and I dare say so have you."
I asked Elice to talk a little about what he finds exciting about Jersey Boys, and his thoughts went right to the music and how director Des McAnuff and the creative team decided to present the music. "We weren't just going to have actors play these guys – the actors were going to play their own instruments, just like the band did, they were going to sing into microphones in situations where they would naturally be singing, like a recording studio or a club or Carnegie Hall or an arena, or Yankee Stadium, as opposed to one character turning to another and singing 'Sherry' because the girl happens to be named Sherry, or something sort of corny like that. There was no effort made to 'Broadway-up' the musical component, the musical vocabulary of the show, so that what the audience hears and watches in the theater is very much what we remember the record sounding like, and that is a remarkable thing." The effect of this is palpable. Elice noted that the presentation of the music in this way creates a world in which "the audience genuinely forgets that they're watching a play, and they start to think of these guys as the Four Seasons, and that means that they, the audience, begin to respond the way the audience would have responded in those situations, and they start to behave not like your typical theater audience, but like they're at a rock concert, and that is, I think, a really magical thing that this show gives the audience – the chance to, that sort of interactive opportunity where the audience plays along without even realizing that they are, and it's why it's so exhilarating to stand in the back of the theater."
Jersey Boys runs from October 30 to November 18. For tickets and more information, visit www.dpacnc.com.