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Jersey Boy

Bob Gaudio, hit songwriter and former member of The Four Seasons, has another winner on his hands with a new Broadway musical
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Bob Gaudio sits in an aisle seat at the August Wilson Theatre in Manhattan on a warm spring morning. The stage is bare and the auditorium is empty, except for a reporter and two cleaning people. The whir of a vacuum cleaner can be heard in the near-empty hall. In a few hours, a capacity crowd, full of anticipation, will enter that West 52nd Street theater. They will revel in a show that tells the moving story, in words and music, of the birth, rise, fall and rebirth of the classic 1960s pop group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. The show is Jersey Boys.

"It's like reliving my life," Gaudio says. "But this time, there's a 20-minute intermission."

The tall, slender and bearded 63-year-old songwriter eagerly talks about The Four Seasons and Jersey Boys, the biggest musical hit of the Broadway season and one that he helped conceive. Gaudio, a founding member of the doo-wop quartet, was the one who wrote its danceable, singable, harmonic music. A songwriter since his youth, Gaudio wrote his first—pre-Four Seasons—No. 1 hit, "Short Shorts," when he was only 15. He wasn't quite 20 when he began writing the now legendary Four Seasons standards "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Rag Doll," moving on over the years to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)."

More than four decades after the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers first reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts—with "Sherry" in 1962—the show about their lives and music is a hit with New York theater critics and has received eight Tony Award nominations.

But not just critics are enthralled. Eight times a week, rapturous audiences embrace Jersey Boys. They cheer the songs and the performances, clap in unison and silently (sometimes not so silently) sing along. Those anthems of a generation bring back teen memories and touchingly and joyously recapture a time long gone, for two and a half all-too-brief hours. As one critic wrote, "Jersey Boys catches the very texture, almost the actual smell, of its time."

Or as Gaudio justifiably brags, "The audience doesn't just walk out saying, 'Oh, yeah, that was fun, that was cool, that was a nice show, that was worth the 110 bucks.' They fly out. They're on a cloud."

Jersey Boys began its life in October 2004 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, where it was the most successful show in the theater's history. It cost nearly $8 million to bring to Broadway, where it opened last November. Although Gaudio and others wouldn't give out the names of the investors, they believe that the show will recoup its investment this summer. That's much faster than it takes many hit Broadway musicals to show a profit.

In December, the rest of the country will get to see why New York has fallen in love with the show—that's when the Jersey Boys national tour begins, at the Curran Theater in San Francisco.

The idea for a show like Jersey Boys came to him nearly 30 years ago, Gaudio says. The first time he realized it might work, he recalls, "was when I was watching the [bar] scene in The Deer Hunter, when Robert De Niro and the others sang 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You.' It struck me that this is the real world out there, and people have been affected by the song like that. If the director, Michael Cimino, can use it in such an effective way, there's something there."

He stored the seed in the back of his mind, where it stayed without germinating. He wasn't involved in the theater then, and wasn't sure how he could nurture his plan. But, in 2001, the stage beckoned. He composed the score for a London musical based on the 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married.

"The theater got in my blood," he says. "I started having discussions. I just got a sense that there was a real respect for our music, and that the doors might be a little more open than I thought. And the pieces of Jersey Boys just started coming together."

There were, of course, problems, one being that the tale was not all happy. The story of The Four Seasons involves gambling debts, mobsters, a fall from popular grace and the drug-overdose death of Valli's daughter, Francine.

"With certain things," Gaudio says, "we didn't know if we wanted to go there. But for the most part Frankie and I were resolved that if we were going to do this, we're just going to do it. It was going to be warts and all, or let's not do it."

Valli agrees. "I feel nothing but terrific about it," he says, when asked about including all the highs and lows of The Four Seasons' lives and career. "None of those things are anything to be ashamed of. They're part of life, and none of them are new to anybody."

The alternative, explains Gaudio, would be "a lot of bullshit, a lot of whitewashing." They felt this didn't fit their music, which he describes as "honest," "born on the street" and "heartfelt."

Some things are still not easy. There's the scene in which a young Gaudio receives his sexual initiation from an eager fan. "Seeing that was a little tougher when my kids were here," he says. "My wife—she's my second wife, we've been together some 30 years—didn't know a lot about the early years, and some of that stuff was shocking to her."

But most troubling of all was the death of Valli's daughter. "That's tough. His daughter's death was a difficult time. I don't walk out of the theater without tears in my eyes. I can't imagine losing one of my own children. I just can't.

"It was rough on opening night in La Jolla, sitting with Frankie. I dreaded the scene. I had seen the show in previews, and he hadn't. I wasn't sure that I wouldn't be carrying him out of the theater. He got through it, but he broke down. So did I. So did the audience."

Valli believes that including the scene was cathartic. "It's something you live with for the rest of your life," he says. "Hopefully being able to talk about it might help some other family."

Gaudio quickly points out that he may have had an idea for a show, but others brought it to fruition. He praises writers Marshall Brickman (known for co-writing such Woody Allen movies as Annie Hall and Manhattan) and Rick Elice and director Des McAnuff (the artistic director of the La Jolla, who co-wrote and directed The Who's Tommy on Broadway in the '90s and at one point expressed interest in directing Peggy Sue). They were the forces that shaped the show around the group's life and used the music only in concert form. Gaudio also praises Michael David of Dodger Theatricals, the coproducers and "the amazing cast," led by John Lloyd Young as Valli, Daniel Reichard as Gaudio, Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito and J. Robert Spencer as Nick Massi.

"There have been other so-called jukebox musicals," Gaudio says. "But I said, Imagine if they could do something where the story was as strong, as affecting, as the music. And they did." One aspect of the musical is special, Gaudio says: few people get to watch an actor portray them on the stage. "It is a little awkward," Gaudio acknowledges. But then he shrugs his shoulders.

"I'm convinced, though, that Daniel is me, because when I was that young I didn't know what I was anyway."

Unlike the other members of The Four Seasons, Gaudio wasn't born in New Jersey. He grew up in the Bronx, in a three-family house—"us, my grandmother and my aunts.'' When he was 12, he "got in a little bit of trouble with the gangs," prompting his family to move to suburban Bergenfield, New Jersey. "So that makes me a true Jersey boy," Gaudio declares.

He credits his musical career to his mother. Although he wanted to play football or would have preferred to have been a drummer, she forced him to take piano lessons and practice at least an hour a day. "If it wasn't for my mom," he says, "I don't know where I'd be."

Calling it a sacrifice, he said his parents took him to New Rochelle, New York, for lessons with jazz pianist Sal Mosca. "For two or three months," he says, "I did nothing but learn intervals with Louis Armstrong solos, learning to scat. Then we played some classics. He [Mosca] had a weighted keyboard, so I developed my hands."

One day that all changed, Gaudio says. "I woke up and said I'm getting tired of playing everyone else's music. That was just a little lightbulb that went off. I was 13 or so, and that was the beginning of my writing."

He had written little before "Short Shorts" happened. "It was all very quick," he says. "I didn't have a whole lot of time to think of where I was going in life. It was almost like a B-movie. We had this high school band, the Royal Teens, and we played in parking lots and at proms and church affairs. We were the backup for a group [called The Three Friends] that had a hit song called 'Blanche.' Their manager heard us and said we were pretty good, so why don't we come into New York and do some demos."

The genesis of "Short Shorts" was quick—and basic. One day, Gaudio and his partners were "driving up the strip in Bergenfield, and we saw these girls standing on the corner—and bingo, there it was."

"Short Shorts" climbed the charts, and the Royal Teens got offers to go on tour.

"My dad," remembers Gaudio, "said, 'No way in hell you're leaving high school—you're going to get your education; no one else in the family did.' I made a last-ditch effort and said, 'Can't we meet with the principal?' I convinced my parents to go. To everyone's amazement, the principal said, 'It's an opportunity of a lifetime. I think you should let him take it.' And they did." The Royal Teens hit the road and Gaudio received a different kind of education from what his parents had originally wanted. "Before and after our number I would watch the other acts in the show—Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Bo Diddley. I was a fan."

A year and a half passed, however, without another success. "I was afraid I was going to be a one-hit wonder," Gaudio recalls. He found a job in a printing factory and played in a jazz quartet. In 1959, a member of that quartet, a youth named Joe Pesci—yes, that Joe Pesci—introduced Gaudio to Valli, who was singing with The Four Lovers, a group that was seeking fresh blood.

"I really wanted to work with a singer full-time, find somebody I could feel comfortable with," he says. Valli's voice enthralled Gaudio. There was that falsetto, and the way the voice stood out from just about anything Gaudio or anyone in the business had ever heard.

"So we got together and shopped around [for a record deal]. Frankie and I were the motivating forces. We went into the city every day. We knocked on doors and climbed stairs and stood in front of 1650 Broadway, the Brill Building, where the music business was centered." There, the duo met with Bob Crewe, a producer from Philadelphia whom Valli knew. Crewe hired them.

The producer would become Gaudio's musical collaborator on most of the songs (later, Gaudio's second wife, Judy Parker, would fill that role). The first success was Gaudio's "Sherry," which started out in the rhythm and blues market and became No. 1. On hearing the group's unique sound, many people thought the singers were black.

"Nobody knew what we were," Gaudio says. "Were we gay? Were we girls? Nobody believed that a voice like Frankie's could come from an Italian from Newark. For a while, the record label didn't even publicize the fact that we were white. They didn't use our picture on the sleeve of the 45. But then the record became so huge—it crossed right over to the mainstream charts—and there was no stopping it."


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