What could possibly be Jewish about the story of four Italian-American crooners, some of them hoods, achieving stardom in the days before the British Invasion?
As it turns out, quite a bit.
“Aside from possibly speaking another language or believing that Jesus is the savior, do I feel something in common with the Italians? Of course I do,” says Broadway writer Rick Elice, one-half of the creative team that brought the story — as opposed to the music — of the Four Seasons to the mainstream more than a decade ago. In addition, part of that story is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”
In creating “Jersey Boys,” the smash hit that comes to the Hippodrome Theatre on Sept. 27, Elice drew upon his own experiences, as well as those of co-writer Marshall Brickman, in formulating the musical’s larger themes. Both members of the team, as JT senior reporter Mathew Klickstein points out, are themselves versions of the Upper West Side cliché of the quintessential Jewish wordsmith. Elice once wanted to become a cantor, while Brickman — whose past credits include collaborations with Woody Allen — describes himself as a “red diaper baby” raised in a socialist home.
When “Jersey Boys” was introduced to theatergoers in 2005, the news that some of the original Four Seasons had been imprisoned before they were 30 — Tommy DeVito later told a Las Vegas outlet, “Yeah, I went to jail seven or eight times. … I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it. My neighborhood was rough. If you come out alive, that’s an achievement” — came as a complete surprise. Had the public known that fact when the group was fighting for recognition, they likely would not have achieved stardom in an age that put a premium on an untarnished image.
That might be the most Jewish element of the story, cutting right to the heart of our tradition’s embrace of redemption and atonement. Seen through the lens of today’s adulation of rule-breaking athletes and performers, the seemingly puritanical impulses that led Frankie Valli and his compatriots to keep elements of their past under wraps might instead reveal the value of reform and personal growth.
Could that pendulum swing freely between both extremes, especially in the cases of other imperfect artists like Allen or Roman Polanski or even Bill Cosby? How much should we demand of the famous, who more often than not are mere caricatures our own foibles? Can we separate their misdeeds from their art? Should we even try?
Brickman has his own thoughts on the subject, which can be viewed exclusively on the JT’s website at bit.ly/2craeHI. The answers might surprise you, but the conversation — like the ones between him and Elice that led to “Jersey Boys” — I guarantee is a very Jewish one.