There are stories of people who have seen “Jersey Boys,” the 2005 blockbuster musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a half-dozen times.
At its Chicago opening in 2007, the boys got three standing ovations — one before intermission — and enjoyed a successful run for two-and-a-half years. The year before, the show won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
None of this is particularly surprising to Marshall Brickman.
“There’s something beyond the songs — emphasizing the sense of family, what it’s like to be part of a group,” said Brickman, who co-wrote both “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family” with Rick Elice. “There’s something emotionally compelling about that.”
Before Brickman was writing scripts with Woody Allen (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan”), publishing parody fiction in The New Yorker and scripting major musicals, he was a Wisconsin Badger, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961.
The story of how a Jewish kid from Brooklyn ended up in the middle of Wisconsin is about as random as it sounds.
So how did you end up in Madison?
Back then, in the 1950s, it was not that important what college you went to. I had a friend who went out to Madison, and he was a year ahead of me. He was having a great time, he said it was a great school, and I said, “OK, fine, I’ll go to Madison.” It wasn’t by design, I had no real agenda. It was a very casual kind of thing.
A little man at the intersection of Park and University who had a popcorn stand was also selling marijuana … that’s a little bit what Madison is like, full of tradition and also counter-culture.
That’s the long answer. The short answer is, I followed a friend.
Are you still friends?
Not really. He became a radical right-winger. He’s a history professor, well-respected … but oddly enough our politics diverged.
You started out with a major in physics, and then you switched to music (and you told The New York Times they were both “worthless”). Why did you switch?
It was supposed to be fun and stimulating. I loved music, and I decided to switch my major. What made it easier was I was 1,000 miles away from my parents, so there was not much they could do about it.
What did you play when you switched to music?
I took organ. I took trumpet. It was like a candy store.
When you made the transition from movies to Broadway, did your musical background make it easier?
It allows me to talk to composers in their own language. I understand how to achieve certain effects harmonically … there’s no decoding necessary.
Being able to talk specifically about a piece of music … and also being able to make references to all kinds of music, whether it’s classical or pop, (is) a whole other language that allows you to give feedback better.
When I saw “Jersey Boys” in Chicago, the woman sitting in front of me had seen the show three times. When I asked her why, she said she just loved it. Is that pretty common?
It’s a very socializing event. That’s one of the phenomena we observed. People would walk up the aisle at the end of the show talking to people that they didn’t know two hours ago. It brings everybody together in some way.
I think it’s a necessary thing in the culture to have these events – it happens at sports events, certainly, people bond over rooting for the team. What sports events lack is that emotional content of a certain type that you get in the theater. That’s why they come back.
The music of “Jersey Boys” is my mom’s music, from the oldies station. I was really surprised at how moved I was.
People, early on, came in with a chip on their shoulder. They were skeptical. “Well, this is blue-collar music, this is bubblegum stuff – show me. What is it all about? Why is it better than five or six of those other catalog shows that died quickly?”
Then they come in, and gradually over the course of the evening, they get drawn in, much to their surprise. It’s gratifying.
You know, this wasn’t my music. I was a banjo player – Earl Scruggs and folk music and stuff. Then I realized Bob’s songs – both Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe – it had a certain very powerful pull, but very simple, like a good folk song. That music reached out and grabbed a generation.
Those catchy tunes, you remember them so vividly – you’re open to it and you’re not really thinking about it.
What’s interesting about this show is that guys can go to it without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. If you’re 22 years old and your girlfriend wants to go to the theater and she says, “I want to see ‘Carousel’ or ‘Oklahoma!’” — I can see the guy rolling his eyes.
But we noticed in La Jolla (at the out-of-town tryout in 2004) that guys were coming to this show and digging it. And they’d come back the next night with another girl, and the third night with yet another girl.
Finally I asked one of them, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Afterwards, I really score points, and I don’t mind listening to it ’cause it’s cool.”
There’s a herd thing going on — guys up to a certain point in adolescence like to stick together. They go to the bar, they go to the dance and they eye the women from across the room … with the protection of the guys around them.
The songs the Four Seasons did were guys singing to each other about girls. That’s why you have so many songs with girls’ first names. It makes people remember what it was like to be on the cusp of becoming a man, and separating yourself from the group of guys.
I saw that there’s a “Jersey Boys” film in production for 2013. Are you looking forward to a return to the film world?
We’re trying to create the same feeling — the same environment and ambience — in a different medium. Film is like a cousin to theater, but it’s quite different in how you approach the material, how you attain your effect, how you draw an audience in.
It’s like adapting a novel — you try and capture the spirit of the novel without being slavish to the dialogue and structure. We’re going to try and make it as close to the musical as we can in terms of the effect on the audience.