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A 'Boys' for All Seasons

January 25, 2007 By:
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Marshall Brickman
Jewish Boys?

No, it's "Jersey Boys," and, certainly, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Season won't be mistaken for that of Frankie Valli and the Four Questions.

But, in a way, "Jersey Boys" jives with memories of some Jewish boys who knew that learning to walk like a man went way beyond the bimah of the Bar Mitzvah. And at least one of them brings a bona fide brio from Rio.

It dawns on Marshall Brickman, the Brazilian-born bard of these

backstreet boys whose alleys were nuanced in Newark, N.J., tough talk, that he was more familiar with Vivaldi than Valli.

Of course, Vivaldi's more tony, but it is the Valli musical that last season brought home the Tony -- all four of them.

Now, Brickman -- who co-wrote the book about the boys who grew up married to the mob and later were mobbed by fans of doo-wap, the street music of the '60s -- can name his own tune. But, in a way, he's been able to do that all along.

The immensely likeable and low-key Brickman is a brickbat tossed against any contention that fame makes one famished; that star power just turns up the wattage on wayward egos; that rag dolls dolled up to walk the red runway forget carpets can come with a humble history, no matter how many awards they vacuum up.

He's too good to be true: From la-de-dah to doo-wap, from co-writing "Annie Hall" with Woody Allen to booking Hall of Fame rockers with a "Sopranos" feel and a falsetto finesse, Brickman delivers.

And, yes, there was that, too; the banjo man also collaborated on the "Deliverance" soundtrack, spawning an album heard far and wide from the Appalachian trail, perfect for rafting the rapids.

A man for all Seasons?

Well, Vivaldi's anyway, and with not a false note in his current tale of Frankie Valli's falsetto land.

Except maybe for this. Brickman's love of the Four Seasons started ... Just wait a minute. His fave Valli peak? "That carries an assumption that I was aware of them," says Brickman of the working-class Jersey boys who worked their magic on Billboard and a bullet-riddled backstory.

Brickman's own "boys" were working class, too, but most likely with a hammer in hand than a lead pipe, he recalls of his Jewish Socialist upbringing weaned on "the Weavers, Pete Seeger; I was drifting in the folk music universe," in which "We Shall Overcome" overcame "Sherry" baby as music and the muse.

Oy, what a night? No, it was an afternoon lunch in which longtime buddy Rick Elice -- "who had been contacted by a producer" -- asked Brickman to join him for a sit-down with the Four Seasons.

Okay, responded Brickman, "but I said, 'Who wants to see a musical about Vivaldi?' "

Vivaldi, Vishmaldi: Valli was entwined with a different string quartet and so were his millions of fans. Classical music? Classic rock.

And once the stories unraveled -- with the "boys" talking about their Mob ties, drug use, bickering and betrayal -- it all began to sound like an Italian opera.

"Yes," agrees Brickman, "but one that would make Puccini turn in his grave."

Indeed, it's more "Tussle" than "Tosca," but "Jersey Boys" -- abetted by a great book by Brickman and Elice -- exemplifies Broadway at its four-part harmony best -- with these two writers in harmony with the alternately tough, funny, sorrowful saga that gave the Seasons their seasoned voice and another reason to celebrate nightly at the August Wilson Theatre.

The street-smart sensibility of the Seasons foursome paved the way for platinum hits even as society didn't snap them up as their own. Sure, they appeared on "American Bandstand," but they didn't have the same standing as other more socially conscious "cause" bands.

"They were never embraced by the rock intelligentsia like the Beatles," acknowledges Brickman of the singers from Jersey, whose audiences were nevertheless more apt to be made up of real rugged Eleanor Rigbys than those of the more upscale Beatles.

And when it came to a street-savvy musical, "I was the new kid on the block," says Brickman, making his Broadway debut writing this "play with music."

Is it really all that surprising that Brickman would be the sleeper hit of the season? That a man, whose teamwork with Woody Allen used language to its wit's end -- and beginning -- would find a new partner to make book on a Newark, N.J.-type musical that makes Winesburg, Ohio, seem wimpy? Make his "Manhattan," which Brickman did on screen, and is now doing the Broadway way.

"The rhythm of language translates to the stage," says the musically astute, and much published writer and contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Playboy.

"Jersey Boy"-cum-play "boy"?

"I write Jewish and cast Italian," he quips, a knowing twist and frug on the axiom of successful Jewish writers who contend they "think Yiddish, write British."

But is this how Brickman's father wanted him to cast his lot in life, with the likes of Hollywood and Broadway?

"He would not change his position," despite Brickman's success -- he always wanted to see his son as a civil engineer.

In a way, Brickman engineered his current success story with a sense of civility, if not frenzy: "I almost didn't do this show. I was very ambivalent. I didn't know much about the Four Seasons, and when I listened to their albums, I had a real chip on my shoulder."

Could that chip accede to a rock musical?

"I was such an effete, Communistic, pseudointellectual snob," he kibitzes self-deprecatingly of why he didn't think that "Jersey Boys" had a 'hood of a chance in taking up his time.

Ten seconds that shook the world? It became 21/2 hours that got the Broadway world all shook up.

"These are songs that guys don't sing to a girl, they sing them to other guys about girls," muses Brickman of the catalogue that scats like street scavengers trying to make sense of the world. "There is an innocence about the material."

And a fine fealty

"It's all about a sense of family, of being loyal to family, to the guys, which is the same kind of feeling in the 'Godfather' movies. It's an Italian thing of protection."

They made him an author no one could refuse. And if book writer now fills the bill, well, it certainly is a different panacea than the one he first prescribed for himself. Brickman concedes that at the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in physics at first, he was originally interested in becoming a doctor.

But the ambition came up empty, not M.D., after "a semester working at Wisconsin General Hospital."

Get him out of there -- stat! "After that I fell into music," he says, noting that his "sister and parents are very musical, and I was seduced by the banjo."

It was somewhat all in tune with the family's politics as well, in which Brickman's father considered himself a "fellow traveler," so much "like a lot of other people from Eastern Europe; he bought into what turned out to be the fantasy [of communism] of making the world a better place."

Bang the shoe slowly: Better he shouldn't have discovered what really happened under Stalin, as revealed by Khrushchev?

But when he did, Brickman's father's heart was broken -- as were so many others suddenly purged of what had been their youthful ideals.

If Brickman's father left his heart in the patina of promise that had been a five-year plan, his son found his with a different plan in a different place. The one-time head writer of "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" and "The Dick Cavett Show" made some headway with Woody Allen, teaming up with the neurotic New Yorker for some distinctly new/retro romances such as the aforementioned Oscar-winning "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and "Sleeper."

Hollywood awoke to Brickman's talents as a solo act as he segued to a number of screenplays on his own, such as "Lovesick" and "Simon."

What "Simon" says about Brickman in its tale of an earthling-turned-extraterrestrial is that he himself is a stranger in a strange land, an extraordinary talent in a business where Hollywood has ordinances protecting the ordinary.

So, on top of everything, he's a law breaker who got his break with Allen -- "I learned an enormous amount from Woody. I went to school under him."

The University of Uniqueness? Pom-poms for punchlines? History as hysterical? "Woody is very astute about navigating this incredible jungle of making films in Hollywood."

Black-and-white films in a blackboard jungle: Brickman graduated magna cum lauded by Hollywood. If he became the talk of the town, he owes much of the dialogue training to Woody, concedes the writer. "Woody and I would have these extended elaborate dialogues when working together. When I started to go out on my own, I would do the same," talking to himself.

But what a great listener!

Back to business on Broadway, where booking a batch of tickets for this well-written show has theatergoers muttering "mama mia" at their scarcity.

But this king of new musicals is no Abba-cadabra of a magic show pulled out of a hat; it truly bookends -- and starts -- with a great tale told by talented writers.

In the cult category of rock 'n' reel 'em in musicals, "Jersey Boys" is a jukebox musical unplugged, marching to its own drummer -- and guitarist -- as it stands apart from others content to slather some songs onto a slapped-together script.

So much of the success of "Jersey Boys" is in its great mix of music and muscle. But it's the book and the men who wrote it that makes this a new chapter and verse in Broadway annals.

And, luckily, the writer who was once part of the New Journeyman, along with a pre-Mamas and the Papas John and Michelle Phillips, has taken his new journey to Broadway by working his way back to teaming with another talented writer.

"It's less lonely," says Brickman -- whose Jewish outlook on life is not so much to be positive as it is "to just have the absence of a negative; it's in the DNA of Jews" -- on collaboration.

But it's much more than that, adds the beguilingly blandishment-free Brickman, whose "Jersey Boys" has become a hot Broadway meal ticket.

"It's also about having someone to lunch with."

 

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