As the phenomenal, multi-award winning hit musical Jersey Boys, directed by Des McAnuff – based on the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ rise to fame (and fortune – the New York production alone has consistently been one of the top ten in gross receipts – approximately a million plus a week – do the math!) continues its fourth sold out year on Broadway and has productions running in Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Toronto, not to mention a National Tour and the soon to open production in Melbourne – July 4th 2009 I wondered – What makes Jersey Boys so special? Why is it so hugely successful? How can it be that there are so many excellent sound alike Frankie Vallis when once upon a time there was only one? The original Frankie Valli. How many Frankie Vallis can be cloned to meet the demand of casting such a difficult role in the many worldwide productions?
In November 2005, Jersey Boys opened on Broadway. It caused a sensation. It took in over $400,000 at the box office the day after it opened. It has never slowed down. In 2006 it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Best Actor – John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli (who will be appearing with Lainie Kazan in the soon to be released comedy Oy Vey, My Son is Gay). Best Featured Actor – Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito (who was to star in Pal Joey until he was injured). And Best Lighting – Howell Binkley.
Not one of the leads was well known. Usually a big budget Broadway musical needs a star to sell tickets. Not Jersey Boys. Not one of the Four Seasons was a sure fire box office name. In fact, Franki Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff), Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer – who is now in the powerful new musical Next to Normal on Broadway) and Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard) were relatively unknown. And yet the show continues on its merry way to the bank without a star, receiving nightly standing ovations for its roller coaster ride of a story and its songs.
Speaking with Richard Hester, Production Supervisor, I was curious if they had approached any well known stars to appear in the original production. No. The show itself was the star. The producer, Dodger Productions, held open call auditions to find just the right person, the best person with just the right skills that were so specific for the part of Franki. John Lloyd Young was chosen. The rest is history.
Everyone was enthusiastic from the start. It seems as if fate brought just the right people together at the right time. And what about some of the other characters in the show? Did they need permission from say, Joe Pesci?
Joe was very eager to have this story told. The true story that included sex, drugs and the mob. Everyone is still friends and there were no gunshots ever fired at anyone. The writers smartly veered away from anything too dangerous. Some things just couldn’t be said.
Deven May who is playing Tommy DeVito in Las Vegas has this to say – “The shows success is in no small part due to the spirit behind the show, the love and the care that all of our creative and technical staff provide to we actors. However the story is what is key, that is part and parcel with the music, the real guts of the show. Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman were able to take 30 years of story and turn it into two hours of riveting theater.”
Note: This was Marshall Brickman’s first Broadway show at age 62 after freelancing as writer for the Johnny Carson Show among others and receiving the Academy Award along with Woody Allen for Annie Hall. He and Rick had this idea about maybe doing something like Mama Mia! But not like Mama Mia! They thought a show about Valli and the Four Seasons would work but unfortunately the many producers that they spoke with would have nothing to do with the project – thinking that no one cared about Franki Valli any more. They met with Gaudio and Valli at Sardi’s and if they could tell the real story they would do it. Finally Michael David at Dodger Productions came on board and wanted DesMcAnuff as director. According to Marshall Brickman it was Des’ idea to divide Jersey Boys into four seasons. Kismet!
Back to Deven – “Bob, Frankie, Tommy and Joe Long, have been great tutors for we Jersey Boys. They have been very hands on and very willing to tell us a story or two when we ask them. The choreography by Sergio (Trujillo) gives the piece a sense of urgency at times, celebration, and as the Four Seasons never really danced while singing, a great momentum. Des’s direction gave us all the pallet of infinite colors to work from, his steady hand has been a guide that I could not have done without. All that being said, the story at its core takes the audience into the realm of the untold. This story was kept out of the papers and magazines at the time. So now we all get to hear the truth. Let’s call it reality theater.”
As to the songs (Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe) which include Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You and a slew of other all time popular hits – they speak or rather sing for themselves. They sold over 175 million records worldwide before any of them reached the age of thirty.
So how do they find all of the new Franki Vallis with the remarkable tenor/falsetto range required to replicate the original Valli sound? To do so, the producers have created “Frankie Camp”. Actually, said Richard Hester, Frankie Camp was created out of necessity. The show was such a huge hit that there was a need for more and more Frankis.
According to Steve Canyon Kennedy who won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Sound Design for Jersey Boys it’s not easy to find an actor (let alone the many that are needed) with the distinctive high falsetto range that is needed to sing the 27 songs and to be able to go from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. And to dance. It’s a marathon role.
At the week long, Manhattan “training camp” where some of the 20 something hopefuls are coached before their final callback to audition for the director, the entire creative team and oft times the real Frankie Valli, it’s a more relaxed atmosphere than the typical “Thank you, next!” usual casting process. More relaxed? Having to sing in front of the man himself? What Valli could and can still do naturally with his voice these young guys are trained to do technically by vocal coach Katie Agresta –
“It is so much fun to prepare these men to do this extremely demanding role and it is very rewarding as a teacher to know that I am able to help them accomplish this. I am very proud that I was able to work with this show from the beginning in New York City and was able to train John Lloyd Young and help him as he became the Tony Winner for this role. It is a very daunting task for these performers to sing like Frankie Valli and dance and act.”
Frankie Camp obviously works. Richard Hester tells me that there are presently nine hopefuls going through the process. And so Jersey Boys will continue to amaze audiences worldwide.
The original Grammy Award winning cast album has returned to #1 on the Billboard Top Cast Album chart as of 4/4/09 after slipping to the number two slot the previous week. It’s the 167th consecutive week that the RAA Certified Gold record has been on the chart. Jersey Boys shows no signs of slowing down. It was announced most recently that ticket resale website StubHub has paired with the hit musical to establish StubHub as the show-approved secondary sales outlet for North American productions of the tuner.
And what of the original Frankie Valli? At age 74, in his sixth decade of stardom, he continues to do live concerts and has just released – Romancing the 60’s – his first studio recording in fifteen years, produced by Bob Gaudio.
He’s come a long way from cutting hair and the tough streets of Newark. As the character of Tommy DeVito says, “If you’re from my neighborhood, you got three ways out. You could join the Army. You could get mobbed up. Or, you could become a star.” Frankie Valli sure made the right decision.