As "Jersey Boys" prepares to return to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week, Terry Dwyer remembers the moment he got an endorsement from the most famous Jersey Boy of all.
Ten years ago, the musical about the rise and tumultuous career of the Four Seasons started a long way from Broadway — namely, at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where Dwyer served as managing director. On opening night, when the actors simulated a live performance by the band, the creative team got a sign that the show was working.
"Frankie Valli stood up in our audience — the real audience — and started a standing ovation in the middle of the act," said Dwyer, now president of the Segerstrom Center. "It was just so exciting. I mean, people just leapt to their feet in the middle of the act. You really knew you were on to something. It was a thrilling moment in the theater."
As the show he helped launch celebrates its 10th anniversary, Dwyer will get a double reminder of that auspicious first night. "Jersey Boys," which also played Segerstrom in 2007, will open June 24 and run through July 13. Then, in August, Valli himself, whose nasal falsetto dominated "Sherry," "Rag Doll" and other Four Seasons hits, will perform at the same venue. (That scheduling was a coincidence, according to Segerstrom staff.)
And for those who just can't get enough of Valli and company, there's one more treat: Clint Eastwood's film version of "Jersey Boys" is set to open in theaters Friday.
By now, more than half a century has passed since the Four Seasons first dented the Billboard charts. Valli turned 80 in May, and bass singer Nick Massi died 14 years ago. The three surviving original Four Seasons haven't performed together in decades, according to Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote many of the group's classics.
The songs endure, though — and thanks to "Jersey Boys," the tale of four men's rise from seedy New Jersey to international stardom may almost rival the music itself in terms of fame. This summer's bonanza in Costa Mesa will be proof of that, although Gaudio, who often ceded the spotlight to Valli onstage and in the studio, is content to stay low-key about it.
"Yes, it is hard to believe," he said by phone about the show turning 10 years old. "In fact, I thought it was 9."
'Profane, Jersey vocabulary'
The "Jersey Boys" trek to Broadway can be traced to a rather surprising source: "The Deer Hunter."
A quarter-century before Gaudio and Valli joined writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman to lay the groundwork for a Four Seasons musical, Gaudio found himself in a theater watching Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning Vietnam epic and noted a scene in which the characters — celebrating a wedding shortly before their deployment — sing along over a pool table with Valli's solo hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."
"It was just so affecting," Gaudio said. "It just hit me right between the eyes. We were not into the MTV scene and so on and so forth. I don't think we really had many videos, aside from stuff we may have done live with Dick Clark or things of that sort. So to see the music sort of enraptured by a film or a story, other than hearing it on the radio, was intriguing. And that just stayed with me for years."
After Gaudio and his collaborators had honed their idea, they presented it to Des McAnuff, the La Jolla Playhouse's artistic director and a friend of Gaudio's. Dwyer, who left the playhouse shortly after it launched "Jersey Boys," remembers McAnuff's excitement about the musical.
"Des would come in and talk about projects he was thinking about working on, and he was really excited about 'Jersey Boys' and working with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and, of course, the great music of Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli and the whole group," Dwyer said. "He knew it had the potential to be a great musical. It was already a great musical when it arrived, and he worked on it with that whole creative team."
"Jersey Boys," which tracks the group from its origins to the 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, takes the form of four segments (or "seasons"), each narrated by one member. That the show is not a lightweight jukebox extravaganza is indicated by the caution on the Segerstrom website: "'Jersey Boys' contains flashing, strobe lights, loud gunfire and authentic, profane, Jersey vocabulary."
Compared to a later working-class Jersey performer, Bruce Springsteen, the Four Seasons shied away from gritty realism in their music, but "Jersey Boys" reveals the hunger behind their radio-friendly harmonies. The musical notes that member Tommy DeVito spent time in prison and depicts the band running afoul of the mob and even serving a brief stint in jail over an unpaid hotel bill.
If the Four Seasons had been born a decade or two later, might their songs have been closer to "Born in the U.S.A." than "Candy Girl"? Gaudio doesn't have an answer to that question. He noted, though, that he doesn't believe the heart of the record business has changed much from half a century ago, iPods and other devices notwithstanding.
"It's always been the same struggle, I think," he said. "You know, you knock on the door. Somebody opens it. They smile or they don't smile."