You don't have to be from New Jersey, or a boy, to like Jersey Boys, the musical story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. On the other hand, I am from New Jersey and a boy who's old enough to remember back to 1960, when the Four Seasons were the most exciting new sound out of our side of the Hudson since Mr. Frank Sinatra. And when I saw Jersey Boys a couple of years ago in San Francisco, I loved it—because it was so freakin' Jersey. Now it comes to Raleigh in a four-week, 32-performance run at Memorial Auditorium, beginning June 24.
Which is to say, it's the mob and the clubs, the dark side and the light side of life in what is incongruously called the Garden State. The duality of it all was epitomized by the Four Seasons, tough guys and sweet musicians both—and in the voice of Frankie Valli, who was soft and strong in a single note.
Jersey Boys is a string of great Four Seasons hits, so many of them that I hesitate to name any. (But you know them all: "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You"—and about 30 more.) But it's not one of those jukebox musicals with a made-up story. The story here is gritty, true and quintessentially American, by way of my home state.
In Jersey, ethnicity was everything, except, of course, to the WASPs—the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—who lived a little better than the rest of us and so naturally thought their advantages had nothing to do with their ethnicity.
I laugh whenever I hear conservatives decry "identity politics," as they're doing now with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. In the Jersey of 1960, you were Irish, Italian, Polish, Negro, whatever, but if you weren't something, you were either a WASP or in the wrong neighborhood. (What, it didn't work that way where Antonin Scalia came from?)
And the tightest ethnics of all were the Italians, whose forebears arrived in America, answering to the Pope and speaking a foreign language (i.e., not English), which made them bigger outcasts even than the Irish.
Put that together with the fact that New Jersey itself was sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia and had, at the time, not a single television station of its own, and you had the makings of a serious inferiority complex on the part of our ethnic Jersey minorities. Except it didn't work that way, especially in the Italian-American precincts of Jersey City, Hoboken, Belleville and Newark.
There, ethnic identity served to inculcate a belief that Americans of Italian extraction—that's how they said it—were better than anybody else, tougher than anybody else, better workers and better lovers, too. Also, better singers, better dancers and better-looking.
For proof of these facts, one had to look no further than Mr. Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board, and such other notable New Jerseyans as Mr. Vito Genovese, whose Atlantic Highlands home (tightly guarded, and not by chance located on the Highlands) graced the Jersey Shore when I was growing up there.
New Jersey, too, was considered by all us ethnics as unfairly maligned and far superior to our surrounding states, not least because of the shore—best in America (wanna make something of it?)—and our cuisine, led by pizza. (Cheese was one of the mob's most profitable offerings, along with gambling, prostitution, waste disposal and laundry services.)
All in all, it was our cult-cha that made us such fine, if not always law-abiding citizens, and made New Jersey such an excellent place to be.
If you watched the Tony Awards the other night, you saw five currently active Frankie Vallis who are doing Jersey Boys either on Broadway or somewhere in North America. They combined for a brief medley of hits. The first one on camera was Joseph Leo Bwarie (pictured at right, second from left), whose touring company is now performing in Atlanta (not Toronto, as it said onscreen) and will be coming next to Raleigh.
Bwarie, when I talked to him last week, said his name rhymes with "Sherry." Actually, it doesn't quite. It more rhymes with Mary: It's Ba-wary. Bwarie's from California, not New Jersey. He's of Lebanese extraction, not Italian. But Lebanese, Italian, it's all the same, he said. "It's about talking and laughing incessantly—and the food."
And, after 20 months in the part, Bwarie sounds uncannily like the young Valli over the phone. Can he hit Valli's high falsetto notes? "Well," he said, laughing, "the reviews say I've got the voice. Tell them I won't let Raleigh down!"
When Jersey Boys comes to town, Bwarie said, it's almost like a homecoming for the extended nation of Italian-Americans and former New Jerseyans who attend to relive past glories. They may know the story of the Four Seasons. But for others, it may come as a surprise.
Before they were the Four Seasons, they were four of many other things (Lovers, Topics, Varietones), with a changing cast of performers depending on who was in and who was out of Rahway State Prison. Valli, an early addition and years younger than originals Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, had been Frankie Tyler, Frankie Nolan and Frankie Valley, among other names—not his given one of Francesco Stephen Castelluccio. DeVito, very talented, was at heart a Jersey hood.
What made them the Four Seasons was the addition of Bob Gaudio—introduced by a mutual friend, Joe Pesci—who did much of the writing and arranging, and Valli's maturing vocals. Oh, and a performance in a Jersey bowling alley named The Four Seasons. True story.
What makes Jersey Boys such a good show is that the music, so tightly arranged, is closely interwoven with the group's dynamic, from its shaky beginnings to overnight stardom with "Sherry" in 1962 to a four-year run on top of the world that ended with the invasion of the Beatles. That was followed by years of ups, downs and unexpected later hits like "December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)" in 1976 and Valli's solo hit on the title song to the movie Grease in 1978.
Some people come to Jersey Boys expecting to see "this fluffy, cutesy show," Bwarie says, along the lines of Mamma Mia. What they get instead is much, much better: "A very dark show about guys who led tumultuous lives," and the close partnership of Valli and Gaudio that allowed the Four Seasons to endure "even after DeVito got in serious trouble with the mob."
And then there's the music itself, with its class-ridden angst ("Dawn, go away I'm no good for you"), its tenderness ("My Eyes Adored You") and its Jersey rock 'n' roll ("I'm working my way back to you, babe")—all sing-able, and all wrapped up in Valli's amazing voice.
Bwarie's spent time with the real Frankie Valli, who continues to tour with his group, Frankie Valli and the New Four Seasons, and with Gaudio and his family. They are "stand-up guys," Bwarie says. "Do-right guys." But also tough guys when they need to be, he said.
In other words, Jersey guys.
For more information and tickets, visit Broadway Series South.