The Falsetto Meets "The Sopranos"

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 3)

Walk Like a Man. The bongo riffs that began "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" give way to a fusillade of snare-drum aggression: a declaration of the war between the sexes. On his third try, Gaudio found a narrative use for the tramp-tramp-tramp beat of the first two songs: I'm gonna march right out of your heart. Valli's falsetto croons a pretty, otherworldly air while the other Seasons bark out, "Walk! Walk! Walk! Walk!" In three series of this long march (played at the beginning, middle and end, and expending more than half of the 2 minute, 15 second song), the Seasons announce themselves as the vanishing lovelorn, the French Foreign Legion of Essex County.

There's little melodic instrumentation: the guitar simply thrums on the one and three beats, and the piano plays left-hand figures, essentially functioning as a bass. It's all percussive, as in a military band. Civilian life, the arrangement says, isn't much different from the Army, and if you're lucky your Dad will be an understanding drill sergeant. The sentiments too are basic suck-it-up machismo. As in many Seasons songs, the performance here can be taken almost as a parody of the message: Walk like a man, talk like a man, but sings like Baby Snooks with a spoonful of helium. And though these aren't words I live by, I love the internal rhyme of that maxim: "No woman's worth / Crawling on the earth, / So walk like a man, my son."

Dawn. For their fifth single, the Seasons team produced a masterpiece. Anyway, their apotheosis. Since the simple days of "Sherry," Crewe and Gaudio had been listening to Phil Spector's productions for the Crystals and Ronettes; the arrangement is both burlier and more complex. The song begins with a snatch of spoken doggerel ("Pretty eyes of midsummer's morn, / They call her Dawn"). Then the drummer has a quick snit fit, and organ and chimes lead into the plaint, "Dawn, go away, I'm no good for you," as a guitar strums 2/4 Latino figures. There are six different melodic elements—hard to call anything in this song a chorus, a verse or a bridge—under the strong harmonic vocals and, of course, the marching feet.

The singer is a wonderful guy with no money and an inferiority complex the size of Idaho. "Dawn, / Go away, back where you belong. / Girl, we can't / Change the places where we were born." The rich girl is ready to go with him, but she's leading with her heart. So, like Bogart in Casablanca, he has to do the thinking for both of them. "Before you say / That you want me, / I want you to think / What your family would say. /Think / What you're throwing away. / Now think what the future would be with a poor boy like me." And back to the chorus, repeated four times as he marches slowly, backward, out of her life. "Dawn, go away, I'm no good for you"? It should be: Go away, I'm too good for you.


Putting together a trunk show of hits from a composer or group is a matter of choosing from among three options: a pastiche of tunes (as in Smokey Joe's Cafe from the Mike Leiber-Jerry Stoller songbook, the Billy Joel Movin' Out or Swingin' On a Star from lyricist Jimmy McHugh); a new book that finds slots for the songs (as in the ABBA Mamma Mia!, the Elvis All Shook Up or the Gershwin's My One and Only and Crazy for You); or a bio-musical of the artist (the Buddy Holly tribute Buddy or Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave).

The creators of Jersey Boys, librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and director Des McAnuff, went for Plan C. They had two ideas for freshening the material. One was to emphasize the Seasons' Italo-American roots, especially the connection to the New Jersey mob of founder Nick DeVito; this turns the show from a simple exercise in Frankie Valli nostalgia into "The Falsetto and the Sopranos." The other was to give each member of the group weight by letting him tell part of the story. Tommy says, "You ask four guys, you get four different versions." That's Jersey Boys: a Rahway Rashomon.

Maybe this show has too many ideas, since it is also broken into four seasons: Spring (the early years), Summer (the hit years), Fall (the, y' know, fall from hitmakers to nobodies) and Winter (death, the fourth season for us all, and transfiguration). Since life doesn't always accommodate melodrama, some events, like the death of Valli's daughter from a drug overdose, get pushed out of their proper time frame.

Tommy (Christian Hoff) sets the stage by proclaiming, "Let's face it, we put Jersey on the map"—thereby ignoring, to name a few, Thomas Edison (Menlo Park), RCA Victor (Camden), the Miss America Pageant (Atlantic City) and Bruno Hauptman (Hopewell), not to mention the kid from Hoboken, Mr. Frank Sinatra, and a Newark boy whose piercing tenor preceded Valli's in the national consciousness by more than a decade, Jerry Lewis.

Tommy, when he's not doing time at Rahway Correctional Facility, sings with neighborhood pal Nick (J. Robert Spencer) and looks out for a guy, one year younger, whom he calls "kid": Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young). Frankie's wife Mary (Jennifer Naimo) warns him: Mary: "With friends like these, maybe you should change your name to Sinatra." But he goes for Valli. Then Tommy's pesty friend Joe Pesci, yes, that one, hooks him up with Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard), a teenager who a few years before had a novelty hit called "Short Shorts." He wants music to be more than doo-wop, to have subtlety, resonance. "It's what T.S. Eliot calls the objective correlative," he says, to which a local girl observes, "You're not from around here, are you?"

Record producer Crewe (Peter Gregus) hires the guys, but his florid style doesn't match their earth tones. After one take, he says of the harmony, "I hear it in sky blue. You're giving me brown." Tommy snaps, "That's because you're paying us shit." In desperation they look for guidance from above and see the name of the next joint they're playing, Four Seasons Lounge, in neon against the night sky. In my favorite bit of dialogue from the show, Frankie exclaims, "It's a sign!" (Given all the rim-shot repartee in this show, you'd think that the joint they'd named themselves for would be not the Four Seasons but the Ba-Da-Bing.)

Jersey Boys hews to the bio-facts, and to the notion that any story about the Italian-American working class has to be about elaborate ritual behavior and ties with the mob. As in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, the Seasons' philandering is strictly regimented; one of them says, "You had your real family and your road family." As in Scorsese's Mean Streets, four guys hang out looking for the big score, and one of them get in trouble with a don. By the end of Act I, Tommy owes a half-million dollars to various nefarious gents. Recalling their pre-star days, Tommy says, "Hey, Nick, remember when we couldn't get arrested?" Later, speaking to the audience, Nick acknowledges that "None of us were saints. You sell 100 million records, see how you handle it."

The show plays also true to the showbiz verities. Gaudio: "A tune pops in my head," and eureka, it's "Sherry." The bosses don't want to record a Gaudio composition. They get it played, finally (after a buildup longer than the one for Mother Bates in Psycho), and voila, it's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," Valli's longest-lived hit and, musically, one of Gaudio's least surprising Seasons creations: standard, nicely orchestrated Europop, a plain old love song, with no grudges or class animosities. (But don't listen to me. It's among the ten most played songs of the 20th century.) Family crises become song cues: Frankie's daughter dies of drugs, he sings "Bye Bye Baby." And at the end, the showman must go on. "I'm still out there singin'," Frankie tells us. "Like that bunny on TV with the battery, I just keep on goin'."


Start to finish, Jersey Boys is fast, fun and mostly engaging. It's awfully well cast—I liked all four faux-Seasons. As Frankie, Young hasn't the sharp angles of Valli's face, but a soft oval sweetness. His falsetto is impressive, except in a narrow stripe (three- or four-note range) where he's very thin. Granted, his voice isn't double-tracked, as Valli's often was on records, and I caught Young on a night when he'd already done a matinee. On the pristinely produced Jersey Boys original cast CD (with helpful liner notes by Gaudio aficionado and ex-TIME senior editor Charles Alexander), Frankie sounds better, more Valliesque. He shines particularly when singing the James Moody jazz version of "I'm in the Mood for Love"—great work, and a nice change of sonic pace.

To judge from the audience reaction that Wednesday night, Jersey Boys will run for centuries and win a lot of Tonys (Tony Danza, Tony Franciosa, Tony and Tina, Tony Soprano...). But let's be clear: it's the songs that raise the show to their level, not the other way around. The show's reproduction of the Seasons sound is quite astute; the songs sound pretty much as they did on record, except that instead of fading out they often end with a flourish; and they are played faster, as if the producers wanted to shave a few minutes off the running time, so the audience could catch an earlier PATH train back to Newark.

The show may zip theatergoers back to the '60s, but it was a different '60s. Back then, the Seasons were appreciated for catchy, danceable (or marchable) songs with tight, soaring harmonies. But the Beach Boys, on the other coast, were the preferred vocal group. As for the Seasons' lyrics, I guarantee nobody was parsing them to determine the romantic ache, handed out and absorbed, behind the perky melodies and simple rhymes. (It took the Beatles to bring together the '60s teen's high and low aspects: English lit and rock 'n' roll.)

When I was a teen—stumbling through the very obsessions, betrayals and disappointments that were the meat of the Four Seasons', er, oeuvre—I liked their songs but didn't dwell on them. It wasn't till a decade or so ago, when we were vacationing on the Caribbean island of St. Martin (whence I write this), that a Seasons tribute group did an evening of their songs. The stuff sounded richer, more mature, worth cherishing beyond its nostalgia value.

Having seen Jersey Boys, and spent the last week listening compulsively to their greatest hits album, I still think that. I'd go further and say that this music is as sharp, smart, tuneful and complex as any new Broadway scores not of the Sondheim school. I mean, better than the scores of The Producers, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Spamalot—which happen to be the last four Tony-winning musicals. Gaudio, Valli, DeVito, Massi and Crewe left a legacy of potent, sophisticated songs. Pop-classic music for all seasons.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next