‘Jersey Boys’ comes to Jersey: An interview with co-writer Rick Elice

Jersey Boys

Cast members of “Jersey Boys,” which will be at the State Theatre in New Brunswick Oct. 13-15.

Twelve years after “Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway, and less than a year after closing there, the jukebox musical is finally coming to the state whose name is in its title.

The show, which tells the story of The Four Seasons — musicians from Newark, Belleville and Bergenfield who had a remarkable string of hits in the ’60s and ’70s — will be at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Oct. 13-15. Jonny Wexler, who will play Four Seasons lead singer  Frankie Valli, and Tommaso Antico, who will play group member Bob Gaudio, have performed in the Broadway production, though in different roles.

I talked about the musical, and other things, with Rick Elice, who is not a Jersey boy himself (having grown up in New York City), but co-wrote the book with Marshall Brickman. Elice’s other credits include “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “The Addams Family,” and he is currently working on a musical about Cher that is expected to come to Broadway next year. He has also recently published a book, “Finding Roger: An Improbably Theatrical Love Story,” about his relationship with his husband, the actor and director Roger Rees, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

I talked to him by phone last week.

Q: Is it a big deal for you that “Jersey Boys” is finally going to be in New Jersey?

A: Yes! It’s like, the show’s coming home to Jersey, finally. It’s been a long time, and people have been very generous about traveling through bridges and tunnels to come and see the show on Broadway. It seems like bringing it to New Brunswick is the very least we can do. It’s a brand new, really great company. They were trying it out, up at West Point, a few days ago, and I went to see them, and they’re just a great group.

Q: Is it possible to say what’s great about them?

A: Well, they’re completely new to the show, so they’re wildly excited about being in it. They’re a super-talented group of people, and talent is always thrilling for me to see, as a theater fan. And of course, it’s just a wonderful show with these amazing songs. It’s always been a great joy for me to watch the show, because this was one time in all of our lives, those of us who got to work on it, where everybody was sort of firing on all cylinders, and doing really good work, and the stars were in alignment. It was such a happy experience for all of us. Certainly, you don’t get that lucky every time.

rick Elice

JOAN MARCUS

RICK ELICE

Q: I know some other actors were in the Broadway production, in different roles. Do you know them?

A: Oh yeah. I’m sort of old school, so I always made it a point to stay in touch with the actors in New York. I’m here in New York, so it’s not particularly hard for me. There’s a line in the show, “family is everything” … in the course of an actor’s life, there are many, many shows. I wanted “Jersey Boys” to be special for everybody. As special as it was for me. So I made the effort, in companies all over the world, to get to know people as much as I can, and support them, and cheer them on. To really be somebody who’s not just a name on the title page.

Q: When you were originally working on it, did you come to New Jersey to do research?

A: Oh yeah. We did a lot of research. I stood on many streets in Belleville, breathing in the atmosphere. With Marshall Brickman, I went up to Bergenfield and we were at Bob Gaudio’s high school, that he dropped out of, in order to be a songwriter.

I have an aunt and uncle who lived for many years in Holmdel, and cousins who live in Montclair, so New Jersey isn’t a foreign land for me, even though I’m a New Yorker. And of course a lot of the Four Seasons fans are true fanatics. They’re super-knowledgeable about the music, about the discography. They know things about the group that Gaudio and Valli had forgotten. And we became good friends with a bunch of those guys. It was fun to research, and fun to learn, and we even got a little threat from the mob, one time, when we were out in La Jolla [Before coming to Broadway, the play was presented at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego], about representing the mob boss character in the show, making sure that we did it with respect, because his widow, at the time, was still alive, and was still sort of venerated by the old neighborhood. That was interesting [laughs]. There was never a dull moment in the making of this show.

Q: Has “Jersey Boys” changed, over the years? Have there been tinkerings with it?

A: Yes. Jerome Robbins, the great, legendary director-choreographer, said you’re never finished with a show, you just run out of time. Meaning that, when the show opens, you no longer can work on it.

But the way that you can is [to do it] when another incarnation of the show happens. For “Jersey Boys,” a year after we had been playing on Broadway, the first national tour was going into rehearsal, and the tour was going to begin in San Francisco. So we all went out to San Francisco, to open the show out there. And we were able to make certain changes that we wanted to make, but there’s no mechanism for putting new material into a show that’s already running on Broadway. But this time, we were back in rehearsal, so we were able to make the show better. We were able to put in some better lines, the director was able to improve certain transitions, the choreographer was able to beef up certain choreography. It was just a better show.

Then it happened again, with the second national tour. It happened when we opened in Vegas. We got another bite at the apple when we opened in London. That was interesting, because over there, Jersey is a channel island. They don’t think of it as a state in the United States. So it needed a bit of explanation. When we went to Australia, we thought, “We’ll have to explain it again.” But in Australia, they understand exactly what the situation was, because “The Sopranos” was a huge hit on the television.

So, we modified the show. But it’s essentially been the same show from the beginning, because people seem to enjoy it so much.

Jersey Boys

Twelve years after opening on Broadway, “Jersey Boys” has toured all over the world.

Q:  Did any of those changes make their way back to the Broadway production?

A: Yes. We were able to retrofit all of them, except for, obviously, the London changes, where you had to explain what New Jersey is. But all the improvements were eventually retrofitted, even the technical ones. There were projections in the show, when it first open … we were using the best projectors that were available at the time, but during the run, LED screens were developed, and projection technology improved, so we swapped out old technology for new technology, so that the show would feel as brand new for an audience, 10 years in, as it was for the audience that was there opening night.

Q: So the New Brunswick audience gets the benefit of all these years of fine tuning.

A: Yes, very much so.

Q: I know you’re working on a Cher project. Is that similar, in some ways, to “Jersey Boys.”

A: Well, I hope not. I had promised myself, after “Jersey Boys” … we were very lucky, Marshall and I. We had never written a musical before, and “Jersey Boys” was a gigantic hit. One understands, I guess, that as talented as you may think you are, so much of it is luck, and timing, and people being available. You know, the team. So I had always thought, “Well, I’ll never do another one of these, because it’ll never be as good. What’s the point?” And I had turned down many opportunities, because, of course, whenever you do something that’s successful, you tend to be asked to do a lot more things like that thing. And I always said no.

Indeed, I initially said no to the prospect of writing a musical about Cher, because it seemed to me … with “Jersey Boys,” everybody knew the songs. Every knows the Four Seasons’ music. But no one knows much about Frankie Valli or Bob Gaudio or Tommy DeVito or Nick Massi. So, we were able to tell a true story that also happened to be a good story and, best of all, was an untold story. So the audience got to really learn things, and they also got, of course, to be entertained.

With Cher, her life is so well documented, and she has been so famous for so long, that you could never have listened to one of her songs, or seen one of her movies, or watched her on television, and still, you know exactly who Cher is, and what she looks like, and what she does, and what’s happened to her. Somehow or other. Because she’s in the soup. So I thought, “How would you do it? Why would you do it? What would an audience learn?”

I was at a very low point in my life. I had just become widowed, and Cher, whom I did not know, took it upon herself to do something that was so sweet and so thoughtful … she kind of convinced me to rejoin the human race, at a time when I really did not think that I was ever going to leave the house again. And through her thoughtfulness, and her good nature … she’s just a very dear person. I got to know her, and I pitched her an idea that was based on sort of a very different way of telling her story. And she liked it. So we went to the producer, and suggested this. And everybody seemed to be very enthusiastic.

That was about a year ago. And now we’re in rehearsal, and it’s happening. I feel very, very lucky again, because part of the reason why people are excited about it is because it’s Cher. And part of the reason it’s happening so quickly, and so brilliantly, is because the producer [Jeffrey Seller] is the producer of “Hamilton.” If you’re working on a Broadway musical, it’s really, really lucky to be working for the guy who just produced “Hamilton,” because he’s a guy with a lot of clout right now, and a lot of resources. So, I feel very lucky again, to be part of this group.

So, it’s going to be a very different sort of a show [from “Jersey Boys”]. But it’s also a show about a famous person’s life. It’s a musical biography, but it’s going to be a very different experience. Our goal is for this to be a trippy, wildly entertaining rollercoaster, as one would expect the life of Cher to be. She hasn’t exactly been circumspect. So neither are we. [laughs]

Roger Rees

The cover of Rick Elice’s book, “Finding Roger: An Improbably Theatrical Love Story.”

Q: Could you tell me what the thing is that she did for you, or would you rather not say?

A: Well, it doesn’t sound like a big thing, I suppose, unless you’re sitting in your home, after a 35-year relationship, and suddenly you’re alone, and a middle-aged person, and you don’t have the vaguest idea why you’re alive, and what you’re going to do next. Which was me. I had met her briefly a few weeks before my husband died, and that was when she said, “I really, really want you to do this, and I think we should do it very, very quickly.” And I said, “I can’t even begin to think about this, or [about] doing anything, and if you need to do that, then you need to call somebody else.” And, “It’s very nice to meet you, and have a good life.” And I thought that was the end of that. That was the end of May. On July 10, my husband passed away. And in September, the phone rang, and I picked it up, and I heard, “Hi, it’s Cher.” You always think it’s a friend of yours playing a joke. But it really was Cher. She said, “I’ve been following everything that has happened, I know what you’ve been through. I actually know what you’re going through. And I want you to come out here” — she lives in California — “I want you to get on a plane and come out here. I want us to get to know each other. And whether the show happens or not, it will be really good for you to get out of the house. You can’t just stay home for the rest of your life.” I don’t even know how she knew that’s what I was doing, but I supposed because she had lived through loss in her life …

I thought that that was a pretty extraordinary proposal, for someone who is a complete stranger, and I was very touched by it, and I thought, “You gotta pull up your boots and get on with your life, in some way, shape or form.” I could feel Roger smacking me on the back of the head and saying, “You’re not going to do this? You’re not going to go out to California and hang out with Cher? Who would say no to this? Don’t be an idiot.” So that’s what I did. But really, it was just that she sounded so sweet, and I was so touched.

When I got there, she said, “I just want to talk about Roger. let’s not talk about anything else.” And for a couple of days … she was very therapeutic for me. She really treated me like a friend. And of course we weren’t friends, we were strangers. But by the time I came back home, we were pretty friendly.

The State Theatre in New Brunswick will present “Jersey Boys” Oct. 13 at 8 p.m., Oct. 14 at 2 and 8 p.m. and Oct. 15 at 2 and 7 p.m. Visit stnj.org.

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