Jersey Boys was not the first jukebox musical. That was probably The Beggar's Opera, way back in 1728, ripe as it was with popular tunes. Jersey Boys is not the most successful jukebox musical. That honour is held by the banal Mamma Mia. But Jersey Boys is indisputably the greatest jukebox musical. Which, considering it's is about an Italian-American vocal group with greasy pompadour hairdos and ill-fitting tuxedos who scored their biggest hits nearly 60 years ago, is quite something.
Then consider the following: Jersey Boys has won four Tony Awards, would run on Broadway for 12 years, in London's West End for nine years and in Las Vegas for eight years, several productions have toured the world and it has been made into a feature film.
This suggests Jersey Boys possesses the kind of magic that makes people return again and again to see it. They do so because the story of The Four Seasons' rise from rags-to-riches-to-rags is a doozy. And their songs are stunning. While the imaginative structuring of Jersey Boys - utilising a four-part structure (spring, summer, autumn, winter) - makes for extremely effective theatre. Plus: they were mobbed up. And everyone loves a good mafia story.
Many Kiwis over the age of 50 will affectionately recall The Four Seasons, as they had huge hits here in the first half of the 1960s and then again in the mid-1970s. As a kid I was enamoured by their operatic doo-wop anthems and owned a cheap double LP of their hits that was sold at supermarkets and electrical stores. The Seasons were an American pop group listeners knew little about - there were no interviews in pop magazines and their appearance suggested lounge lizards rather than rock stars - but they got plenty of radio play.
As noted, The Four Seasons began scoring hits in the early 1960s. But their story begins at the start of the 1950s. In today's pop market where the likes of Benee and Lorde achieve huge pop success in their mid-teens, it seems improbable to imagine a band embarking on a decade-plus-long apprenticeship, but that's exactly what the Seasons did.
Most of Jersey Boys concentrates on how The Four Seasons came together in New Jersey housing projects, struggled – and boy, did they struggle – then bitterly fell apart so leaving Valli out there touring with the name, the fame and the debts. Along the way he got rich and famous while losing his first wife, a beloved mistress and, tragically, a daughter to drug addiction.
The band's origins begin with Gaetano "Tommy" DeVito, the youngest of nine children born in Belleville, New Jersey, who left school aged 13, choosing to live by his wits. "When I was a kid, I was locked up. I was in six or seven jails. I went to prison one time," DeVito told the
Las Vegas Review-Journal
in a 2009 interview. "I was a hellraiser ... a menace to everybody."
A menace but not one without musical ambition: a gifted guitarist with a decent baritone voice, DeVito formed The Variety Trio in 1950. The trio found regular work in New Jersey. One of their most enthusiastic followers was 16-year-old Francesco Castelluccio, who harboured ambitions to sing. DeVito invited Castelluccio to join the band in 1951 and the two would work together under a variety of band names for the rest of the decade (Castelluccio changing his surname to Valli in 1953). As The Four Lovers they had a US hit in 1956 but following releases flopped. In 1958, the urbane New York City record producer Bob Crewe began employing The Four Lovers as backing singers on sessions. In 1959, when playing on the same bill as The Royal Teens, Valli was befriended by Bob Gaudio, that band's 16-year old keyboardist, and he subsequently convinced DeVito to let Gaudio join the band. With Nick Massi on bass, the quartet renamed themselves The Four Seasons in 1960.
Where the other three Seasons were hard men - DeVito and Massi had both served prison time - Gaudio was well educated and could write music. Certain that Valli's strident falsetto was unique, Gaudio offered to share his publishing royalties equally with Valli if they ran the Seasons as a partnership (Valli, in return, would share his performance fees from his solo career). Their 1961 debut single Bermuda failed to chart but Sherry topped the US charts for five weeks in autumn 1962: with Gaudio writing their music, Crewe contributing lyrics (and powerhouse production), Charles Calello's dynamic arrangements and Valli's voice, their Italianate R&B sound elicited a series of classic singles: they were the first US band to score four US No.1 hits.
Success may have tasted sweet but mobsters surrounded the band. Jazz guitarist Al Di Meola, also a Jersey boy, once noted "I remember working in a pizza shop as a kid when the Four Seasons came in with some big mafia guys. I was afraid to even look at them." Massi would leave the band in 1965 while DeVito would depart under a cloud in 1970. He claimed he was tired of touring but Valli and Gaudio would categorically state that they bought him out due to his money problems leading to trouble overshadowing the band: an unpaid bill DeVito racked up while on tour landed the band in jail for a weekend. Then a mob loan shark paid a visit, demanding $150,000 DeVito owed due to his gambling debts and the IRS came calling over $500,000 DeVito owed in unpaid taxes.
Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo, a New Jersey mobster who oversaw loan-sharking for the Genovese crime family, helped them sort out the loan shark, while Valli and Gaudio went into considerable debt to clear his taxes and other outstanding loans (in return DeVito gave up all rights/royalties involved with The Four Seasons).
Heavy, eh? Back then the Seasons didn't allude to any of this. Press profiles presented them as considerably younger than they were, listing their hobbies as "golf" and "carpentry". Even though they cut a version of Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice and released a psychedelic album in 1969, recorded for Motown and cut disco bangers, they remained off limits. After Valli's solo hits with 1974's My Eyes Adored You and 1978's Grease (theme to the John Travolta movie) both topping the US charts, the Seasons settled comfortably into the oldies circuit, playing lucrative casino dates across the US, Valli the only original member.
It wasn't until in 2002, when Gaudio hired writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice to shape a musical around The Four Seasons' hits, that their story gained any real attention. The duo interviewed Gaudio and Valli (Massi died in 2000) then travelled to Las Vegas where DeVito stated, "Don't listen to those guys. I'll tell you what really happened."
Elice said that getting DeVito's version was a "eureka moment" and Jersey Boys begins with DeVito telling the audience, "If you're from my neighbourhood, you've got three ways out – you could join the army, you could get mobbed up, or you could become a star."
Jersey Boys won rave reviews when previewed in 2003, but no one predicted it would go on to be one of the decade's biggest hit musicals, bringing the Four Seasons more attention and income than even at their 60s peak (Valli and Gaudio own the master recordings and publishing). Its worldwide success had, in 2013, Valli making a rare visit to London to perform at Hampton Court Palace and the Royal Albert Hall.
I was working for The Sunday Times, so managed to secure the one interview he deigned to give. Thus I encountered a small, intense man with penetrating dark eyes and a gruff, almost curt, manner. His guttural speaking voice stands in extreme contrast to his vulnerable vocals.
"Bob Gaudio and I thought about doing a musical for a long time," noted Valli. "From when we first spoke about it to when Jersey Boys finally hit the stage was, I guess, eight or nine years. I must admit I was very surprised by the success of Jersey Boys. I thought people would like it but I had no idea that there would be people of all ages and all over the world who wanted to come and see a musical about us."
Having played mob boss Rusty Millio in The Sopranos, I asked how Valli managed to give such a convincing performance.
"Growing up in Newark I got to know a lot of wise guys. So it's not a difficult role to play."
Considering The Four Seasons had strong links to the mob - when Mafia don Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo was imprisoned in 1970 the band played a prison concert in his honour - I asked Valli about his experience of gangsters.
"We worked in every saloon in New Jersey and in most cases the guys who owned those places were mobbed up. We were used to it. We got to know everybody, and they liked us. I was never owned by the mob or part of the mob. If I didn't have any success and I wanted to go that route, I certainly could have."
I read that Valli decided to become a singer after going to a Frank Sinatra concert.
"Yeah. My mum took me to see him sing when I was just a kid and it impressed the hell out of me."
Considering Valli is a reluctant interviewee it must have been, I suggested, extremely difficult to allow his life story to be portrayed on stage?
"I'm a firm believer that if you are going to tell a story you should tell it as honestly as you can," he replied. "So I wanted to tell the truth about our struggles and what we went through to the audiences. There's a lot of hard times in everyone's life and in my case losing a child was devastating." He pauses then adds, "something I don't think I will ever really get over."
I posited that today's multibillion-dollar entertainment industry involves less graft than when The Four Seasons were struggling across the 1950s. Valli disagreed.
"Everybody in my business goes through basically the same thing. You start out at the bottom and you work and work and you come across barriers - because in all areas of life there are barriers - and you work hard to overcome those barriers and you move on."
But now, I pointed out, people can get famous very quickly – noting the reality TV stars who get careers.
"Sure. Some kids get fame fast but to sustain that fame – to stop it being just fleeting – it takes a lot of work."
Valli, a barber before The Four Seasons had their first hit, said retirement wasn't an option.
"I've always looked at what I do as being a privilege. To make a living as a performer – doing what I love to do – I feel very fortunate. Say I hadn't had any success, that I wasn't coming to England to sing at the Royal Albert Hall, well, I'd still be singing in a bar somewhere. I've been lucky."
Indeed, Jersey Boys has delivered Valli and his fellow Seasons unimaginable wealth and a perfect coda to their pop career: Gaudio is happily retired, Crewe died in 2014 after a long illness (amongst the many other hits he wrote were Lady Marmalade and A Lover's Concerto), while DeVito, who quickly blew his initial fortune "partying" in Las Vegas (ending up working as a cleaner), died of Covid-19 in September.
The actor Joe Pesci called his character in the Martin Scorsese film Good Fellas Tommy DeVito in honour of his lifelong friend. DeVito - the original Jersey boy - said, of seeing his life portrayed on stage, "When you first see yourself being played, you look at the actor and say: 'Do I look like that? Did I talk like that? Was I really a bad guy?' And I was."