The Falsetto Meets "The Sopranos"

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It's just three nights after the premiere of the slick, vivacious new Broadway musical Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but already the audience at the August Wilson Theatre on West 52nd Street dresses like the crowds you'd see in the fifth year of Mamma Mia! Tight-fitting tops, carefully pomaded hair, ostentatious gold neckwear ... and the women look pretty gaudy too.

I mention this not because I'm a dress-code martinet (though I must note I was the only audience member in my field of vision who was wearing a tie), but to indicate that here was a show with an instant lock on its market. The producers of this show about the Four Seasons—the '60s vocal quartet from Belleville, N.J., that sold maybe 100 million records (those were vinyl discs that people bought before there were CDs, kids) had quickly located that segment of the tri-state community who had danced and romanced to songs like "Sherry" and "Dawn" and, 40 years later, were pleased to pony up $101.25 a ticket to revisit the musical fever of a more innocent time: theirs. The house was packed with so many Jersey boys and girls of a certain age that we might have been at the Meadowlands. On stage and in the orchestra seats, the mood was very B&T.

As in "bridge-and-tunnel." That's the phrase that snooty Manhattanites use to describe people in the four outer boroughs and northern New Jersey. Even if they live in New York City, they call Manhattan "the city."

The antique but resilient notion of Manhattan's glamorous otherness—of a WASP elite as tall, thin and gleaming as Deco skyscrapers, of an oasis of chic, an object of pride and envy for the white ethnics living in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Paramus and points west—has a lot to do with a 10-block patch of midtown real estate called Broadway. That's where the swells dressed up for the opening night of a Gershwin show starring Fred and Adele Astaire. The Woolworth Building, four miles down the street, was the Cathedral of Commerce; the village of legitimate theaters made Manhattan, for its outlying neighbors and for starstruck folks in Iowa, the church of chic.

How long can an upmarket myth linger before tatty reality rubs it out? The legend of old Broadway—when stories of poor boys winning the hearts of rich girls served as metaphors for the irresistibility of American ambition, and debonair stars introduced songs that instantly found a spot in the everyone's internal juke box—is a good half-century out of date. No #1 Billboard hit has come from a Broadway musical since Judy Collins' "Send in the Clowns" from the Steven Sondheim A Little Night Music in 1973. No Broadway musical has put a bunch of its tunes on the top 40 since 1968, when "Aquarius," "Let the Sun Shine In," "Good Morning, Starshine," "Easy to Be Hard" and the title song all flowed out of Hair.

If you don't go to a musical to hear good music that will soon be familiar to the rest of the world, what do you go for? Good old familiar music. Hence Jersey Boys, which recounts the career of the '60s vocal quartet the Four Seasons and their tenor-falsetto lead singer Frankie Valli.

Yes, this is kind of a "legends" show, with actors pretending to be stars singing their late great hits. Yes, it'd be better if we had composers who could write story songs that translated into hit songs, the way Alan Menken and Tim Rice did for a few years with the Disney animated features that produced "A Whole New World." But since we don't, and haven't for ages, we can do worse than to honor classic pop, including the kind few people realized was classic till now.

Once I was a youth (yout') who spent his happiest summers on the Jersey shore, singing and listening to songs very like these. And now, as a Manhattan snob, I have a message for dear old Broadway: you need shows pretty much like this one.


Start with The Voice. The Four Seasons' sound begins with Valli, who functioned as both the lead tenor and the falsetto backup singer; he told the story and provided the color. What astonished immediately and lastingly was the power of his glass-shattering, dog-dementing falsetto (often multiplied on record by having him dupe his solos on a second track). First time around, hearing "Sherry," listeners may have thought it was a gag. Sometimes he used it for fun, in high-pitched baby talk, as George Rock's comic falsetto had for the vocal in Spike Jones' 1947 novelty hit "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)." And the reading of "bay-yay-bee" in "Sherry," offers a few seconds of comedy-record crib noise.

But Valli wasn't just kidding with his falsetto. It was not pure, not angelic, like the sweet-child voices of Brian and Carl Wilson on such Beach Boys tracks as "In My Room" and "God Only Knows." Valli's had a raspiness that gave his romantic pleas gravel, gravity, balls. This was no castrato, but a grown, yearning heterosexual male whose impossibly high voice set him apart, in tone and content, from the baritone norm, and made him perfect for all the outsider characters he would articulate in the Seasons' hits.

Behind him were three voices in the pop-R&B tradition, an octave or so below Frankie's. Usually the other guys didn't have much more to do than intone a few vowel sounds or (on "Stay") pow sounds—the oohs and ahhs of 50s doo-wop. But there was a solidity to the Seasons' backing vocals. With Valli doing all the filigree work, the other three were the long, smooth, sturdy road his falsetto danced on. Listen, for example, to "Rag Doll" (one of 51 selections on the very rich Seasons Anthology CD from Rhino Records). It begins with four bars of oohs, setting an eerie, pretty mood that won't quite reveal itself, then explodes into four bars of AHHHHHS. It's not Beethoven, but it has a pop majesty, the wordless, secular hymns of streetcorner Romeos.

Valli, though, had been singing that way, professionally, for about a decade, and the group had been together nearly that long, without getting very far. The "sound" needed songs to encase it, bring out the power and drama behind its freakishness. In the early '60s—before the blooming of the singer-songwriter, before performers were routinely called artists, before the unit of music was an album—groups relied on songwriters and producers to give them hit singles. The Drifters had Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller producing their hits, and a gang of young pros in the Brill Building (Goffin and King, Pomus and Shuman) writing them. The Seasons were lucky to align with producer Bob Crewe, who had written such hits as "Silhouettes" and "Tallahassee Lassie." They were even more fortunate that Bob Gaudio joined the Seasons in the late '50s—not as another voice, but as the group's brain and heart (Valli's being its soul).

Gaudio was the Seasons' Brian Wilson: a writer-performer who defined the group's tight-harmony sound but soon tired of the road and stayed home to become a full-time pop composer. The moment in Jersey Boys where the Gaudio character hears Valli and says, "I gotta write for that voice," rings true. Valli, fronting the group's tight, muscular harmony, inspired Gaudio, often in collaboration with Crewe, to create two-minute operas that did a lot within the restrictive pop format.

For example, instead of simply repeating the chorus, they'd use the first line in different ways: as the first line of the verse ("Dawn, go away I'm no good for you"), as the resolution of the bridge ("Big girls don't cry") or as the entire bridge ("I'll go on living and keep on forgiving..." from "Ronnie"). To ramp up a song's intensity, they'd modulate chords like crazy. One Seasons website asserts that "Opus 17" "ties Bobby Darin's "Mack The Knife" for the largest number of chromatic key changes in a Top 40 hit." (Five, if you were wondering: from F# to G to A-flat to A to B-flat to B.) All these felicitous tricks were in the service of songs bursting with drama and pain—stories of mismatched love, the messy ends of affairs, the unbreachable barrier of class.


Excuse me, you say—wha? You've heard most of the Seasons' songs, and the mood wasn't achy-breaky; rather bold and uptempo. It's true that "Sherry," the first Seasons' hit, was a standard girl-name song (they had a lot of those) with a you-look-so-fine, gonna-make-you-mine lyric. But listen to their later, more mature (I want to say Blue Period) work and you'll hear little pop poems about hard-won love lessons, wrapped in fairly complex narratives.

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