Rick Elice seems anxious to please his Irish audience. As he delivers a self-deprecating and smart monologue about how he came to write Jersey Boys, the wildly successful musical that comes to Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy theatre next month, he makes all the right references to Yeats and Joyce and Ireland's storytelling heritage.
Then, from the stage of the Academy, he announces he is wearing green just for his flying visit. “I thought I should support local businesses, so I stopped off in Marks & Spencer to pick up my shirt,” he says, oblivious to what constitutes “local” in Ireland’s retail space.
There are some awkward titters from the crowd, made up mostly of 40-plus women. But his cultural faux pas is quickly forgiven. Everyone in the room loves Elice. And everyone loves his musical, which opened on Broadway in 2005 and won four Tony awards.
It is hard not to like Jersey Boys, so remarkable is the story chronicling the journey of Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, collectively known as the Four Seasons, from backstreet hoodlums to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born into a New Jersey world where real-life Tony Sopranos cracked heads on street corners, the Four Seasons flirted with the criminal underworld – and dallied behind bars – before becoming one of the most successful bands in pop history.
They were bailed out in the early days by Angelo "Gyp" De Carlo, New Jersey's leading don, before going on to sell a staggering 175 million records worldwide while still in their 20s. They are responsible for such pop anthems as Sherry; Walk Like A Man; December, 1963 (Oh What a Night); Big Girls Don't Cry; My Eyes Adored You; Let's Hang On (To What We've Got); Bye Bye Baby; Can't Take My Eyes Off You; and Working My Way Back to You.
A global phenomenon
The combination of toe-tapping tunes and a very sharp script by Elice and his co-writer, Marshall Brickman, has turned Jersey Boys into a global phenomenon seen by more than 20 million people. It is one of the longest-running and most popular shows in New York, London and Las Vegas.
It almost never happened. "I have never been able to hold down a job," says Elice with all the self-deprecation of a very successful author and copywriter. "I have had no plan to my life; wherever the stream has taken me, I've gone. It was just an accident that I happened to be at a desk in Disney at the moment the phone rang . . . And somehow by not saying no right away and following it through, the next thing I know, there is this big thing, this tiger we have by the tail called Jersey Boys. I'd like to say I planned it, but I was just in the right place at the right time."
The phone call was from a band representative, who had a notion Elice could write a Mama Mia! -style musical based on the Four Seasons' back catalogue. Elice and Brickman met Valli and Gaudio over lunch in New York, unconvinced this musical direction was one they wanted to take.
It didn’t take long for their minds – and the direction – to be changed. Despite their success, the band’s backstory had never been told. Frankie and Bob started talking, “and that was it. They spoke of doing time. I asked what they were in jail for. There was breaking-and-entering and a whole thing with counterfeit plates. And I was like, ‘but the music is so bubblegum’.
“As it became clear to us that they weren’t making this stuff up, I was like, ‘I think we have a story here, one with really interesting characters’. We all have this interest in leaning forward and asking what happened next, and that is what me and Marshall were doing. It was not about Frankie or Bob’s skill at storytelling. They don’t tell it particularly well. There was no element of charm or finesse about it, but nor had they told these stories a million times. It didn’t feel rehearsed or polished; it just felt true.”
Then there was the Four Seasons' connections with the Family. "For me the Mafia thing was like a joke. It was the Godfather or the Sopranos, but for these guys it was real." It soon became very real to Elice too. The band had close ties to DeCarlo, who was later jailed and then pardoned shortly before his death by Richard Nixon, in his very last act as president.
When the DeCarlo family heard a musical was in the offing, they made contact with Elice. He took a call at a pay phone in an empty LA parking lot. DeCarlo’s family asked him send on the pages of the script that referred to their dad to make sure he wasn’t disrespected. “They made it very clear they knew where we lived,” he jokes.
Elice is good at making the heavy light. Telling the sometimes grim story of the band in a way that would entertain and emotionally connect with lovers of musical theatre was always going to be a challenge. “It could have been much darker, but Marshall and I, we are not heavy guys. If Frankie was writing this himself, if he could write, it would be much darker, because he is a dark soul. He is not a happy guy.”
Dysfunction and affection
When Elice first met the band he thought he was “nothing like these guys. Somehow or other, we wrote a show that taps into something that a lot of us have experienced. We have all been part of a group, not necessarily a rock group, maybe it’s a bowling team or a rugby team or maybe it’s a secretarial pool or a think tank. Whatever it is, we take on these second families in our lives where the bonds are just as powerful and the dysfunction is just as overwhelming and the affection is just as strong.
“We all know what that is like and this is the story of a group like that. It is easy to put yourself into it and really feel a personal connection with what these guys went through. Nut Marshall are I are always looking for the funny. And the music keeps it from getting too heavy.”
The music is mesmerising. Elice describes the output of the Four Seasons as “part of our DNA”. It is also a good 30 minutes before it is part of the show. The story is tough and unlike a normal musical: the bubblegum pop that made the Four Seasons famous is not the engine of the story.
“When the songs start coming in the show, they wash over you like a wave, but we make the audience wait,” says Elice. “If we were going to tell the story of the group coming together, then at the beginning there could be no songs, because there was no group. So it is like half an hour before you hear the songs. The wait is nearly over for Irish audiences.
Jersey Boys is in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, April 1st-18th