Why Frankie Valli's Jersey Boys are still working their way back to us (and into cinemas)
The hit West End and Broadway musical has already racked up over four million ticket sales. Now set for a cinematic rendering with Clint Eastwood at the helm, David Hillier charts the story's charm
Monday 15 April 2013
Four young boys want to become music superstars. It’s a rags-to-riches tale; a story of triumph over adversity. The premise behind hit musical Jersey Boys might be painfully clichéd, but with the show now in its fifth successful year in the West End and its eighth on Broadway, it is clearly a winning formula. Four million people have already seen the play worldwide, and it has broken box office records from Philadelphia to New Zealand. Now, Hollywood bosses are making a bid to transfer the theatrical magic to the cinema with Clint Eastwood tipped to direct. So, how has the story of one of America's biggest-selling bands become greater than the sum of its parts?
For the unacquainted, Jersey Boys charts the rise of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. In early 1960s pre-Beatles US, only the Beach Boys could match the quartet's sales and their early output saw them as regular stalwarts in the upper echelons of the Billboard Chart. They have currently sold over a staggering 100 million records worldwide and are the only band to have had a top 100 Billboard hit in each decade of the 50s to 90s. The musical follows them from local New Jersey band to chart-topping supergroup, all the way to their induction into the musical hall of fame.
Director Des McAnuff says: “It is a remarkable tale, and such an unlikely one, that these guys from Belleville, New Jersey could get out of the Bowery and achieve such success.” It might be heart-warming tale, but it is not without its share of tragedy: the crooner's daughter Francine died suddenly from what Valli believes was an unintentional drug overdose.
For Valli, who is still performing at 78, watching the dramatisation of his daughter's death in the musical must be particularly gruelling. As he once said in an interview “success requires your work must come first” and the show does not shirk from the criticism of him as an absent father. It might have been a ploy to get that requisite cry-out-loud moment and toy with audience emotions, but structurally, it is even more pivotal to Valli's development as a man.
The singer, one of the male falsetto’s greatest exponents, is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser; however Jersey Boys is not a one-man tribute band. The Four Seasons partnership formed the backbone of the music, and this was born of a handshake between Valli and another man: Bob Gaudio, who has surely got to be one of the greatest songwriters of the last fifty years. Along with co-writer and producer Bob Crewe, Gaudio effortlessly steered the sound of the group through ever-evolving musical waters. While many contemporaries sunk in a maelstrom of predictability, Gaudio conquered genres: disco, on "December, 1963 (Oh What A Night)"; soul, on "Working My Way Back To You"; while "Can't Keep My Eyes Off You" is a hypnotic amalgamation of brass and jazz that was destined to either disappear or become the tour de force that it has. From Lauren Hill to Muse, the variety of artists who have covered it is staggering, each finding their own affinity with the classic.
Many songs are now so synonymous with other artists that it is easy to forget how prolific the Four Seasons actually were. This education is part of the musical's gift to audiences. I once heard someone leave a show humming "the sun ain't gonna shine (anymore)" before incredulously stating "I was sure that was originally Scott Walker?" It is only ever musically alluded to in Jersey Boys, as it was a Valli solo hit, but it was born of Gaudio's genius. Even contemporary hip hop owes a debt. Listen to the group’s 1967 version of "Beggin’" and its core structure hardly differs from Madcon's 2007 cover. It is no surprise that Gaudio went on to work with the likes of Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra (another New Jersey boy). Some people just have music in their DNA.
If Gaudio is the brain of the band and Valli the voice, then the soul must be New Jersey itself. In the eight years since the musical's Broadway debut, it has put the state on the map: from the sublime (Boardwalk Empire) to the subhuman (Jersey Shore). The mafia-riddled neighbourhood had an overwhelming grip on original members Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito, who did time even before the first hit. It gave the Four Seasons an edge, contradictory to some of their saccharine earlier material. It also nearly proved their undoing, when the rough ideologies of DeVito, in particular, almost caused total implosion. It makes for compelling viewing.
After Tom Hooper's triumphant stage-to-silver screen transfer of Les Miserables, Eastwood might seem like another welcome left-field choice for director. But his pedigree has already been proven in Paint Your Wagon. Additionally, the director, an ardent jazz fan, has received various accolades for his musical compositions. Until this interesting proposition hits cinemas Jersey Boys will continue to pack theatre stalls because its story and songs allow the audience to leave their seats feeling totally elated. That is the show and band's true legacy.
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