Consider this weekend a homecoming for “Jersey Boys.”
Twelve years after its Broadway debut, the Tony Award-winning musical about the rise — and falls — of four kids from New Jersey who became Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons will finally make its Garden State premiere with five performances at State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick.
The show — which won Best Musical at the Tonys in 2004 and closed on Broadway in January after 4,642 performances — will play once on Friday, Oct. 13 and twice on both Saturday, Oct. 14 and Sunday, Oct. 15.
Culture Vultures recently spoke with Rick Elice, who was nominated for a Tony for co-writing the musical’s book with Marshall Brickman, about the musical — what it means to come to Jersey, how he got involved with the project in the first place and why he thinks it ran so long on Broadway. Elice, 60, also discussed “Finding Roger,” his new book about his late husband, the legendary stage actor Roger Rees, and his latest project: a musical about the life of Cher.
Culture Vultures: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Rick Elice: It’s a pleasure. I’m so happy “Jersey Boys” is finally going to be playing in New Jersey.
CV: Does it have extra meaning to see the show coming to this state?
RE: It’s like coming home. When we first did this play in 2004 in (at the La Jolla Playhouse) southern California, (original Four Seasons members) Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli said, “This is Beach Boys’ territory. We didn’t have fans in southern California. It’s quite possible that nobody’s gonna come.”
And we started previewing at the beginning of October 2004, and the place was packed. People were coming up to us afterwards to introduce themselves to us as fans of the Four Seasons. We said, “What are you doing here? Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli thought there were no fans from southern California.” They said, “We’re not from southern California. We’ve flown in from …” and they would start telling us where they’d come from.
So we thought: When we get back east, if we’re lucky enough to have this show happen on Broadway, it’ll be a much shorter trip for all of the Jersey population for whom the show is a real shout-out.
And sure enough, it was. It became a great thing for the people of the state. And it was our pleasure, because we were inveterate New Yorkers who in the course of our life in New York looked at New Jersey as something less than New York. And we learned very quickly we were wrong. We learned very quickly the people of New Jersey are fantastic.
And the songwriters from New Jersey are brilliant. And the music of the band seemed to reflect something very, very personal about the people of the state. It became an edifying experience for us as writers and a humbling experience, in the best possible way, to be reminded that while we wrote the show, the Seasons lived it and they lived those lives.
So, it’s very gratifying all these years later to be in Jersey. Because in so many ways, it’s like coming home.
CV: You said you grew up in New York. So what is the vision people there do have of New Jersey?
RE: My aunt and uncle lived in Jersey. I have cousins who live down in Holmdel. I have cousins who live in Montclair. And I’ve spent a lot of time in New Jersey as a kid and growing up. But New Yorkers think New York is a great place and every place else is sort of not the best. (laughs) So it wasn’t about Jersey in particular. New Yorkers think a lot of themselves. With good reason. We’re wonderful. (laughs) But it doesn’t mean that Jersey is less than.
I think, in many ways, New York couldn’t exist without our neighbor. Because we’re part of something larger than just one state or two states or a city or something like that. I’m older now. I’ve learned something about the world. (laughs)
CV: How did you get involved with the show?
RE: Someone who ended up not being involved with the show, who was a former client of mine when I was in advertising, he called me about a year after “Mama Mia!” opened on Broadway.
He said, “Hey, I got the rights to the Four Season’s music.” And I said, “I love Vivaldi. What a great idea.” And he said, “No, no, no. Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.” And I said, “Oh. Really?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, you wanna do a ‘Mama Mia!’ with the music of the Four Seasons?” And I said, “No, somebody already wrote ‘Mama Mia!’”
He said, “Well, what would you do?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never written a Broadway musical.” He said, “Would you have lunch with Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli?” And I said, “Can I bring my friend Marshall Brickman?” because we’d been talking about maybe we would write a film together.
Marshall, of course, is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for co-writing “Annie Hall” with Woody Allen in 1977) and is a great literary lion from New York. He’d hate me saying this, but as a kid growing up in New York, there are certain names you see a lot in bold print, and Marshall was one, and he traveled in that crowd of Woody Allen and Nora Ephron and Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin and names like that. Those names that, as a New York kid, I thought: Those guys are amazing.
It happened in the ways that life takes its merry path that I ended up becoming friendly with Marshall socially. And I called him and said, “Do you want to write a Broadway musical?” And he said, “Well, I’ve never done that.” I said, “Neither have I. They’re not gonna pay us anything. We’ll be wasting our own time. But maybe we’ll have some fun. So let’s go and meet these guys.”
And we went. They started talking to us about what their lives were like growing up. By the time the pasta arrived — because, of course, this was in an Italian restaurant — Marshall and I were looking at each other like, “This is the motherlode for writers.”
You know those movies “based on a true story”? This wasn’t just a true story. This was a good story. And it was better yet, an untold story. Because they were never written about. They didn’t come from the other side of the ocean. They weren’t part of the British Invasion. They didn’t have long hair. They weren’t on drugs. The cultural elite of New York decided they weren’t going to sell magazines, so they weren’t really written about. And that meant we were being handed this kind of goldmine.
So we said, “Yeah, we’ll take a shot.” And that’s how it all started.
CV: What were the challenges of this show, compared to a more traditional Broadway musical?
RE: I don’t think it’s not a traditional Broadway musical. It’s a story about four guys who made records. Therefore, there is a soundtrack to that story. Because what they made was music. So we approached it as a play with songs.
Your challenge as a writer is always to tell a really good story with compelling characters that an audience would care about. And what was easy about it was: We didn’t have to invent things. Because what really happened with them was so dramatic that our real job was to figure out what not to include — so the show would only be two hours long.
CV: Why do you think this show resonated so much with audiences and ran for such a long time?
RE: I think without meaning to, we hit on a universal theme in the same way that, say, “A Chorus Line” did. Why did “A Chorus Line” run for so long? The whole world isn’t a dancer on Broadway. But we all know what it’s like to stand in front of somebody and say, “I really need this job.”
Why did “Fiddler On The Roof” run so long? It’s not because everybody is Jewish. It’s because we all know what it’s like to look at your parents and say, “I don’t care how you did it. I want to do it my way.”
And we were lucky with “Jersey Boys” to have another universal idea. We all know what it’s like at some time in our lives to be part of a group. It doesn’t have to be a rock band. It could be a bowling league or a softball league or a secretarial pool or a think tank consortium or something. But we all know what it’s like to be part of a second family that in many ways is just as dysfunctional and just as compelling, the bonds are just as strong as the families we were born into. And we recognize something in those four guys something in ourselves.
And of course, that’s the writer speaking. The audience members, they’ve got the greatest music in the whole world.
CV: For people who didn’t see the Broadway show and who will be seeing the show for the first time at the State Theatre, is this the same show that was on Broadway?
RE: Oh yeah, this is the Broadway experience. Absolutely the Broadway experience.
CV: Your book on your late husband, Roger Rees, was just published. What did that mean to you?
RE: We were together for many, many years and had a wonderful relationship. He was the nicest person I’ve ever known. And then, suddenly he was stricken with a terrible disease. He’d never been sick a day in his life. Suddenly, he was told out of the blue, “You have a terrible disease. You are going to die very, very soon. And there’s nothing that can be done.” It was very awful for both of us. And he approached it in his typical way, which was to be completely positive and determined to do everything he could do to put off the day for as long as possible. He actually was performing on Broadway six weeks before he died. It was not easy. It wasn’t easy on him, God knows. And it wasn’t easy for us. And it was very difficult for me.
When he died, I found myself … We met when I was a kid. I wasn’t even 25 years old. I was just about to turn 25 … And suddenly, I was alone, and just this middle-aged guy, and really discombobulated, having always been part of a couple. And I’m a slow learner and stuck in my ways. It was awful in every possible way. I found myself coming home and saying “Where are you?” all the time. So I embarked on a mission of trying to find him. I knew I wasn’t going to find him because I knew he was cremated and I knew what happened to what was left of him. I knew I wasn’t going to come home and he was going to be sitting in a chair. But I couldn’t really process the idea of having lost him.
So, eventually, I figured out something that is fairly obvious, considering what I do. But eventually, I figured out where I could find comfort in the world, if not joy — a place to at least be a bit happy. Which is for me is the place where we first met, where we first spoke, where we both worked. The theater. A theater. It seems rudimentary as I describe it, but it took me a rather long time to figure it out. And when I did figure it out, I thought I would write about it, because I’m a writer, I guess. I figured it would be something useful to do for my own head, and rather improbably, as with everything else about us — all the crazy coincidences of us having met, having ended up together, the odds were very, very long, and yet all these things happened — including sending a manuscript to a publisher and the publisher saying, “Yes, I’ll publish this book.”
And they did a really beautiful job. It’s a gorgeous little book. And I’m so pleased it exists. Because my proceeds, I’m giving to the Actors Fund, which is a badly named charity because they don’t just help actors, they help anybody in the entertainment industry and anybody who knows anybody in the entertainment industry. Friends of mine have had their parents looked after by the Actors Fund, who have never done anything other than been related to somebody who’s a lighting technician. It’s a great cause, and the people who run it are really great people.
CV: So your next project is a musical about Cher?
RE: Yes, I’m actually in rehearsal for it now. It’s called “The Cher Show.” And I’m doing what I said I’d never do after “Jersey Boys,” and that’s a musical biography. I said no a lot to Cher. But she’s a lovely, kind and persistent woman. And she didn’t take no for an answer. (laughs) And I was at a very low point right after Roger passed away. And she did something remarkably thoughtful and kind to a stranger — me — and kind of broke down my defenses. And I had an idea of how I might do it that wouldn’t just be the same thing. I suggested that to her and the producers, and they liked it. So I said I’ll write it, and here we are.
CV: Will that be similar to “Jersey Boys” in that it will tell her story but it will have her music interspersed?
RE: Sure, but it’s not a linear narrative like “Jersey Boys” is. It’s a more trippy, psychological journey. Because nobody knew about Frankie Valli. We all knew the songs, but we didn’t really know about him. But Cher’s life is so well-documented that it’s hard not to know things about her even if you try not to know about her. She’s just in the soup. My job was to figure out a way to present things that we already know in a way that the audience doesn’t mind they’re not learning anything. They’re just being wildly entertained. Our goal for the show was for it to be wildly entertaining.
CV: So it’s in rehearsals?
RE: Yeah, we started just the other day. We’re gonna rehearse it, then we’re gonna go to Chicago, then we’re gonna rehearse it some more, and then we’re gonna open on Broadway.
State Theatre New Jersey, located at 15 Livingston Ave in New Brunswick, presents the New Jersey premiere of “Jersey Boys” October 13-15. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.stnj.org/event/jersey-boys.