Four Seasons Bigger Than Ever in B'way Musical

By Claudia Parsons

Bob Gaudio, songwriting partner of Frankie Valli and one of the original Four Seasons, is beginning to think "Jersey Boys," a Broadway musical about the band, may be even more successful than the band itself.

Featuring a string of hits such as "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Oh What a Night," the show is the story of four blue-collar boys from New Jersey who overcame prison, mobsters and rivalries to win riches and fame in the 1960s.

Now it's a hot favorite for best musical at the Tony Awards on Sunday, though it may have to overcome some prejudices about so-called "jukebox musicals," which some in the business consider an inferior form to shows with original scores such as its main rival for the top prize, "The Drowsy Chaperone."

"I never looked at this as being a jukebox musical," Valli said in a telephone interview. "This is more about the life and times of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, how it got started and what it's all about," he said.

As it happens, the story is a dramatic one -- involving jail time, failed marriages, the death of Valli's daughter due to drugs and battles with record companies to get their hits made. It's also a story that is relatively unknown to many.

"Even with our success, we never got the publicity, not like the Beatles certainly or even the Beach Boys," Gaudio said over lunch just off Broadway. "Part of it was a certain awareness that this might not be good for our careers.

"And nobody really gave a crap. We were not glamour boys, we didn't have a teeny-bopper audience ... so we didn't get the kind of coverage other groups did. And even if we did, this wouldn't be the kind of story you want to share."

Three Sides to a Story

The original Four Seasons, whose first big hit "Sherry" went to No. 1 in 1962, was comprised of Valli, Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito, who is portrayed as a fast-talking hustler who serves time for robbery in his youth and later runs up a gambling debt of $160,000 with a mob loanshark.

When the mobsters call in their debt, Valli and Gaudio agree to pay the money, buying DeVito out of the band after years of tension. Narrated in turn by each of the band members, the show makes clear there are different sides to the story.

As Valli said: "There's an old saying: there's three sides to every story -- his, hers and the truth."

Massi, who is portrayed as a quiet and talented man as well as a drinker with an obsessive attention to details such as hotel towels, left the band for reasons Valli and Gaudio said they still did not fully understand.

Gaudio said the idea of a musical occurred to him about a decade ago, but though he is credited as composer and was involved from the start, he said he and Valli stepped back to let the writers and the director work it out independently.

Director Des McAnuff said the writers of the show had relied on interviews with Gaudio and Valli and an unpublished autobiography by DeVito. Since Massi died in 2000, they had to rely on the others for his side of the story.

"I thought the biggest thrill for me would be to stand in front of the theater and have people say, 'I had no idea.' And that's exactly what happened," said Gaudio, whose songwriting partnership with Valli lasts to this day and who has also produced records for the likes of Neil Diamond and Diana Ross.

He recalls a friend who saw a preview of the show telling him: "This show's going to be bigger than you guys ever were."

Recording Together Again

Gaudio and Valli are returning to the studio in June to record an album together for the first time in more than a decade, and Gaudio said both the cast album of "Jersey Boys" and the band's original records were selling strongly -- adding to a tally that already tops 100 million records sold.

While Gaudio gave up performing long ago, Valli still tours with the latest incarnation of the Four Seasons, and he recently played a recurring role on the hit television show "The Sopranos" about New Jersey mobsters.

He plays down talk of a comeback, saying he's enjoyed three or four "resurgences" over time.

"People look at careers differently," he said. "A career is something that you build, and you go out there and do it forever. (As for) being in the limelight, as long as there's work out there, you are in the limelight.

"Maybe the industry is not paying that much attention, but the people who buy tickets and come and see the shows are the ones that matter."

The people are certainly turning out in droves for "Jersey Boys," which has been reporting attendance at around 99 percent capacity and grossing $1 million a week, on a par with long-term hits such as "Mamma Mia" and "Phantom of the Opera."

McAnuff attributes the show's appeal to the "courage" of the band members in telling the full story. "In Elizabethan London, this would have been called a history play," he said. It's just in our time celebrities replace royalty."

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