Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Elice, co-creator of “Jersey Boys.” Because we only have about 500-800 words to tell each Encore Atlanta story, there was a lot of great material in the interview that I didn’t get to use.
I asked Rick if he minded me posting the audio online and he gave me his permission, so here it is in its entirety. If you hear little clicking sounds, that’s me typing notes during the interview.
And here’s the full transcription:
I went to the press announcement that Jersey Boys was coming to Atlanta, didn’t you and the other gentlemen who wrote the show do a video for that?
Marshall Brickman and I did the thing or you may have seen Bob Gaudio and I doing it. I usually just smile and wave. I’m kind of the cheerleader of the group. And I’m so happy with the show’s success and that it’s now finally getting to Atlanta. When Kent MacInvale, our press guy, when he suggested you and I speak, I jumped all over it because I’m totally into the Fox Theatre and the Manos family, and I’ve been down there. I’m excited about Jersey Boys finally getting down there 4 years after we opened or 3 1/2 years after it opened in New York.
How do you know the Manoses?
I know father and son from, I worked for a while as a consultant to the Walt Disney Company, and when they were first working on adaption of Disney’s High School Musical a couple of years ago, I spent some time down there giving my advice … because the Manoses were producing the show. They fight the great fight. You know the theater business is a crazy business and you have to be a little bit nutty so we’re all a little bit damaged and we’re all a little bit, I think, extraordinary and they certainly are right at the head of the pack.
How did you get involved in the ‘great fight’?
When I was three years old, I taken by my parents to see a show on Broadway. I was born here in NY and my parents, I guess, they courted at various shows in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and so when they had kids, they decided they were going to make the effort to take my brother and me to shows. Of course in those days it was sort of a badge of honor to sit in the very last row of the very highest balcony. I remember the ceiling always parting my hair with the ceiling. I never got to sit in good seats until worked in advertising, because they had to put me in the good seats so I could see what was happening. So from the age of three I think I was thrown into the deep end of the pool … and I’ve been going ever since. It was always a treat when I was young to be taken to the theater…
When I was a teenager, there were shows playing on Broadway where you could get a ticket for $2, obstructed view tickets they called them. But you could get them for $2, which was cheaper than a movie so if it was a rainy afternoon, if you weren’t playing ball, if you weren’t hanging out with your friends, you could just walk into midtown and get a ticket for two bucks, which was a big great way to grow up.
And then when I got back to New York and started to seriously think about a career, I found myself in advertising and I kind of backed into a job as a creative director at an advertising agency that handled almost every show on Broadway. So I worked on about 310 shows doing ad campaigns for them and writing commercials and directing TV commercials and doing posters and things like that, so I was never far away from the lure of the theater. That has always been my y goal to work in the theater. So I couldn’t be more happy with Jersey Boys’ success because it’s the first show I’ve ever written; it’s the first show Marshall Brinkman has ever written. And we managed to ring the bell with it. So I really feel blessed. I think of myself as the luckiest guy in the world.
What were some of your favorite shows growing up?
The very first one I saw was My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews … and that was a pretty good place to start. When I was a kid, by that I mean a teenager, there was a period of years when it was uncool to go from the time I was 11-12 until I was 16, I didn’t do much at all. But I … was most heavily influenced on the play side by my experience at the Yale Drama School in the late ’70s with the great writers Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg and Shakespeare … that one studies in graduate school. And on the musical side I was hugely influenced by the work of Sondheim and Michael Bennett and Harold Prince and Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins and those truly great artists … Tommy Tune, with whom I had the chance to work a year ago. The people who were either the great ones themselves or the people of the first generation who were connected to the great ones. A year after I got into advertising, I found myself at a table with Mike Nichols and Joe Papp and Trevor Nunn and Harold Prince and people who I had dreamed about being in the room with were asking my opinion. It was very, very heady. I was in my early 20s then.
In terms of musical writing, the biggest influence in my life, and in many people’s lives, would have to be Sondheim.
And why would you say that?
Because he’s, excuse me, a f**ing genius and there aren’t that many of them. Because people, I think, people are wildly, wildly moved by the work that he does, I know I was. I think for all the people who are confused or put off by what they called an emotional coldness or an intellectual coldness about his work, it pierced through me like a bullet from a high-powered rifle. There was never anything that he wrote from those halcyon days — I’m talking Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, The Sunday in the Park with George days — that didn’t somehow give voice to something that I had been trying to give voice to as a man, as an artist, as a human being. He just seemed to touch something in me that … touched a much closer nerve than anyone else had. Not to say that there aren’t other wonderful wonderful writers, but somehow I felt — and I guess this is true about anybody who has a real connection to a particular artist — I had the feeling that he was writing his shows just for me, even though, half the time, I had no idea what the hell he was writing about. I felt somehow that he was writing them just for me.
So how did you take that inspiration and those influences and the things that you really loved about theaters and plays and how did you integrate that into the work you did for “Jersey Boys”?
What I learned for Sondheim was to aim very high. I know that he makes the pointto never write down to an audience, he always tries to write up to an audience. That kind of respect for the people who come to plays and musicals is so important. And I found that a very fundamental lesson for me as a writer. And certainly I love to write with economy, because I come from advertising, where space is at a premium. … When I got to the point in my career when I was hiring other people, I used to make them send me a postcard, because if you can write a great postcard, you can be a great copywriter, because it’s essentially the same gag: You have a tiny little space to say something very, very funny.
And Marshall Brickman, my writing partner, comes from television background, which is all about economy and all about deadlines. So it turned out, by pure accident, cause we were just social friends, that we were very sympatico with our writing styles. We both had the same goals, which was to write very economically, in a very humorous way about very serious subjects, like friendship and family and neighborhood and roots – all that stuff that’s at the base and the heart of the story of Jersey Boys. And it was a great first thing for us to do together, because it seemed to coalesce, for us, everything that we had been about before. Lots and lots of conversations, a story that … exists between men or amongst men in a brotherly, kind of family environment, even though it’s not the blood family, and trying to make something better of yourself and try to do it in a way that would leave a mark on the larger world around you. It’s something that we associated with ourselves as men and something which the Seasons story really touched a nerve for us.
How did you become involved in “Jersey Boys?” Were you still in advertising?
I was working at Disney as a consultant, I had the greatest job in the world I was sort of a diplomat without a portfolio for the Walt Disney Studio. And I would parachute in and out of various projects and give advice. I got a call about doing a show with/about the Four Seasons about a year after Mamma Mia opened on Broadway. And the suggestion was, “How about doing Mamma Mia with the music of the Four Seasons?” And it was sort of a non-starter with me, but I did want to do something with Marshall and we never thought it would be a show, but we arranged a luncheon with Frankie Vallie and Bob Gaudio — the two operative Seasons. And we just thought, “Hey, a free lunch is a free lunch. Wouldn’t it be a kick.” Because I knew their songs and had several very specific associations with them from when I was a kid, mostly from summer camp. I don’t know if you have summer camp in Atlanta, but in New York, the lower middle class parents in ship their kids off to upstate New York in the summertime, so they can spend some time by themselves, and the kids can get away from the intense heat of the city. And you had counselors who were all older than you, and of course they’re the people that you all want to be like. So the music they listen to becomes very important to you. And they were listening to the Beatles and the Kinks and the Dead and the Who and the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys. These became my aspirational songs when I was a boy.
So I’d been trying to find a project to collaborate with Marshall on. And we went to the back of a very dark restaurant, and we sat there for a very long time and Bob and Frankie started telling us about the band and how they got together and rode the rocket when they hit and we asked them how come we never heard or read about these incredible stories they were telling us. I mean, music fans all know about their groups. You know, whatever your group was, you knew all about it. But all I knew about the Seasons was the music. And when they told us that they were never really written about because they were these blue collar, local guys without any glamour quotient, they didn’t have long hair, they didn’t have exotic accents, they didn’t come from across the pond, they came from the wrong side of the river, and so their story was never told because they were deemed unimportant by the cultural elite, which would be I guess you and me. We got very interested and suggested this untold story should be the show. They were intrigued enough to ask for a treatment and ultimately courageous enough to say go ahead and put it up there on the stage warts and all.
And the second miracle, after they agreed to let us write it, was there was a particular director we had in mind, Des McAnuff with whom I had worked years before when I was a kid and he was some insanely talented genius from Canada. I knew that he was sort a rocker in his soul and he directed Tommy on Broadway and I did the advertising for that, and he was the … We had a list of one name, which was Des, to direct the show and it turned out that the very first LP that Des had as a boy growing up in Toronto was Sherry and 11 Other Hits by the Four Seasons. So it was very serendipitous when we walked into the room. Now you’re very young Kristi, do you know what an LP is?
Yes, I think may sound younger than I am, I have bought albums. (laughing)
You say LP, and you have to put an asterisk next to it and explain what it means. But the very first record Des had was a Four Seasons album, and the other thing that he had was his own theater. At the time he was, and had been for many years, the Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse. So when he said he would do the show, (there was no show, we hadn’t written anything) he said, “I’ll do the life story of the Four Seasons on stage next summer.” This was maybe October. He said, “We have to have a script by May, so you better get to work.” So it was a relatively quick process from page to stage as far as Broadway musicals go. But we started writing it at the very beginning of 2004 and by August, we were in rehearsal, and we opened in October at La Jolla Playhouse. And that was how the little rocketship got started.
What was the response of the audience at that first show?
Oh my god. Kristi, it was unbelievable. We were putting this thing together in the basement of some University of California classroom building, and we were making this thing out of nothing, really. Any time you’re working on a new show you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you don’t know what’s good; you don’t know what’s bad; you don’t know what’s going to sink; you don’t know what’s going to give you goosebumps; you don’t know anything, really.
We suspected that this thing we were working on was OK, because everyday, people would sort of come and try and peer through the cracks in the door and when that happens, you realize that people are sort of talking about it, and that’s always a good thing. But we still never knew what was going to happen when the audience came. And an audience finally came on (I believe it was) Oct. 5, 2004. And I have to tell you that while the stage environment at La Jolla Playhouse is a regulation Broadway-size stage … there are only seats for 500 people, so it’s nothing at all like the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Although the stage is about the same size, the audience is only about 1/10 the size. But they sounded like 5,000 people.
The audience went berserk. It was so electrifying we thought, “This will never happen again. This is like some crazy, rabid Four Seasons fans who have flown in from all over the world.” Because Southern California was really Beach Boys territory. We didn’t expect anyone to come to see the show in La Jolla, we thought. “We’re only going to work on it.” We never expected anyone to come because Bob and Frankie said they never sold any records in Southern California. So we didn’t expect there to be anybody there.
And the place was packed, and they screamed and screamed at the end. They stood up in the middle of the first act and they stood up twice in the middle of the second act. The audience went crazy. We thought, “Well, this is a false read.” Like somebody had left the thermometer on the radiator before putting it in your mouth so your temperature was artificially inflated. So we though, “Tomorrow everything will be fine. … It will be a normal audience and we’ll be really be able to see what sucks.” The second performance happened and it was just like the first night. And the third performance happened and it was just like the first two nights.
Bob and Frankie hadn’t even seen the show yet. They came about a week, a week and a half later, because they wanted to hold it at arms length. In case it was really bad, they wanted to be able to have plausible deniability. … By the time they came the cast was very excited about the guys they were portraying being out in the theater. The audience, of course, was electrified before the show even started because Des introduced them from the stage. And all Marshall and I did was stand in the back of the theater and watch Bob and Frankie watch themselves being portrayed in the course of this show, because they had the right at the end of that performance to say, “We don’t like this and we’re going to stop it.” They had the legal right to prevent it from going onward. So we were very nervous and I think it turned out to be such a miracle that Bob and Frankie saw the show in the middle of an audience as opposed to coming to a rehearsal room where there would have been no response, because they got so swept up in what the audience was doing that it was impossible for them to feel anything but enormous excitement for what they saw, and then they became the biggest boosters for the show, the biggest supporters for the show, and became very involved with the actual ongoing operation of the show as it rolls out now across the country and around the world. That was a very, very exciting, very heady time for us: October of 2004 on the other side of the country.
Was there anything that was taken out of the show between then and Broadway, or anything that was an early part of the show that you kind of miss because it’s no longer in there?
No, I have to say, what was very unusual about Jersey Boys was although we were there with our pads and our pens and our scissors and Scotch tape and our blue pencils to do a lot of work on the actual text of the play, it didn’t seem to be broken in any way. The gods of theater were smiling on all of us when we were making this show, because it’s very much the show we set out to do. I believe that Des would say the same thing. It’s very much the production that he first envisioned in his mind is what is realized on this stage. While we were ready to do it, it just didn’t seem to be any point in dismantling things that were working. And while we did argue with Bob and Frankie about some points on material that might be included or might not be included, at the end of the day what you want to have is a very, tight sharp portrait of this group and the specific details of what makes their story so interesting. And we had those. In some cases, we wanted to be a bit greedier about what we could include, but the Seasons, to their credit, were mindful of the fact that their lives often entwined with other people who were still alive and had families of their own, and while we had their permission to use pretty much anything about them, we didn’t have permission to use anything about the people they knew. They were very respectful of the privacy of some of the people that we might have included in the story, but didn’t because we would have encroached on someone else’s lives. I think that they were right to do that. I don’t think that the show feels too light in terms of the events portrayed on the stage.
I’m working again with Marshall on a show, a musical based on “The Addams Family” and it’s going through enormous changes, enormous changes as things are want to do. But with Jersey Boys, and maybe it’s because it’s the real life story of a real life group of four guys, it just did not change very much. I would say that the show that opened opened in La Jolla is very very much like the show that opened on Broadway, and the show that opened on Broadway is exactly like the show that will come to Atlanta in a couple of weeks.
What’s your favorite part of the show?
You know that’s a really interesting question, Kristi, I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before, isn’t that funny? I’ve done so many interviews, I don’t think I’ve had anyone ask me what I like! (laughs) That’s really kind of great.
For me now, the experience with the show is a mature experience. Back when it was very new to me, I had a particularly favorite part, but now my favorite parts are these little snapshots in my mind. The very first appearance of three guys at three microphone stands at the very beginning of the show I find to be a real goosebump moment of the show for me. I’m especially pleased with staging of the run up to the end of the first act, which I think is very, very exciting, and very simple. I think a lot of Des’ presentation of the show is really kind of spectacular, and it’s not spectacular in terms of a lot of stuff on stage — but it’s really smartly done and very very exciting, electrifying even.
I think for me, my favorite part of the show, my favorite aspect of the show is the friendship that I’ve evolved between Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli over the last few years. My favorite moment of the show is the demonstration of the bond between these two guys, in the second act, when Gaudio sort of forces through, against sort of daunting odds, a record that Frankie’s recorded that he (Gaudio) feels will reallly help Frankie on to the next stage of his career. And nobody’s interested in it, and he pushes that song through, and it turns into a huge success. And that sort of part of the rags to riches story is somewhat familiar to us, but this is something that a friend does for another friend for no reason other than to help his friend, I find to be really at the root of what this show is about. That the bonds that you have are like iron, whether it’s your real family or this sort of second family. And maybe the reason I feel that way is because we’ve all been part of a group. You’re part of whatever group you’re a part of, I was part of a bowling league, I was a consultant to a very large company like Walt Disney. If you’re in a band or a ball team, what have you, these groups tend to become second families for us, and sometimes they’re very dysfunctional families and sometimes the bonds are stronger than with our real families, and sometimes we take these second families for granted and screw them up, just like we do with our real families. But while Jersey Boys tells the story of the Four Seasons, it’s hard not to be touched by these eternal issues, that the Seasons are touched by because they are our issues too: wanting to belong, wanting to achieve, wanting to be respected, wanting to find home. I’m nothing like the Four Seasons. I was raised in New York, one of those over educated, over analyzed, over indulged Upper West Side New Yorkers. My parents discouraged me from even turning my head to the right to even see where New Jersey was, as though somehow it would be a bad influence on me. And now here I am, all these years later, eating crow because it turns out that these guys from Jersey have taught me so much about myself, because I recognize what they go through because I’ve gone through my version of the same thing. And I find that very, very moving. And frequently funny.
But in that particular moment in the second act of Jersey Boys, I always get a lump in my throat because of what one friend does for another. It’s kind of what Shakespeare describes as a band of brothers in Henry V. I only mention this because I happened to be watching Henry V last night. There’s that great St. Crispin’s Day speech … and he’s talking to a bunch of guys, but he’s talking to them like brothers, and I thought, “this is exactly like Jersey Boys. It really is a universal idea that the bonds of society amongst men and women are very very strong, and when people stand up for other people, I find that to be a very emotional thing.
Thank you so much for talking to me today, I really appreciate it.
Thank you, Kristi, I really appreciate it. You know, theater is so enormous. I’m really flattered and pleased that you’re willing to help us out with an article because I love the idea of getting people in to see this show.