Jersey Boys: Looking back at how Frankie Valli and his charges defined an era
This quintessential American pop group first became encircled by the wild trappings of fame in 1962 – a watershed moment lovingly brought to life in Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning musical smash that opens at Dubai Opera
Showboating singer Frankie Valli is undisputedly a man of his time, and the band he fronted were snagged within folds of their time – The Four Seasons straddled and stretched between two decisive political and pop-culture eras.
This quintessential American pop group first became encircled by the wild trappings of fame in 1962 – a watershed moment lovingly brought to life in Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning musical smash that opens at Dubai Opera on Wednesday, after ending a 12-year Broadway run this year.
This milieu caught the group between the innocent, self-censored pop of 1950s America, and the braver, darker, self-aware, Swinging Sixties to come – but The Four Seasons story remains a product of both ages.
Musicals celebrating the work of real-life musicians may be nothing new, but in Jersey Boys, the writers – Oscar-winning Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice – unearthed the kind of heated biographical material that drama is made of, rendering no need to resort to the brand of fanciful, fictionalised plot lines normally used to tie such singsong shows together.
The dramatic ingredients were already there in the band’s largely unknown tale: a mob boss, Hollywood star, lone sharks, prison, divorce, infidelity, death, drugs. Presumably the same reasons Clint Eastwood adapted the work for the big screen in 2014.
A killer soundtrack was also obligatory. If The Four Seasons might not seem like the most obvious candidate for the musical makeover, it is because you have probably forgotten how many hummable tunes they had – and what they said about the era that gave birth to them.
There was little sign of the looming counterculture revolution in the group’s debut hits Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man – three consecutive Billboard chart-toppers that only served to reinforce the prevailing gender roles inherited from their parents’ generation.
Yet it perfectly encapsulated the calm before the storm. Marked by light arrangements and a squealing falsetto delivery, these sugary, shy early tunes would soon sound twee and dated with the rock ‘n’ roll invasion to come. It now seems no coincidence that The Four Seasons’s domestic record sales during this 1962-1964 heyday were bettered only by The Beach Boys – later to prove sonic insurgents, heralding the hippie era come with 1966’s trippy masterpiece Pet Sounds.
By contrast, rather than a klaxon call for change, The Four Seasons represented the last bastion of suited, booted, swinging pop spectacle. But beneath this clean-cut, choreographed shtick, a veritable film noir underscored their personal lives – the prison spells and mafia links hidden from the public at the time – and it is here that Jersey Boys finds the swagger in its step.
Split into four “seasons”, each narrated by a different band member, the musical’s structure was both inspired by – and smartly exploits – the wilfully conflicting accounts of the “rags to riches, and back to rags” story the writers heard from the three remaining founding members. Speaking first, it falls to Tommy DeVito, the guitarist who left the outfit in 1970, to explain to the audience how he and Valli struck up a friendship with mob boss Gyp DeCarlo – who later propped up the band through a financial black spot in 1972 – while admitting he and bassist Nick Massi, who died in 2000, spent their early years in and out of jail for pulling petty thefts at the mob’s behest.
He also gets the best line, explaining how, after joining forces with lead singer Valli, it is a certain Joe Pesci – “yes, that Joe Pesci” – who suggests the group recruit Bob Gaudio. It was a wise tip from the later-to-be Hollywood star, with the keyboardist penning a majority of the group’s hits, alongside long-term producer Bob Crewe, who would be credited for Jersey Boys’s music and lyrics respectively.
While he retired from the road in 1972, Gaudio was to be the only other constant in The Four Seasons story, staying on as songwriter/producer, and co-owning the name and back catalogue in a 50/50 partnership with Valli. Gaudio’s loyalty was legendary, happily turning some of his best work over to Valli’s solo career – most notably, timeless feel-good swinger Can’t Take My Eyes off You, complete with a brass line so catchy it was destined to be chanted from a thousand football stadiums.
While the band notched many more mid-1960s hits, including Rag Doll, Let’s Hang On! and Working My Way Back to You Babe, amid the onset of rock, their run dried up, and by the end of the decade, The Four Seasons were floundering.
A nadir came in 1974 when the band were dropped by Motown – after recording a second album for the label that would go unreleased. Valli was, by now, the only member left from the early line-up. Yet their most culturally astute contribution was still to come.
Despite originally being penned to celebrate the end of Prohibition four decades earlier, when recast as a lover looking back on a life-changing romantic encounter, Gaudio’s December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) hit a cultural chord, documenting in hindsight the social revolution the band avoided singing about as they lived through it.
Arriving in 1975 before disco’s crest, the tune’s snappy groove was to reverberate with younger musicians for decades – later a fresh hit when remixed by Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand, covered by Wyclef Jean, reworked in French by Claude François and sampled by Daft Punk.
While that dance-floor staple was the band’s last release of note – Valli would score a major solo success singing the theme to Grease in 1978 and a final album would creep out in 1992 – The Four Seasons story does not end with Jersey Boys. Remarkably, now in his 84th year, Valli continues to tour a version of the group, turning in show-stopping two-hour hit-fests with more than a little Broadway swagger inherited from the stage show celebrating his own career.
It feels almost bizarre for such a musical to be touring the globe when its subject is still doing just the same thing, singing the same songs – but in this case, we can chalk up imitation as the most sincere note of flattery.
Jersey Boys is at Dubai Opera from October 11-14 . Tickets cost Dh250 from
Updated: October 9, 2017 10:45 AM