During the 1940s when times were more innocent, there was a phenomenon known as Sweater Girls. They were female film stars who wore tight-fitting jumpers in order to accentuate their figures for publicity photographs. When I was invited to see Jersey Boys I thought that the days of gender inclusivity had caught up and there was now a male version, although I couldn’t think of what the allure was of a chap in a Fair Isle tank top. Someone put me right and said that the musical was not about men in woollies but The Four Seasons. I love Vivaldi so popped along.
Fortunately I also like the music of the sixties pop group of the same name so all was well as the show was the story of the four young lads from New Jersey who sold records by the lorry load but, due to one of their member’s profligacy, spent most of their time working in order to pay off the debts he had run up.
I remember the first time I heard their first British release, Sherry, in 1962, we were cleaning a council flat we had been given and it came on the radio. Frankie Valli’s falsetto voice echoed round the empty room almost shattering the windows. We had never heard anything like it before. Their first three records made Number One in the USA as did two subsequent releases, but they only ever had one chart-topper in the UK. I am beginning to sound like Fluff Freeman here, not ‘arf pop pickers. Their songs always seem to have been playing on the radio but they never had the huge success of the British groups of the era. They should have been called the 44 Seasons because, believe it or not, that is the number of members they have had since their formation.
I have seen the show before and I came away from this second sitting with the same feeling as I had at the first, namely that they tried to cover too much ground in too little time. Obviously the music had to be featured so this left even less time to relate the story which was delivered in such a quick-fire manner that I found it hard to keep up in some places. The props were whizzed on and off stage at a rate of knots and the backdrop raising and lowering like a fiddler’s elbow.
Having said that, the history of the group is so involved and incident packed that, to do it justice it would have needed to have been split into two, or been staged as a ‘straight’ play without the music, which would have made it like Goodfellas or The Sopranos. I think that, having spent my teenage years listening to, and singing along with, the songs, I would have preferred this approach but I doubt it would have had the commercial success of this musical. Given all that, it works pretty well and shows how the music has passed the test of time.
The original line-up, of Frankie Valli – played by Michael Pickering, Nick Massi – Lewis Griffiths, Tommy DeVito – Dalton Wood, and Bob Gaudio who also wrote most of the songs – Blair Gibson, stayed together until 1965 when Nick Massi was replaced by Joe Long. Half a dozen of the songs in the show were from the later period but who cares, it is a musical not a documentary.
I found that the songs were faithfully reproduced, as you would expect, the only exception being Lewis Griffiths, who spoke in fluent bass, but didn’t have the kind of ‘stupid’ bass singing voice of Nick Massi. I am being very picky here but to someone who grew up with their music it did jar a bit. I was also surprised by the moves made by the group when they were performing the songs but, as I don’t ever recall seeing them on Ready, Steady Go or Top of the Pops, the only two music shows on tv at the time, I am happy to accept their authenticity. I have scoured YouTube and can only find them either playing guitars or standing still whilst performing.
Speaking of music television, the set provided a backdrop which was ingeniously used to show the actors performing in black and white whilst being recorded for tv shows, and the audience of an edition of American Bandstand, and an introduction from Ed Sullivan inserted. The structure was also used as an elevated platform from where actors entered and exited the stage or performed their roles. In addition it acted as a scene locator with the name of the club in which they were performing being displayed.
The band, both principals and backing musicians, were very good, as were the dancers and support singers, the hits just kept on coming, back to Fluff mode. The actors who were on the periphery of the story were also top notch with their having to play multiple roles.
Any criticism of the show I had is obviously irrelevant as I read somewhere the other day that Jersey Boys is fast approaching, or might even have now passed, the record set by Fiddler On The Roof for the longest running show on Broadway!
I must correct myself in something I wrote at the beginning of this article when I said that the group had had 44 members to date, on Wednesday that became 45 when the chap behind me, who must have thought that this was a tribute concert rather than a piece of drama, insisted on joining in with the songs – at least the bits that he thought he knew. Thank you sir, but don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Should you fancy a fun night with great tunes then The Jersey Boys runs until Saturday, 6th August. Tickets are available from https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/jersey-boys/ but please try not to sing along during the performance, there is a bit at the end when you can do your thing.
Photographs by Birgit and Ralf Brinkhoff provided by Leeds Heritage Theatres