Open Book: JERSEY BOYS' Co-Bookwriter Rick Elice's Journey From Actor To Tony-Nominated Author
OPEN BOOK is BroadwayWorld's series placing a well-deserved spotlight on some of the least appreciated of theatre artists, those who write the books for musicals.
Rick Elice's first experience writing the book of a Broadway musical was his partnership with Marshall Brickman for the 2006 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Jersey Boys. The pair followed with the book for THE ADDAMS FAMILY and Elise's PETER AND THE STARCATCHER was a 2012 Tony Nominee for BEST PLAY.
After graduating from Yale Drama School, Queens native Rick Elice came back to New York and in 1981 landed a Shakespeare In The Park gig in THE TEMPEST, as one of eleven actors sharing the role of Ariel opposite Raul Julia's Prospero.
After opening Off-Broadway in MAYBE I'M DOING IT WRONG, he was cast as a member of "The Flying Circus" in the Public Theater's premiere of THE DEATH OF VON RICHTOFEN AS WITNESSED FROM EARTH, a musical written, composed and directed by Des McAnuff that had high hopes for a Broadway transfer.
"It was this crazy, insane, wonderful show, but Frank Rich thought it was only crazy and insane," says Elice.
But the actor's life, both professional and personal, began changing at the opening night party when he met Matthew Serino, who, five years earlier, founded Serino/Coyne, Inc. with Nancy Coyne. Their company would become the largest advertising and marketing agency in live entertainment.
"Nancy was away for the summer and he asked, 'Can you write funny headlines?' I told him I've never done anything like that before, but he said 'I'll pay you $100.' I was making $150 a week on the show."
"So I went to his office on a Monday and wrote headlines about ANNIE and SMILE and at the end of the day he asked if I could come in tomorrow. So I came in every day that week but on Friday I told him that I couldn't keep coming in because I needed to be free for auditions, so he said okay and gave me a check for $500. I didn't know he meant $100 a day! So I asked if he needed me next week. Suddenly I was a copy writer at an ad agency without ever having planned to do it."
When Coyne came back from vacation they limited his time to two days a week. On one of those days they sent him and intern Hal Luftig (now a Tony-winning producer) to the Winter Garden Theatre to watch the dress rehearsal of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, CATS.
"It wasn't the big deal that dress rehearsals are now. Literally, there was just a handful of people in the theatre."
But among the handful was the man who would eventually become Elice's husband, Roger Rees. He was in town for one day, having just finished a film in Hollywood and heading to London to star in THE REAL THING. Luftig had been a student of Rees' and introduced him to Elice. The pair hit it off immediately and the British star invited him to come visit if he were ever in London.
"The next day I was back at the ad agency and suddenly I was offered a season at the Guthrie Theater, an understudy job in New York and Nancy Coyne said she wanted me to work for her full time. So I took the full time job thinking that at $500 a week I could afford to go to London on weekends to see this man I had fallen desperately in love with at first sight. So I left acting behind and became a copy writer."
Almost immediately, Elice noticed his status in the industry had changed. "People who never paid attention to me as an actor were suddenly asking for my opinions on things in conference rooms. Soon I was making radio and television commercials and almost every weekend I went to London to be with Rog while he was doing THE REAL THING. I thought that was going to be my life."
"Roger said to me, 'I think it's time you left advertising. You seem less happy with it than you used to be.'"
"Unbeknownst to me he had spoken to a friend of ours who was an executive for Walt Disney. They made me an offer to be a creative consultant at their studio in California. I didn't want to move there so they agreed I'd spend 15 days a month in Burbank and the rest in New York. I was a creative consultant; a troubleshooter on whatever project may be around that needed a polish."
Then I got a phone call from one of the clients at Serino/Coyne. MAMMA MIA has just opened and he said he had the rights to The Four Seasons. I said 'I love Vivaldi' and he said "No, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Would you be interested in doing a MAMMA MIA thing with that catalog?'"
The friend he brought along was screenwriter Marshall Brickman, who had won an Oscar co-authoring "Annie Hall" with Woody Allen. They were introduced by the great film director and choreographer Stanley Donen ("Singin' In The Rain," "On The Town.") when he was helming the Broadway production of THE RED SHOES, a production Rees was involved with for a time. Soon Elice became a member of Brickman's regular poker night.
"So I asked Marshall if he'd like to write a Broadway musical together. He said he'd never done that and I said neither have I, but we can see what it's like to work together. So we meet Frankie and Bob in the back of a dark restaurant on 46th Street. They started talking about their lives and by the time the food came we said to them, 'This should be your show.' We did about 70 pages on spec and they liked it. But they didn't want to be in the business with the guy who called me. They had some creative differences with him. So they wanted to wait for his option to expire and then have us introduce them to some producers."
Of course, as is the situation with any bio-musical using a pre-existing catalogue, the question of how to include the hit songs into the plot was vital.
"At the point when it was decided that the plot would be the story of the group, the songs ceased to have the capacity to be songs from character to character, so the decision to present the songs as performances by the band was pretty straightforward. Arthur Laurents said to me once 'You need to have an organizing principle. It will always tell you what to include and what to exclude, and it will be dictated by what your show's about.'"
"So if you can't answer the question 'What's it about?" in one sentence and not describe the action of the story but talk about what you would like people to take away with them, that's your organizing principle and everything has to serve it."
"Ideally you want every song to end with the character in a different emotional place than when it began. So the scenes in book musicals tend to be lead-ins. It's pejorative but it's absolutely true. Peter Stone said, generally speaking, the book is the first thing that happens. You have maybe two people in a room deciding what they're saying and that's the story. Then they're deciding how to tell it and that's the structure, and then they overwrite so that someone like Stephen Sondheim will take a look at everything in the scene and turn it into a song, at the end of which the scene is over and everyone feels satisfied. The song can only exist because of what the scene has led up to and the song finishes the process and you're able to move on in your storytelling."
"What Marshall and I did was write a play, and the songs would serve the play because of the nature of the story. The musical pieces fell into place in the first act simply because they served the chronological purposes of the storytelling. In the second act we tried to choose the songs a bit more cunningly so that when the audience was comfortable and into the story the songs, still presented as performance numbers, were able to comment on the story or be used ironically or be used to support the sentimental aspect of a particular moment. We weren't concerned with the chronology in that case, but we felt that we earned the right to do it."
After the success of Jersey Boys, Elice and Brickman began working on a screenplay about an unsuccessful songwriting team that, "through a cunning cinematic device," found themselves transported 100 years into the past.
"So they presented the greatest songs of the 20th century as their own compositions. It was a really funny engine for a story and Marshall said 'Let's turn this into a Broadway show.' So I suggested making it about a man and a woman so there's romance in it in addition to the con-artist act."
"Andrew, Marshall and I presented a scenario to the original director and the producers which we were very enthusiastic about and they didn't like it. We did a second scenario that we really loved and again they didn't like it. We were willing to go further out on a limb with the characters and the story than the director and the producer felt comfortable with. We figured it wasn't going to happen, but then Marshall remembered some aspects of Eugene O'Neill's AH, WILDERNESS. A family with a tight bond has their world invaded by an interloper. In the context of their world they're completely normal and the normal people are strange and threatening. So we made the daughter a little older and she falls in love and the two families have to get to know each other. Very much like YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. How do these normal people adjust to the Addams characters and how do the Addams characters adjust to the normal people? This clicked with the producers and the director so the three of us rolled up our sleeves and started to write that."
"On May 1st of 2008 we had a script but only two songs, but we had a reading with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth and they loved the script, so that secured them being on board. So we went back and determined exactly where the songs occurred and how the scenes lead up to them and we had a workshop in January of 2009. It was on the strength of that that the two producers were able to capitalize the show."
Jerry Zaks was eventually brought in to direct THE ADDAMS FAMILY and numerous revisions were made before heading to Broadway. Despite a healthy run of over 700 performances, the authors made further changes for the show's touring companies.
"Marshall and I are both avid rewriters. I think it was Arthur Laurents who said writing for musicals is rewriting. You spend much more time rewriting the show than you spend writing it."
JERSEY BOYS is the behind-the-music story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. They were just four guys from Jersey, until they sang their very first note. They had a sound nobody had ever heard... and the radio just couldn't get enough of. But while their harmonies were perfect on stage, off stage it was a very different story -- a story that has made them an international sensation all over again. The show features all their hits including "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Oh What A Night," "Walk Like A Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "Working My Way Back To You."
JERSEY BOYS is the recipient of the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 2009 Olivier Award for Best Musical. The Original Broadway Cast Recording, produced by Bob Gaudio, received the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album and has been certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The Broadway production also won the 2006 Outer Critics Circle & Drama League Awards for Best Musical. The London production also won the 2009 UK People's Choice and What's on Stage Awards for Best New Musical. The Toronto production is the winner of three Dora Awards, including the Audience Choice Award for Outstanding Production. The Australian production is 2010 recipient of the Helpmann Award for Australia's Best Musical and seven Victorian Green Room Awards. The South African production is the 2014 recipient of the 3 South Africa Naledi Theatre Awards including Best Musical.