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."