What Really Happened…

Forget about show-stopping finales. In Jersey Boys, the smash-hit musical
about the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, the pinnacle of excitement comes
about 45 minutes into the first act. That’s when back-to-back presentations
of three of the group’s biggest hits — “Sherry,” “Big
Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” — are greeted with enough thunderous applause
to start a downpour.

“At that moment the audience has forgotten they’re watching four
actors and they root for these four guys as though they really are The Four
Seasons in their youth,” says Rick Elice, one of the show’s book
writers. “The response is so sincere and enthusiastic and over the top
that it’s impossible to believe anything else.”

It’s also somewhat surprising. After all, The Four Seasons may have been
one of the most successful groups of the 1960s, but history hasn’t institutionalized
them the way it has the Beatles or other bands popular with that era. But Elice
thinks that’s one reason why fans are so hungry for their music and the
incredible story of four Italian-American kids from the wrong side of the New
Jersey tracks who could just as easily have ended up in prison as on the pop

“In many ways the band was a reflection of the people who were buying
their records,” Elice notes. “For fans of the band, the show is
an edification of who they are, because the cultural establishment ignored them
too. These weren’t the people who went down to Washington and marched
against the war; these were the guys who shipped out and went to Vietnam.”

While other musicals have tried to capitalize on a group’s catalog of
songs by integrating them into the plot, the writers agreed with director Des
McAnuff, the Tony-winning director behind The Who’s Tommy, that
their staging should be presentational, as if The Four Seasons were performing
the songs to an audience, not singing them from one character to another.

“In the first act the songs are presented pretty much chronologically,
as they took place within the life of the band,” explains Elice, who prefers
to describe Jersey Boys as a “play with music” instead of employing
the much maligned “jukebox musical” moniker. “In the second
act the music is more cunningly chosen to reflect either directly or by contrast
what the band is going through at the point where things start to fall apart.”
As members leave the group one by one, it’s to a medley of “Stay,”
“Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got),” “Opus 17
(Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me)” and “Bye, Bye, Baby.”

Jersey Boys was born when Brickman, who had the option on The Four Seasons
catalog, contacted Elice. As they interviewed the three surviving Seasons, they
faced a predicament over how to tell the group’s “true” story
when they couldn’t even figure out what it was.

Elice and Brickman met with Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli, the two Seasons who,
way back when, formed a business partnership with a handshake that still stands
today. “They started to describe what it was like to be blue-collar kids,
first-generation Americans, Roman Catholic, high school dropouts who were flirting
with careers in crime in an environment where people had two pictures on the
living room wall: the Pope and Frank Sinatra,” Elice recounts. “It
was the archetypal American rags-to-riches story: You start with nothing, achieve
success and then try to navigate your life through the waters of success.”

But when they contacted Tommy DeVito, the initial driving force behind the
group, until gambling debts put him on the outs with the mob, “He said,
‘Don’t listen to them, I’ll tell you what really happened,'”
Elice recalls. That’s when they decided to structure the show by letting
each character tell his own account. As Tommy says at the beginning of the show,
“You ask four guys, you get four different versions.”

Each Season narrates a portion of the story, including bass player Nick Massi,
who died in 2000. Brickman and Elice drew their portrait of him from the memories
of the other survivors.

That gave them the chance to focus on the Tommy-Frankie-Bob dynamic that first
propels The Four Seasons to the top of the charts and eventually breaks them
apart. “This was really a love triangle — without any sexual component,”
Elice observes. “There was Tommy, who discovered Frankie when he was a
teenager and held the trio group of Tommy, Nick and Frankie together when they
were a cover band. Then Bob, this new, young talent came on the scene, and Frankie
turned away from Tommy and turned toward Bob because Frankie and Bob were simpatico.”

Valli and Gaudio saw in each other what the group needed to succeed: Gaudio,
already a songwriting prodigy when he joined the group, wrote or co-wrote many
of the group’s signature songs, which accentuated Valli’s vast vocal
range and commanding falsetto. DeVito, meanwhile, piled up a huge debt. But
by then the Seasons were more than just a group: They’d become a family,
and that put their loyalty to the test. “Tommy gave Frankie and Bob an
opportunity to do what families always do,” Elice says. “No matter
what kind of betrayals occur you always stand up for another person in the family
because the ties that bind are so strong.”

And for Elice, that’s the essence of the show — family. “That
was a very powerful hook,” he says. “We all know what it’s
like to want acceptance, to want respect and to try to find a sense of home
with people that are not just the family we’re born into but the family
that we choose.

Dancap Productions presents Jersey Boys until June 28, 2009 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street. Tickets start as low as $25 with premium seating available. Call 416-644-3665 or online visit

Diane Snyder is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared
in Time Out New York, The Wall Street Journal and American

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Dancap productions