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Behind Frankie Valli's distinctive falsetto and chart-topping love songs, the Four Seasons weren't as clean as they seemed.
By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published February 10, 2008
[Photo by Chris Bennion]
The musical has discounted previews Wednesday and Thursday and opens officially Friday. It runs through March 15 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa. $48-$153.50. (813) 229-7827; toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.
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It all started with The Deer Hunter. There's a scene in the 1978 movie in which some young steelworkers go to a bar just before three of them ship out for Vietnam. While shooting pool, they sing along with a song on the radio, Can't Take My Eyes Off You by Frankie Valli. It's an episode of male bonding that perfectly portrays these guys in a gritty Pennsylvania town.
"That's something that stayed with me," said Bob Gaudio, who wrote the song and was a founding member of the Four Seasons with Valli. "Seeing my song in a moment that had so much more strength than what it was conceived to be was an epiphany for me."
So the seed was planted for what, a quarter-century later, became a smash Broadway musical, Jersey Boys. The national tour arrives in Tampa this week.
Gaudio is not a household name, but in many ways, he ranks with Brian Wilson or even John Lennon and Paul McCartney among the pop songwriters who defined the 1960s. In their heyday Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons churned out an astonishing string of hits: Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, Dawn Go Away, Rag Doll and many more.
Gaudio, who played keyboards and sang with the Seasons, and the group's producer, Bob Crewe, wrote songs tailored for Valli's falsetto. "That was the nucleus of the sound," Gaudio said. "Frankie's voice was so pivotal in motivating the type of songs we were writing. When we sat down to write anything, it was purely with him in mind."
A story steeped in drama
The Seasons remained a force on the charts into the 1970s, with consummate hits Who Loves You and December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night), and Valli was always a headliner on his own, but the group never achieved the legendary status of the Beatles or the Beach Boys. That changed when Gaudio and Valli met with a pair of writers in search of a project, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, for a long lunch at Sardi's.
"After the second or third glass of wine they started to tell us about their lives growing up in New Jersey, and it was amazing stuff," said Brickman, best known for his work as a screenwriter on Woody Allen movies, including Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan. "They were all mobbed up, used to go numbers running and be arrested in the middle of a set at some club. And we said, 'Well, if you let us do that - let us tell your real story - we'll do it."'
The book by Brickman and Elice is unusually dramatic for a musical, with the Seasons' troubled story providing a dark underside to the familiar songs. "They never really wanted their story told, because it was so murky and involved with marginal activities," Brickman said. "Back in the '60s, everybody knew everything about the Beatles or the Beach Boys. With the Four Seasons, nobody really knew much about them. So all of this comes as a revelation.
"It's an almost Shakespearean story about jealousy and loyalty and retribution and death."
Tommy DeVito, a founding member of the group, did time in prison. His character in the musical drives much of the plot. "He's the villain you love to hate," Brickman said. "The show is about Frankie, but Tommy has the most interesting part because he's the one with the problem."
Jersey Boys benefited from opening on Broadway in 2005 when the hottest show on TV was The Sopranos, which covered similar ground.
"Jersey and the mob were big," Brickman said. "I think it was a real stroke of good luck for us."
Directed by Des McAnuff, who scored big with another pop musical, The Who's Tommy, Jersey Boys won four Tony Awards, including best musical. Now it has become an industry, with three companies playing in the United States (Broadway, Chicago and the tour). Two more are due to open in London's West End and Las Vegas.
Casting Frankie (Christopher Kale Jones in the touring company) is the biggest challenge. The actor performs about 25 songs in the show and must give a persuasive interpretation of Valli's distinctive voice. Gaudio and Valli, who has a sold-out concert Feb. 21 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, have casting approval.
"Singing a part like this is really vocal gymnastics," Gaudio said. "It's like dealing with two different singers in one. Frankie's records as solo - Can't Take My Eyes Off You, My Eyes Adored You - are in a completely different place than his records as one of the Four Seasons."
When an actor is hired to play Frankie, he goes to what Gaudio calls "the Valli school of singing" to work with vocal coach Katie Agresta.
"Katie has had a long career both with bel canto singers and in getting some of these 1980s hair bands - the screamers - out on the road safely without hurting themselves," said Jersey Boys music director Ron Melrose. "She has worked with Bon Jovi, Dee Snider and Twisted Sister, lots of others. If anyone can get you way up there without hurting yourself, she can."
Jersey Boys was no sure thing in the beginning, when it was labeled as just another "jukebox show." That genre has spawned a couple of hits in Movin' Out (songs of Billy Joel) and Mamma Mia! (ABBA). But recent attempts to build shows around the song catalogs of Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan all flopped.
McAnuff and his music department set out to capture the essence of the Four Seasons' music without simply imitating the originals. The vocal arrangements by Melrose and orchestrations by Steve Orich are full of subtle changes.
"One example is tempos," Melrose said. "You can't do Sherry in the show at the slow tempo of the Seasons record. We wouldn't sit still for it. The world has sped up so fast since then. We tried to choose tempos that felt today like they were in the pocket, and that was almost always faster than the original records. The earlier songs we had to speed up a lot. The later songs were almost there."
Brickman, a onetime folk musician, was aware of the Four Seasons hits, of course, but he didn't really get to know the group's music until working on the show. "Discovering their music late in life was like discovering a great author you had never read, or an unpublished novel by Fitzgerald," he said.
Man to man
He makes the observation that the point of view of Four Seasons songs tends to be that of "guys singing to guys about girls," as opposed to the early songs of the Beach Boys and Beatles, which are more about guys singing to girls.
As a result, perhaps, Jersey Boys is the rare musical that may be more popular with men than women. "Wives drag their husbands to see this show the first time, and then the husbands are the ones who want to come back and see it again," said Andrew Rannells, who plays Gaudio on the tour. "It's something that I haven't ever really seen in musical theater."
There's also an interesting class structure to Seasons songs like Dawn (Go Away) and Rag Doll. "There's not a lot of happy love, like there is with the Beach Boys," Melrose said. "The idea tends to be that this relationship isn't going to work because I'm poorer than you, or this isn't going to work because you're poorer than me. It's teenage love with an obstacle. And very often it's a class obstacle."
Gaudio eventually stopped performing with the Four Seasons, but he continued to write songs for the group and produce its records. He also produced albums for Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and the soundtrack for the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors. He also produced the Jersey Boys cast album.
Ironically, his two favorite records by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons - I've Got You Under My Skin, a sumptuous arrangement of the Cole Porter standard, and The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore) - are not in the show.
Asked about the alchemy that goes into a hit song, Gaudio replied, "Should I coin a Beach Boys song? God only knows. I can't analyze what I do. It's pretty much an emotion. Our music has always been about emotion. It's never been something that is intellectual, it's always been from the heart. And obviously we've reached a few."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.
[Last modified February 11, 2008, 10:20:56]