AT THE ENTRY to the showroom of the upscale, uptight Borgata Hotel and Casino--gritty Atlantic City's belated attempt to compete with the more relaxed luxury of the Las Vegas mega-resorts--there's a smiling, soft-toned picture of Frankie Valli. For the uninitiated potential ticket-buyer, it comes with a helpful caption. "The inspiration," it reads, "behind the hit Broadway musical 'Jersey Boys.' "
On a hot Friday evening in late August, the original Jersey boy is still out on the road with his trademark falsetto.Valli is a naturally shy and serious man with little tolerance for fools or charlatans and even less patience for the irritations and encumbrances of long-term celebrity. But his signature, onstage blend of total sincerity and Jersey nonchalance has been perfected over more than 50 years of talking to audiences just like tonight's.
"How many of you," Valli asks, peering out from the Borgata stage, his voice betraying no emotion, "have seen 'Jersey Boys'?"
He already knows the answer. Almost everyone.
That's why the Borgata showroom is sold out for a three-night stand. That's why Valli sold out the Chicago Theatre last spring and why he's returning in November. That's why his fee has gone way up--his live concerts now pull in $75,000 a night or more. That's why he's playing the flashiest casino in Jersey, instead of the second-tier joints that peddle oldie acts to slot-loving seniors or college auditoria. That's why you're reading this story.
In one of life's more bizarre turns, the Broadway telling of the remarkable life story of Frankie Valli has greatly rejuvenated the career of the actual Frankie Valli.
Valli, you might say, is suddenly riding high in the slipstream of his own life.
You'd think that would mess with a guy's head.
PUBLISHED ACCOUNTS VARY as to the real Valli's age--a subject that he has always refused to discuss and refused to discuss with me--but 70 and 72 are two of the more frequently cited numbers. The record shows that even when they were kids, the members of Valli's group, the Four Seasons, would often slice a year or so off their ages for the benefit of the even-younger girls buying their records.
As Valli well knows as he peers into the darkness of the Borgata, it's a good bet that some at the younger end of this flashy, dressed-to-the-nines Jersey crowd were conceived while such Valli-voiced hits as "My Eyes Adored You" or "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" spun on their parents' record players.
The older women in the audience--a couple of whom are twirling deftly removed undergarments in Valli's incongruously grandfatherly direction--surely remember both fearing and envying "Dawn," that good girl in love with a sexy boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Be they Polish, Irish or, especially, Italian by descent, the older men likely identified with the Four Seasons' lyrical striving to be big men in town, to get out of the ethnic, blue-collar enclaves of Newark or Queens, seduce a classy Sherry baby of their own, outdo their working-stiff dads and make something of their lives.
Like Frank Sinatra before them (but like few others), the Four Seasons were pop stars who knew how to act with sufficient sensitivity that girls would buy their records, and yet retain their macho credibility on the meaner streets of New Jersey, so the boyfriends would buy their stuff, too.
Watch Valli perform even today and you'll see a singularly fascinating mix of the masculine and feminine. He might never have sung like a man--the Four Seasons were the first major American pop group to use falsetto as their lead sound--but he always walked and talked like one. The Four Seasons were guys who made sweet music. But if you didn't like it, they were perfectly capable of taking you outside and making you like it. Or so it felt.
BOTH VALLI AND "Jersey Boys" trade on the same astounding history of musical innovation and long-lived popular success. A singer with incomparable vocal range, Valli has been recording since 1952, hitting the top of the charts seven times over an astonishing 16-year span, from "Sherry" (which he recorded with the Four Seasons) to "Grease" (recorded solo). Unlike almost all of his peers, Valli was ready and able to switch from doo-wop to pop to rock to whatever, mostly because he felt that a tune with a hook would always transcend the public's fickle love of a genre. Time and again he was proved right.
But whereas the genuine article can only talk and sing in one place at a time, Valli's theatrical life-story can easily be duplicated.
And the show "Jersey Boys," which begins performances Friday in Chicago and is expected to stay at the LaSalle Bank Theatre for a year or more, has other advantages.
The brilliant songwriter-musician Bob Gaudio, who long ago quit touring with Valli, can be put back behind the keyboards. The Four Seasons' original bass player and singer, Nick Massi, who died in 2000, can be brought back to life. Tommy DeVito, the Seasons' original lead guitarist and the most colorful, troubled and macho member of the band, can be returned to his complex prime. And--surely, the most complicated issue for Valli--the performer playing Frankie can be kept forever young, that famous range forever intact.
Not that it has slipped much. Valli can still hit most of the old high notes, and he doesn't try to go after the ones he can't. His silky turn of vocal phrase remains exquisite, in much the same way that Tony Bennett, a decade his senior, retains his craft. Nobody dares call Bennett an oldie act. Valli wants the same respect.
"By the end of the year," he tells his fans in a matter-of-fact tone, "there will be five companies of 'Jersey Boys.' One in New York. One in Chicago. One in Las Vegas. One in London. One touring."
He hesitates. A faint smirk plays on his lips, as if the weirdness of standing on a stage in his native New Jersey recounting the international rollout of his own life-story suddenly plays on his mind.
"Maybe there will be a company in my living room," he says.
But that's way too surreal for Atlantic City on a Friday night.
"Are you ready to rock?" he asks, going back to his script.
The crowd lets out a whoop, the underwear twirls, and the new "Seasons," a quartet of attractive but incongruously young men who do much of the vocal heavy lifting in Valli's current show, go into their perky dance routines.
It feels a lot like they're auditioning for "Jersey Boys."
"IF THERE WAS going to be a story of the Four Seasons," Valli says the next afternoon, sitting in one of his favorite Italian eateries, away from the casinos and the boardwalk, "it had to be as near to the truth as we could possibly get. And for that to be the case, we knew we'd have to reveal some of the things we'd swept under the carpet."
Those things involved some womanizing, gambling and wise guys, but hardly the later rock scandals of drink, drugs and excess. The Four Seasons were not exactly the Rolling Stones.
"If you're looking for a lot of attention," Valli says, in his ever-sober tones, "you hang around with a lot of people all the time. I never did that. I watched how Sinatra conducted himself. He'd hang around with one guy, 'Jilly' Rizzo, and that was enough. Dean Martin would go into this restaurant in Los Angeles and he'd sit there alone. . . . We were always very careful not to create a lot of attention. We didn't break up any rooms."
That said, Valli's life has not been bereft of pain or complexity, even if he has been uncommonly successful at keeping his personal life out of the papers. He has married and divorced three times. One of his daughters died; another daughter, Toni, is in her early 40s. With his third wife, Randy, Valli had a son, Francesco, now 20, and twin boys, Emilio and Brando. They're just 12.
ALTHOUGH PENNED BY Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and exuberantly directed by Des McAnuff, make no mistake: "Jersey Boys" is the authorized story of the life and times of the Four Seasons.
Not only do Valli and Gaudio still co-own the rights to the name, touring rights and associated music--through a handshake deal in 1961 that created something called the Four Seasons Partnership that has lasted ever since--but they approved every note and line of the show. In fact, the whole thing was Gaudio's idea in the first place.
I'd already talked to Gaudio--a strikingly self-aware man--over the phone before heading to Atlantic City. "You're going to see Frankie in Atlantic City?" he'd said, with the wryness of a man who doesn't miss being out on the road with Valli for a second. "You'll be all right for food."
No kidding. At one point outside the Borgata, a car suddenly pulled up and an older man dashed out. "Frankie," he screeched, as if his life depended on it, "I've got to give you these subs."
"Subscribers?" wondered a guy with the "Jersey Boys" organization, who's standing by the car. I thought the man maybe was talking about new tracks or vocal parts for Valli's new album, a collection of covers of romantic 1960s hits due for release in early October and still in the throes of the final mix. But he was actually talking about submarine sandwiches. At least a dozen.
Valli nodded his head and opened his arms for the foot-longs. They were put in the trunk of a car. When he got back to the Borgata after taking pictures and talking to me, he pulled the sandwiches out of the trunk and carried them in himself. The subs blocking his view, Valli, a small man, almost got stuck in the hotel's treacherous revolving door. But camouflaged by bread and salami, he could traverse the slick lobby in complete anonymity. He likes that.
GAUDIO TOLD ME that "Jersey Boys" really started with him sitting at home watching "The Deer Hunter," just after the film's release on videotape. In that 1979 movie, there's a famously intense pool-hall scene set to the soundtrack of the Seasons' recording of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."
"I had a realization," Gaudio says, "that there was something there beyond just hearing our songs on the radio. And equally important was the realization that our music could be used with a different tone and a different setting. I sat on it. It festered. But I never did anything about it. Never had the time. Never got to it. Never knew anyone who worked in the theater."
But some years later, Gaudio found himself writing the score to a stage-musical version of "Peggy Sue Got Married," which, interestingly enough, premiered at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. The show went to London, where it then got sideswiped by 9/11, but Gaudio had already met various theatrical types, including McAnuff, who happened to be a Seasons fan. McAnuff passed on "Peggy Sue" for various reasons, but he was a longtime fan of Gaudio.
"I know this sounds like such malarkey," McAnuff says in a phone interview, "but 'Sherry & 11 Others' was my first album. So I told Bob that if he ever did anything in the style of the Seasons, I'd be intrigued, never dreaming in 100 years that this show would come along."
But come along it did. It was partly a defensive move. TV networks had been circling with proposals for their own Valli biographies. The basic idea was to do a one-shot Four Seasons biopic. In other words, a movie of the week.
"Frankie was being seduced by the film and TV worlds," Gaudio says. And Valli admits as much. "I like the challenge of acting," he says. "I seek out those opportunities."
But a part on "The Sopranos," which Valli did very well and greatly enjoyed, and a TV biopic about the Four Seasons are different animals. Neither man wanted to shoot their life-story wads on something tacky. "Film," says Gaudio, "can be a quick burn."
"For all the movies of the week I've seen," Valli says, "I've never seen one that made an impact." So he decided to follow Gaudio's Broadway impulse. A creative team was put together. There were interviews with writers. There were drafts. There were some surprises for all concerned.
"I thought I knew how these guys were going to be," says Elice, one of the two writers hired to do the show. "I'd dismissed the songs as pop--it wasn't like it was Mozart or Springsteen. I was very snobbish about the whole thing. I met them for the first time at a hotel in L.A., where Frankie lives. I was expecting two old Italian guys who'd talk about the old days. I thought it would be like the opening of 'Broadway Danny Rose.' But Bob and Frankie were very chic, very articulate, very much ensconced in a 40-year relationship. They were sort of like a married couple--minus the sexual component, of course. You expected guys who were a little bit past it, a little bit pathetic. But they were nothing like that."
Everyone involved in the early meetings says Valli was initially leery of the project. "We had to earn the right to tell their story," Elice says. "We had to earn our place at the table. We had to hang with them and put in the sweat equity. They had to feel comfortable that we weren't going to send them up. They didn't want comic book versions of themselves."
"We didn't want it to be 'Guys and Dolls,' " says Gaudio, "but we didn't want to be in 'Goodfellas' either."
McAnuff first met Gaudio and Valli at, believe it or not, Sardi's in New York. "There we were," McAnuff says, "living the archetype."
At that meeting, Gaudio took McAnuff aside and told him that he and Frankie would be as involved, or as uninvolved, as the show's creative team wanted. "I think we opted for some distance," McAnuff says. "It's difficult enough doing a biographical musical about people who are still alive. The idea of doing it with Bob and Frankie sitting there didn't have a lot of appeal."
Drafts passed back and forth. Faced with the conflicting recollections of the surviving Seasons, Elice and Brickman hit on the politically savvy idea of using all three of them as narrators, each telling their version of the group's history at different points in the show. As it happened, DeVito already was writing a memoir, which provided a lot of material, especially on how the Seasons tap-danced around the Outfit members who controlled many of the venues in which they played, and whose loans underwrote DeVito's lifestyle.
An honest story, then, required the show to deal with DeVito's debts to the mob--not to mention all the band members' copious appetites for women. It also required exploration of Gaudio's intense ambition and his decision to stop touring with his longtime partner, disappointing Valli and essentially breaking up the Seasons.
And, trickiest of all, the show had to deal with the traumatizing death of Frankie's troubled teenage daughter, Francine, who succumbed to a drug overdose some years ago.
Neither Valli nor Gaudio saw the show until its previews at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. When they finally showed up, the creative team was terrified.
"Frankly, I think Bob and Frankie had been protecting themselves in case the thing sucked," Elice says. "They wanted to be able to walk away unscathed. . . . That night at La Jolla, all I did was watch them watch the show. What most affected me was watching a man watching the death of his own child on stage. I saw him cry. I saw Bob cry. I saw Bob's wife cry. When the show was over, they were wiped out. It took hours and several drinks before they came down from their emotion."
With the benefit of some remove, Gaudio looks at the show more soberly. "I think it's a pretty good look at everyone, warts and all," he says. "Was I that ruthless? I may have been. I saw straight ahead, not much to the left or the right."
And what of the part in the show where he seems to abandon Valli? "I truly felt at the time," Gaudio says, "that it was best for the partnership if I left. I wasn't the attraction. I really felt I was wasting my time and part of Frankie's time. God knows, he didn't miss my presence on the stage from an entertaining perspective."
And Valli? What did he think?
"I wasn't entirely certain of my character," he says. "But then I don't know if I really look like that or walk like that. But the two most important things to me were the singing and the acting."
You can understand Valli's reticence about the physicality. In person, he's a startlingly minimalist, economical performer whose movements are small and precise. John Lloyd Young, who plays Valli in the original Broadway cast, is far more exuberant and expansive in person.
But before Valli first saw his work, Young had been sneaking into Valli's concerts without telling him. He developed a very, very good vocal interpretation of his man, one that clearly blew Valli away--to the extent that anything blows Valli away.
To some singers, perhaps, the whole idea of sanctioning an impersonator would be anathema; neither jukebox musicals nor tribute bands are exactly at the top of the show-business hierarchy. But "Jersey Boys," which opened to stellar reviews and has, of course, become a massive popular hit, worked in no small part because Valli has never looked at his art from a purist point of view.
He has a natural genius' disdain for the vocal coaching industry. And like a lot of young, striving musicians of his era, he was an emulator. That was his way up and out.
"If you go to a singing teacher," Valli says, "he has a method and everyone comes out sounding exactly the same . . . I learned how to sing by doing impressions of other singers. You take from each singer the things that motivate you. Really, we're all impersonating each other."
To a point, perhaps. But Valli's four-octave range was without obvious parallel. "I never gave it a second thought," he says, of his ability to switch seamlessly to a pure falsetto. "I thought everybody could do it. And then one day, I found out they couldn't."
Valli allows himself a smile at that and then turns more serious.
"The guy doing copies of Picasso is not Picasso," he says, with no hint of arrogance. "That's just the bottom line. They can play Frankie Valli. They have played Frankie Valli. But it's never going to be the same."
LATER THAT SATURDAY night, I watch Valli go through the same show from a perch backstage. Like a lot of these longtime road shows, the process is a curious mix of the folksy and the glamorous, the intensely public and the familiarly familiar.
Stewie Stone, the funny, old-line Catskills comic who opens up Valli's show, has been doing precisely that for some 30 years. He travels with his young daughter, who hangs out backstage with Valli's kids, a pair of middle-school twins who quietly watch their dad from the wings. The security detail is pretty much one guy, Valli's manager, Dean Egnater, and when it comes to who gets access to the star, he relies on faces, not badges.
Egnater also stage-manages the whole show. Before it even starts, he literally has to go out into the audience and stop the wandering comic from telling his jokes one-on-one to women in the front row. "There is a process," Egnater says, rolling his eyes in the hall, as he returns with Stone, virtually by the scruff of the neck, "in getting Stewie out on stage."
Lisa Gaudio--Bob's daughter and a gemologist in Jersey--has come to the Saturday show, and there are a lot of Valli's Jersey friends in the house, including Valli's brother, Al, who sits so quietly at the back of the house his brother almost forgets he's there.
But Valli's shows, these days, not only sell out, they come with a higher profile and a lot of hangers-on. There's a "Today" show crew filming--part of the promotional push for the new album. And before Valli goes out on stage, Scott Weiland, the lead singer from Velvet Revolver, stops by to pay his respects.
"If I wasn't playing," Weiland says. "I'd be in your audience."
Even in his leaner times (which were never that lean, given the number of his fans), Valli has always put a on a pretty big show--he's got his four "Seasons" and a 10-piece band, including five horns.
His current sound--ironically enough--is quite different from that of "Jersey Boys," which re-creates the Seasons' original arrangements precisely. It doesn't add strings or a chorus or "Broadwayize" them in any way.
In Valli's stage show, however, most of the old numbers come with new arrangements. There are three layers to the show: Valli himself in the front; then the "Seasons," who look and sound like a boy band; and the musicians at the rear--exuberant personalities whose antics wouldn't be out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.
Like a lot of shows featuring long-lived personalities, you get the sense somebody was worried--too worried, perhaps--about seeming up-to-date.
But after an hour or so, the audience is singing so loudly you can barely hear Valli's vocal track. Women bring up flowers and other gifts, which he receives in polite but hardly expansive fashion. Every few minutes, he cheats a warm look back into the wings at his kids, who pretend to roll their eyes at the prospect of being brought on stage but clearly love being with their father, especially in Jersey.
Valli brings a slew of family and old friends out onto the stage that night. "Everyone's here," he says, dryly, "except my bookie."
Once everything finally settles down, Valli opens up as much as he cares to open up in public. He briefly tells the audience of his dreams as a young man in the early 1950s: "To make enough money for a down payment on a house, to maybe have something left over for a summer place . . . in Atlantic City."
Judging by the sound the audience makes, he wasn't alone in those Jersey dreams. Clearly, nobody resents his success. He deserved its sweetness. He worked his tail off.
And now he has a show to articulate and contextualize the life-story that a Jersey guy worth his salt can't (or prefers not to) articulate and contextualize himself.
"I had a lot of years of success with touring, recording, personal appearances, acting," Valli had told me earlier. "Really, 'Jersey Boys' is just the icing on the cake. And if I didn't have it? I think I'd still be singing in some seedy bar with some guy playing piano."
Backstage, the sound man has stuck a pair of headphones on the head of one of the twins. "That's your father's vocal track," he says. "Listen to his voice."
From the kid's rapt face, you'd think he'd never heard it before.
But I'm watching one of Valli's young "Seasons." Clearly, he's the best of the four. Valli has told me he's moving up and out of this show and into the cast of "Jersey Boys."
He'll be in the Las Vegas company. It opens in April in an opulent theater at the Palazzo Hotel, the newest, most upscale hotel on the Strip. The theater was custom-designed for "Jersey Boys."
And as he will in Chicago next month, Valli will be in the opening-night Vegas audience, watching a younger version of himself act out his life. In a venue he'd still like to play himself.