I took my mom to Jersey Boys last night. She really wanted to go. She graduated from Robbinsdale in ’65, and used to go see local quartets exactly like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—four dudes with greasy hair and loud sport coats trying to sing like girls—at a dance hall on University called The Prom. You know, deeeeep in the past.
I know the show is critically acclaimed; It’s been an impossible ticket ever since in opened on Broadway in ’05. And I’ve heard there’s even an effenheimer cool factor—it’s set in Jersey, so they use tough guy Sopranos–type language (my mom dutifully parroted KSTP’s Rusty Gatenby geeky line about how “you hear a lot of f-words, and I don’t mean fun.”). But really, how good could a musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons be? “Sherry Baby”? “Big Girls Don’t Cry”? I mean, those songs were good in Stand by Me, I guess. But it just seemed like the sort of show more suited to the cheesy stuff they used to have at the old Hey City Theater down the block rather than the Orpheum. It seemed like I was headed for bad dinner theater. And I was missing March Madness on top of everything else.
Did I make you wait long enough?
I loved it.
Best musical ever?
I mean, it’s a show about four duck-tailed Itals growing up in late ’50s New Jersey. Everybody was dressed like the opening third of Goodfellas, and they talked musical-speak, where every line is either a set-up or a punch line, but the story felt risky—it reminded me of The Wire season two, where a black show goes white. Like that Obama speech this week, when he talked about all the resentful white people who are bummed about affirmative action and inter-district busing and stuff. Well, I grew up on the pale elysian fields of White Bear Lake, so I’m not sure exactly what he was talking about—but after seeing Jersey Boys, I got it.
These four guys, the Jersey Beatles—Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, and Bobby “The Genius” Gaudio—all came from a place in the country where there weren’t that many prospects. As Tommy DeVito (played with the perfect amount of sharpie smirk by Erik Bates) says early on, “You didn’t have many choices. You either joined the army, got mobbed up, or became a star.”
I mean, how is that different than Notorious B.I.G.’s hip-hop lyric from thirty years later: “Streets is a short stop/either you slingin’ crack rock/or you got a wicked jump shot”?
These Italians were fighting for the same scraps Biggie was fighting for in Brooklyn. In and out of jail for running card games or whatever other smalltime grift. Doing anything it takes to avoid working a straight job. Singing their Catholic asses off under street lamps, breaking into churches to practice on the organ, stealing moves from “the colored acts,” dropping out of trade school to write songs, and trying to convince some Jewish guy in Manhattan to record them and get them on American Bandstand.
The dirty history of rock ‘n’ roll is all there in this show—these guys were as big as the Beatles in the ’60s. They sold 175 million records. They cheated on their wives on the road. And fell apart over bad debt, not wussy, British-type “creative differences.” And their four outsized personalities—Frankie the Saint, Tommy the Hood, Bobby the Genius, and Nicky the Lazy Bum—are each distinctly drawn.
And yeah, those songs? “Sherry Baby”? “Big Girls Don’t Cry”? “Walk Like a Man”? “Who Loves You”? Way better than I remembered. I think the whole crowd—filled with a lot of people of my mom’s age and stage—morphed into one collective teenage girl on the strength of the Four Seasons’ harmonic voice meld. I’m sure this show can bring out the teenage girl in anybody, actually. The Four Seasons’ songbook is American opera—mass produced, gender-bending, and filled with off-the-dork hooks. If you don’t try hitting one Frankie Valli falsetto walking out of the theater . . .
Well, you’re a bigger man than I.
Jersey Boys runs through April 20 at the Orpheum Theatre.