I want to preface by saying that although I take pride in keeping a level head in all of these posts, I think I am about to go a little fan-girl on this one.
I first saw Jersey Boys in Chicago over Christmas break in 2007 at the Bank of America Theatre. (For all y'all Chicago Theater nerds, this was the former the Lasalle Theatre under its new title, presently titled the Private Bank Theatre.) I was sixteen years old, chock full of wishes and dreams. Unlike my present self, I wouldn't touch a straight play with a ten foot pole; I ate, breathed and dreamed in musical theatre. I was still riding high off Jersey Boy's sweep at the Tony Awards the spring prior. Even though he was not in the touring production, John Lloyd Young, who had won that year's Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, was a major inspiration to my theatre career. The boy who had made a living ushering at Broadway houses for years, facing rejection after rejection in auditions because he just never quite fit, had at long last found his niche in the role of Frankie Valli, boy band legend and king of the falsetto. His underdog Broadway dream had come, and his story gave me faith that mine could someday come to fruition as well.
Instantly I was mesmerized by the simple, yet tight harmonies of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I burned a copy of the original Broadway cast album for the girls I babysat for across the street, telling them that they just had to listen to it, and see it if they could. I apologized to their mom that there were some minor expletives in some of the tracks featuring dialogue, but that it was totally worth it. The whole family went a week later. I started checking out CDs of some of the band's original recordings from the library. By February I had choreographed my kid sister's middle school musical audition for Bye Bye Birdie to the tune of "Sherry." My parents will testify that as I step-touched my way around the house with my brick-status iPod, for Isabella, everything was coming up Jersey Boys.
I wasn't planning to write all that. It wasn't until after the show that I even questioned why I had taken the time to dress up extra nice for opening, to get my hair done and even participate in the themed Jersey Boys themed cocktail served at the venue. I remembered that I had listened to much of the soundtrack and original Four Seasons recordings on Spotify all week leading up the event. I was truly dancing in my seat for almost the entire show, and there were times I had to really force back some tears to keep myself from screwing up all that makeup. What's going on, I pondered to myself as I swirled a straw around my old fashioned at the opening night after party.
This is the magic of the American theatre. For all the reasons mentioned above, and more, this is a very sentimental musical for me. It took me until now to realize what a profound impact this show had on my teenagehood. Similar to the way Zoot Suit resonated strongly for a large portion of the Chicano community, this show resonates with me as an Italian American. We are introduced to these young, young boys singing under a streetlamp in South Jersey. They are the sons of immigrants, some of them living in the projects. One of them sings, with very little effort, extremely high for a man. Some welcome this new sound, others do not. This year, as I'm working on adapting a challenging piece of theatre from the late 1800s to the present, I've been focusing a lot on adaptation in life and in the theatrical context. What band or group could I make a present day parallel to for the young Four Seasons? What group or artist sounds "weird" or goes against the norm? What sounds crazy to us now? As the story continues, we watch these "crazy" kids hustle their way through the music industry, facing many trials, changes, let-downs and rejections along the way. But somehow, as told through a beautifully balanced documentary style narrative, they somehow always end up making the music they need to keep them going. And it's those little artists moments, alone, in private that continue to inspire me now. When the boys are down they take turns encouraging each other, with new pieces of music, surprising leads in the business, love interests or trial-and-erroring out harmonies. It brings me back to these moments in my own life. A young playwright asking me to try out some untouched dialogue, sitting around the kitchen table with a group of actors hearing out a play we've always wanted to perform (over cocktails we spent a portion of our rent on) and just being there, present, watching a friend perform in a 99 seat house, and then later in an equity house; it's those tiny moments of artistic magic that keep us going.
Once again I'm failing to mention the incredible acting necessary in bring this musically moving story to life. Many patrons were thrilled to hear acclaimed Dancing With the Stars season regular Mark Ballas would be performing the role of Frankie Valli. Of course he was fantastic and the additional choreography used to hype up his skills as a dancer was a delightful bonus to the production. Everyone else in it was wonderful in their own way. The accents are one of my favorite parts of this show. But my darlings of the American theatre, I know this may come off as arrogant, but in a way I don't really care enough to mention acting sometimes. It's the story I care more about. My point is, that if I'm not being removed from the story, the actors are doing a superb job. Which they truly did. But, when it comes down to it, it was the real-life, in the flesh Frankie Valli who received the three minute standing ovation at the end of the show, simply for congratulating the cast with his presence. He's the true hero. But yes, the strong performances from the cast are what helped the rest of us, who weren't there in late December back in '63, to realize that.
FRANKIE valli: Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them...and f^&% it up.
I do genuinely wonder how I would feel about this show if I had never seen it before. Would I view it as just another jukebox, bioplay musical, lacking in truly original music and story content? Or would I in fact see it as a beautiful, accurately theatrical retelling of how four kids with the odds stacked against them, climbed to the top, making musical and rock and roll history that would impact listeners for generations? I don't know if I'm a generous enough patron anymore to accept the latter. So I'm glad I have the memories to inform me in the present. Sometimes it's nice when that sixteen-year-old Isabella reminds me of the foundations of who I really am in the theatre.
Jersey Boys runs through June 24th at the Ahmanson. Sure, there's nothing particularly innovative about the direction of this national tour; they keep the integrity of the original production to a T. But I still really do love this musical, with the same eyes that saw it the first time, that have now just seen a mere decade more to life. Hey, I didn't know who Joe Pesci was the first time I saw this. If you didn't find this post too biased, I would encourage you to participate in this significant piece of American theatre history.