'Jersey Boys' juggernaut takes on Vegas Strip

By Paul Lieberman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 4, 2008

LAS VEGAS — BEFORE "Jersey Boys" had its tryout run in 2004 in La Jolla, the two central real-life characters on which it's based -- the diminutive singer Frankie Valli and the keyboard-playing songwriter Bob Gaudio -- feared that was not the right locale to unveil a musical about the 4 Seasons.

"This was not even close to being 'our audience,' or what we perceived to be our audience," recalled Gaudio, "the non-blue collar La Jolla -- Beach Boys territory, you know, and surfers. It would be the last place we would pick in the world to premiere a 4 Seasons story."

They were relieved, naturally, when the audiences stood and cheered the young actors playing them in younger days, and when theater staffers started telling stories about addicted fans, like the man who came three straight nights -- with three different women on his arm.

But by the time the show gravitated to Broadway the next year, the "jukebox musical" craze fueled by "Mamma Mia!" had dimmed with the failure of "All Shook Up," based on Elvis' music; "Lennon," which used the ex-Beatle's songs; and "Good Vibrations," which tapped the songbook of their old West Coast rivals, the Beach Boys.

True, "Jersey Boys" had something most of those didn't, a compelling story -- the tale of Newark homeboys who battled criminal records, the looming mob and their own clashing personalities to turn out hit after hit -- but there was lingering uncertainty up to opening night, recalled comedian Stewie Stone, who went out to dinner then with Valli and another old singing idol, Frankie Avalon. When they tried to reassure Valli that the show would be a smash, he responded, "You never know," and said it wouldn't make much difference to him anyway.

"No matter what happens," the 4 Seasons singer noted, "I'll still be on the road on Monday singing 'Sherry.' "

Well, "Jersey Boys" continues to sell out on Broadway 2 1/2 years later and there are companies doing it in Chicago and London, and there's a touring version getting standing Os "here, there and everywhere," as Gaudio puts it. What's more, this weekend the show is opening at the new, custom-made Jersey Boys Theatre here in Vegas, in the just-opened all-suite Palazzo hotel. A Toronto company comes next. Then Australia. Then . . . .

There are so many incarnations of the show, or new ones in the works, they have a "Frankie School" in New York to teach all the lead actors how to sing in the falsetto that anchored such chart-toppers as "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)."

Each night "Jersey Boys" plays in one time zone or another, it ends by informing the audience what became of the original 4 Seasons: how bass player Nick Massi, always the afterthought (the "Ringo") is dead now . . . and how bad boy Tommy DeVito lives here in Vegas, supposedly exiled to its golf courses by the Mafia . . . and how their boy genius songwriter Gaudio gravitated to Nashville, passing days now on his yacht . . . and how Frankie Valli alone is still singing, "like that bunny on TV with the battery," the show tells us. "Chasing the music."

Of course, that's a stage version of things, so a little theatrical license is expected. But there's one big factor those sum-ups don't take into account -- what the show itself, and its success, has done to their lives.

You think Gaudio really is lounging on some lake with new "Jersey Boys" to launch around the world? "I've got a boat," he says, "that I haven't seen in two years." You think DeVito wields only a putter these days? Approaching his 80th birthday, he's back in the recording studio with his guitar in hand.

Frankie? OK, true to his word, he's still singing "Sherry."

But he says, "I wish I could turn the worry button off."

Frankie Valli

WEEKS before "Jersey Boys" Vegas opening, the real Frankie Valli has packed the Westbury Music Fair's theater-in-the-round four straight nights, and this is Long Island, it ain't La Jolla -- there's no question it's 4 Seasons territory. More than a few men come in leather jackets or high school letter jackets, even if some have canes too now, while some of the women have teenage granddaughters in tow.

But how many performers try to get audiences to sing along and nothing happens? Here, they need little prompting to sing out "I love you Baaaby!" or that chorus about how big girls, "they don't cry-i-i," and then Frankie invites them to start another song. He doesn't even say what it is -- he just has the band launch into the opening notes of "Let's Hang On" and hundreds out there sing in unison, "There ain't no good in our goodbye-in' / True love takes a lot of tryin' / Oh, I'm cryin' . . . " And when the show's over, he plunges into the crowd like a politician on the stump, shaking hands and giving one woman a rose before sauntering up the aisle to his dressing room.

There was a period when Valli resisted doing the old hits. He dismissed some as "bubble gum" and wished he could do mostly ballads, both the ones he recorded back when and others by Cole Porter, say, or Irving Berlin -- to do more Sinatra-like crooning, in other words. But he's come to accept that it's a high calling to transport audiences back to their youths, to set off memories of where they were, and who they were, when they first heard your songs. Indeed, he has disdain now for performers who won't do their hits. "It's almost like telling the audience they didn't know what they were doing," he says, "when they bought your records."

Valli does a bit in his act in which he recalls how, when he started as a teenager singing on street corners, all he dreamed of was making enough to buy a car and put a down payment on a house -- then he pauses and adds the punch line -- "and get a summer home in France."

He can remember when he once went to a used car lot with almost no money and said, "You must have something here you can't sell. I'll take it," and that's how he got a '51 Studebaker for 100 bucks and "drove it for four years without a problem."

The show "Jersey Boys" suggests how the 4 Seasons' run of hits may have upgraded such a ride into a Cadillac but did not necessarily put any of the group on easy street, given how one of them (luckless Tommy) got in debt to loan sharks and left taxes unpaid. Then there was the cost of giving in to the temptations of the road -- the broken marriages and support payments that resulted. All that's enough to keep many old performers working forever, often teamed with others on "oldies" tours in whatever saloon or hall will book them.

Post-"Jersey Boys," Valli is an unquestioned headliner again and could easily buy that retreat in the South of France if he wanted. "Or two," quips his pal Gaudio. And that's not counting what they get for use of their songs in movies, or the "astronomical amount" -- Frankie's description -- they were paid for "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" in the current commercial for Planters peanuts.

Except . . . Frankie has seen the entertainers who think they need a New York apartment and an L.A. home and a weekend place in the Hamptons and next thing they have an incredible nut to pay, and this at "a time where people almost can't wait to see you fall on your face."

Sure he has a pool and paddle ball court and his own studio at his house in the hills of Calabasas and it's "very comfortable," but it's no Bel-Air mansion. When he hears other men gush about playing golf or tennis or fishing, what he thinks is: "They hate their jobs . . . if you love what you're doing, you don't need to do that." About his only side indulgence? Clothes. He has a great tailor in Manhattan who makes him suits that don't leave a baggy flap of fabric under the armpit. "My whole life is what I do," Valli says.

Yet he was tired after those four nights singing on Long Island, that on top of a trip overseas to meet the London cast of "Jersey Boys" and attend the West End opening, leaving him amazed how English actors could sound like they came from the Newark projects. But he'd gotten sick there and fretted that there might be something wrong with the stents in his chest, so he was seeing doctors in Manhattan, and getting second opinions. "I do worry about things," he said, vowing to get home to California to rest up before the frenzy of the opening of the show in Vegas.

Bob Gaudio

ON STAGE, a voice says "Bob! Bob!" and 20 rows back Bob Gaudio looks up, then realizes the voice is only calling the actor who plays him, Erich Bergen. It's an afternoon rehearsal at the new 1,700-seat Jersey Boys Theatre in the Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino, which has "Jersey Boys" blackjack tables and "Jersey Boys" room key cards. Large video screens by the stage will show scenes of the '50s and '60s during the musical's intermission here (a "pause" they call it), shortened to help get people back in the casino as quickly as possible.

At the moment, Rick Elice, who co-wrote the show with Academy Award winner (for "Annie Hall") Marshall Brickman, is making sure the actors playing Valli and Gaudio get their famous handshake right, the one in which the two men vow to split profits from Valli's singing and Gaudio's songwriting, a deal still in effect 45 years later.

"Amazing," Gaudio says, and he'd used a similar word earlier when he visited the gift shop outside and saw the "Jersey Boys" leather jackets on sale with the shot glasses, cigarette lighters, T-shirts, CDs, etc. He guessed the jackets' price as $125 before the saleswoman set him straight -- "$695" -- prompting Gaudio to exclaim, "It's scary. The word 'franchise' flashes before your eyes."

He was the kid of the group, having dropped out of high school in Bergenfield, N.J., at 16 but not because he was a street urchin like the others, who were from the Newark area. He dropped out because he'd written a hit song by that age, the bouncy "Short Shorts," and had to tour behind it when it made the charts, getting his real education sharing buses around the South with black performers, such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

"Jersey Boys" makes Gaudio out to be the mild-mannered brain of the 4 Seasons, but leaves out that he was a 6-foot-3 1/2 , 210-pound football tackle at the high school. He recalls with a laugh how columnist Walter Winchell once described the Seasons as "two bookies, a basketball player and a jockey," the last being Frankie.

There's much else to laugh about these days, like how those young actors playing them dance so well, at the moment strutting and doing ritualized hand chops while rehearsing "Walk Like a Man." Gaudio says, "Did we do that? Nooo." They were terrible dancers, he recalls, except for Frankie, but they had to play instruments, in any event. They briefly tried just singing, he says, until they did a state fair where the backup musicians turned out to be "a circus band with a tuba and banjo. Tommy almost killed the promoter, and from then on, that was it -- we played."

Gaudio can't help but be amused too by how their roles have changed so little over these years, starting with how he then was "like the kid who stayed after school," working with lyric writer Bob Crewe to produce their records. Now he spends weeks with each "Jersey Boys" cast, making sure they get the music right. Here he recently instructed the actor playing him, Bergen, how he had to shed the tendency of vocalists today to let the band lead them, while they back-phrase and riff. Rock singing in the Seasons' era meant being "in the pocket," Gaudio says. "It's the vocalist leading the band."

Bergen, along with two other leads in the Vegas cast, first learned his part in the "Jersey Boys" road company. Backstage after the rehearsal, he shows the fruits of one hobby he pursued on the road -- finding old 4 Seasons recordings in vintage record stores.

Among the ones in his dressing room is a Christmas album they did in 1966.

"This is a really great version of 'Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town,' " the stage Bob Gaudio says.

"Highly debatable," says the real Gaudio, who recalls that they recorded that album in 26 hours, "and then we did five shows at the Apollo Theater, then I went directly to the hospital.

"It's a true story. Somebody gave me a Benzedrine to keep me up and that was it."

Tommy DeVito

THE MORNING after that re- hearsal, Tom- my DeVito strides into a recording studio at the end of an alley several miles from the Vegas Strip. Gaudio and Valli agreed to cut their former lead guitarist in on the profits -- and the same with the family of the late Nick Massi -- when they first discussed creating a show on their old group. But the oldest surviving 4 Season has little to do with the stage productions, other than to talk with the actors playing him, if they wish. He's fine with that too. "Just send me the check," he says.

The white-haired 79-year-old says his wife and daughter cried the first time they saw how "Jersey Boys" portrayed him as the heavy who got them all in hock and in the end is shipped off by the mob to this city. He explained to them that every show needs drama and it may not be 100% true. Does anyone really think the real-life wiseguys would trust a fellow who likes to gamble -- poker, golf, whatever -- in a gambling capital?

"I said, 'You don't understand. Who cares if some guy from Iowa thinks I'm a bad guy? The guy next door from the neighborhood -- he knows whether I did it or not.' " Then DeVito pauses to set up his punch line. "And I did do it."

Speaking from behind shades, a gold chain and crucifix, he relishes playing the role, as when he says that's a true story, in the show, about him having to educate a naive Frankie that the local hoods didn't really kill a guy in the teenage singer's car -- that was fake blood, a stunt to extort some cash to cover up the "murder." And it's true too, DeVito says, that his pal Joe Pesci borrowed his name in playing "GoodFellas' " most hot-tempered character. "He said, 'Do you mind if I use Tommy DeVito?' 'What kind of a movie is it?' 'It's a mob movie and they whack me at the end . . . .' "

DeVito quips that he would have preferred they used his name in "Romeo and Juliet," but goes on, "He's not portrayin' me . . . I'm not that type of guy . . . unless you bother me, then it's a different story . . . ."

He made his first CD of standards a couple of years ago and sold it out over the Internet to old friends and fans, including people in Germany and England. So now he's doing another, recording instrumental versions of such favorites as Dean Martin's "Return to Me."

"The guy's going to be like 80 and he can still play!" the engineer exclaims in the sound booth when DeVito starts strumming another old song, "Never on Sunday."

"Wait till I practice a little bit," the former 4 Season says. "I'll knock the . . . out of you guys."

Together again

THIS weekend, they've planned to be together again, the three surviving original 4 Seasons, for Saturday's opening night of "Jersey Boys" here in Vegas, where they'll no doubt be called up on stage following the usual standing cheers for the show based on their lives. And there will be a second celebration too, a party for Frankie's birthday -- and his real one to boot.

In recent years he wouldn't talk about his age, and maybe left the impression he was 70 or 71, the sort of thing entertainers do as they get on. Gaudio says it's the same with him, with the Internet having him at 65, but "I'm pretty sure I'm 66."

DeVito, who was planning to bring 14 family members to the opening, said it's one of those deals where the media somehow got the wrong impression about Frankie a few years back "and he stayed with it . . . They said he was 68 and he's 70 . . . 'OK, I'm 68.' "

But can there be any greater sign that you've truly made it in show biz than that you'll fess up, finally, to your age?

"He's gonna be 74. . . . It's out there," says Rick Faugno, the actor playing Valli here, who is amazed not so much at the real age as another fact about the man. "He can still," Faugno says, "hit the high notes."