If there’s one thing that our Italian cousins and we Jews share, it’s a needling sense of conscience. We’re each compelled by our own personal and shrill Jiminy Cricket forever prodding us to spill the beans. About ourselves, about our worldview, our foibles, what we wish we were and, inevitably, what we wish were not.
Whereas the prototypical Italian Catholic finds reprieve through private congress with an unseen priest, we Jews tend to accomplish the same via public confessionals … by way of making movies, television shows and, often, Broadway spectacles.
Which is why it should be of little surprise that two good Jewish boys from the hoighty-toighty Upper West Side of Manhattan would end up the chosen ones anointed to tell what has become one of the most salient representations of the Italian-American’s 20th-century experience, working-class Jersey-style.
“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,” said the first of the writers in question, Rick Elice.
Along with his sometimes writing partner Marshall Brickman, Elice penned the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” which won multiple Tony Awards when it first premiered in 2005 and which will be playing for the second time since its initial run in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2.
“Jersey Boys,” adapted into a film (also written by Elice and Brickman) helmed by actor-cum-director Clint Eastwood in 2014, tells the unabashedly warts-and-all, rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who found international success with such chart toppers as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
Along with being “intensely family-oriented,” Elice suggested that what Brickman and he discovered in common with their background and those of the Four Seasons — four Italian toughs, some of whom served jail time before they were 30 — is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”
“There’s the possibility in all of our backgrounds to have felt marginalized or disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks,” said Elice.
Even in the “great bastion of Judaism” that was New York City during the time he was growing up, Elice encountered anti-Semitism, something he still sees as prevalent today and that, he worries, may in fact be on the rise.
This shared, profoundly palpable sense of being “othered” made it easier for Brickman and Elice “to understand another demographic’s sense of isolation.”
While Elice, 59, aligns himself with Conservative Judaism — in his teens he considered becoming a cantor and in fact heard the music of the Four Seasons for the first time at a Jewish summer camp — Brickman, 73, refers to himself as “culturally Jewish.” A self-professing “red diaper baby” raised in what he calls a socialist home environment by his mother and union-organizer father, Brickman’s Jewish identity was one of “pride for our history” more than religious conviction.
His bar mitzvah, therefore, was “more an excuse to have a little bit of a coming-of-age ceremony” held in a hall his parents rented and to which were invited a few friends and relatives who watched as the young Brickman, in lieu of reading from the Torah, gave a short speech whose content he can’t today recall but was likely “something about peace in the world.”
Brickman asserted Elice’s and his dissimilar religious ethos “doesn’t preclude our being very close friends.”
The duo first met in the mid-’90s, courtesy a series of auspicious circumstances revolving around mutual friends who included filmmaker Stanley Donen, writer Peter Stone and actor Roger Rees, Elice’s longtime domestic partner and husband-to-be who passed away in 2015.
It was some point around 2002 that Elice, working in advertising and music promotion, received a call from an associate who had secured the rights to the Four Seasons’ catalogue. Elice thought it would be a wonderful idea: he loved Vivaldi.
“No,” the aspiring producer clarified. “Not that Four Seasons. The singer-songwriters behind ‘Rag Doll’ and other favorites.”
“Oh,” Elice countered. “Why?”
“To produce a musical based around the quartet’s songs. You know,” the fellow on the other end proceeded, “like the ABBA-based Broadway show ‘Mama Mia!’ that just came out to rave reviews and huge ticket sales.”
Elice balked at the concept. For one thing, he had no interest in writing a musical like “Mama Mia!” Someone else had already done that … and it was called “Mama Mia!”
There was also the problem that Elice had never written a Broadway-bound musical. When the producer metaphorically and perhaps literally got down on his hands and knees to ask if Elice would at least have lunch with principal songwriters Valli and Bob Gaudio, Elice asked, “Can I bring a friend?”
Brickman and Elice had been lackadaisically kicking around the notion of working together on a project, but they had been considering something along the lines of a film. Elice nevertheless rang his comrade in arms up and announced they were being tapped to potentially write a musical about the Four Seasons.
Brickman’s immediate response: “Why?”
Besides, Brickman reminded his friend, “I don’t know how to write a musical.” Elice conceded neither did he, but, “We’ll only be wasting our own time, they’re not gonna pay us anything, and if we screw it up, we screw it up. Maybe it’ll be fun.”
And, as Elice recalled, “That’s all it took.”
The fateful lunch with Valli and Gaudio would be a revelatory one. Brickman and Elice marveled at the many songs they hadn’t known were originally by the Four Seasons (and, it should be added, did lead to the selling of 175 million records). They also learned the unheralded story of the musical group that was so fascinating to the two that they couldn’t help but lean forward and ask why these astounding tales hadn’t been made public before.
It seems that while the Four Seasons had their fair share of hits and notoriety, as individuals they didn’t get many write-ups due to the mainstream press at the time’s zeroing in on contemporaries such as The Beatles and the bands of the British Invasion that, frankly, made for more popular headlines.
Of course, there was also a certain self-generated circumspection in talking with the press due to the Four Seasons’ checkered background. It was a different time back then, Valli and Gaudio reminded Brickman and Elice. That was back when brushes with the law tarnished one’s public image and career.
“So this true story turned out to not only be good, but untold,” Elice recalled. “And that’s really a mother lode for a writer. Marshall and I looked at each other and we knew. It was a eureka moment.”
Next came the unforgiving arctic glare of the blank page for two men who had never before done what they were about to do.
Though they were admittedly inexperienced at this particular form of artwork, they had one obvious ace in the hole: Brickman’s well-seasoned background in film, television and musical performance.
“Marshall would hate me saying this, but he was one of the ‘bold face names’ of the people I most aspired to be,” said Elice, audibly swooning on the other end of the phone about the “pleasure of meeting Marshall, someone who is like an icon,” the first time on what would be “a big day for me.”
Brickman “was and is a part of the cognoscenti, especially when one is an over-privileged, overeducated, Jewish, liberal, left-leaning New Yorker who wants to think of himself as a potential person of letters,” Elice said.
“Marshall is like a lion of the culture, and I’m just a kid who got lucky.”
Brickman would humbly disagree with Elice’s sentiment that “there is absolutely no equality in our stature at all,” reciprocating the seemingly lavish praise.
“He may say something different because Rick’s very generous in his evaluation of our relationship,” Brickman said, “but I never thought of him as a protégé. I thought really early on after meeting and working with him that he was a great, undiscovered talent. So smart, so bright, so funny, so knowledgeable, and he knew so much more about the machine and process of Broadway than I.”
The almost neurotically modest, if you will, Brickman sees himself as less a lion and more someone whose career was “all about making sure I never fell on my face.”
We had a great time and ended up writing ‘Jersey Boys’ very quickly. — Rick Elice
To better understand Elice’s pseudo-fanboyistic gushing, it’s necessary to realize Brickman’s career has been as culturally impactful as impressively protean; if anything, it’s been one of a continual fall upward, with such steps along the way as: playing on the ubiquitous version of “Dueling Banjos” incorporated into the 1972 film “Deliverance,” producing “The Dick Cavett Show,” working as head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” co-writing the pilot to “The Muppet Show” with Jim Henson and gigging with John and Michelle Phillips in their group the New Journeymen before Brickman “fled as though from a burning building” a year later with the Phillipses soon creating a subsequent project, the Mamas & the Papas.
And, of course, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary film is aware, there’s ’60s folk-music-playing Brickman’s fortuitous sharing of management with an upstart comedian who at first baffled New York coffee shop audiences before honing his skills to become the Woody Allen we (think) we know of today, leading to a series of collaborations between Brickman and Allen not limited to the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winner for 1977 and one of the most influential films of modern cinema, “Annie Hall.”
As he learned while working with Allen, Brickman found that “in every collaboration, there must be one side that is the ‘dominant force’ so that what comes out the other side has a semblance of elegance and consistency.” Here, the “lion of culture” confessed then that, yes, “there probably were times when Rick did defer to me.”
But it was always a healthy working relationship, the pair agree, with Elice stating that, “We had a great time and ended up writing “Jersey Boys” very quickly.”
The occasional disagreement would be easily salved by the underlining fact that, to Brickman, “when you have two people in a good working relationship who are sufficiently intelligent, the best idea usually wins.”
How this syllogism played out over the course of the writing could be illustrated by the distinct difference between Elice and Brickman in the employment of soi-disant sentimentality.
“Rick is by definition a much warmer and more open person than I, generally,” Brickman said. “And I tend to run screaming from sentimentality.”
Elice would bring to the table “a kind of warmth and emotion to the story of ‘Jersey Boys’ that I think really deepened it enormously and helped it to reach an audience on a different level than I would have been able to manage myself,” Brickman said.
Brickman’s incisive comedy-writing skills came in handy to “undercut” Elice’s more sympathetic moments to keep the overall framework relatively lambent and, ultimately, veiled with a humanistic humor that years of working with a master such as Allen helped manifest.
There was a scene early on in the writing process in which the characters of Valli and Gaudio were talking about going back out on the road again after a lacuna in their career. Valli confides in Gaudio that he’s nervous people might not like him anymore. In this earlier draft, Gaudio leans into Valli and encouragingly supports his fraternal friend, “This is your time.”
“Nuh-uh,” thought Brickman, who changed Gaudio’s line to an equally brotherly jibe more accurately depicting the true-to-life, complicated relationship of both the boys individually and fellow members of their social niche generally: “Who says they ever liked you?”
As writers and artists themselves, Elice and Brickman know that where any story gets interesting is in the conflict. Including such counterpoint and, again, a “warts-and-all” version of the Four Seasons story was an essential component to the writers’ process.
There’s the possibility in all of our backgrounds to have felt marginalized or disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks.
— Rick Elice
When telling the life story of someone else (four someone else’s, at that), it can be a real tightrope walk. Contractually, Valli and Gaudio were given carte blanche to pull the plug if they didn’t like what they read or saw. Brickman revealed that early on in the creative process, there was a scene dealing with a woman who had had an affair with more than one of the quartet members.
“Oh, no,” Brickman said Valli pronounced, effectively knocking the scene onto the cutting room floor. “You can’t put that up on stage.”
“The impulse to include the warts in the story came from the fact that the warts is what made the story good,” Elice said. “As Marshall’s fond of putting it, you have these movie posters that say, ‘Based on a true story.’ With ‘Jersey Boys,’ we were able to say, ‘Based on a good story.’”
It’s this quality of the art beyond anything else that attracts Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in which the Hippodrome is housed, to the story and is why he’s proud to be bringing “Jersey Boys” to Baltimore.
“I think ‘Jersey Boys’ hit home on so many levels for me,” Legler said, fondly recalling his first seeing the show during its premiere run.
Legler is equally excited by the galvanizing of what he says is a relatively new core audience.
“So often, you have these shows specifically geared toward women,” Legler said. “This is the kind of show you could take a guy to who never has been to Broadway, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, that was a great show, and I could do that again!’”
Legler sees the match of “Jersey Boys” and Baltimore to be “perfect. There’s a lot of similarities between the people of that time and today in a drive to be better than you ever thought you could be.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that in the future, you’ll see ‘Jersey Boys’ back on Broadway,” Legler said, referring to the Broadway production’s closing in January 2017. “It’s such a compelling story, and you can’t help but feel fantastic after seeing it.”
‘Jersey Boys’ plays at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore, from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2. For more information and tickets, visit bit.ly/2ciRt66.
To read more about Elice’s and Brickman’s work with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, visit bit.ly/2craeHI.