As a musical experience, Jersey Boys is a gift that keeps on giving.
WHEN Desmond or Des McAnuff directs a stage production, it never fails to win some kind of award.
As the director of Jersey Boys, the 62-year-old has earned rave reviews for the musical. Ironically, he was initially reluctant to take on the project because he was simply too busy in the theatrical world. He was then directing musicals and presiding over the world’s largest repertory theatre, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.
“I didn’t think it was for me. I would have been making the biggest mistake of my life. Fortunately, the writers (Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman) were persistent,” he was quoted as saying in an interview.
Jersey Boys is based on a true rags-to-riches story of four Italian-American chaps, who went on to become one of the most successful pop groups in America – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.
The four – Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, started out in the club circuit in New Jersey in the late 1950s before hitting it big.
Written by Elice and Brickman, the show conceptualised with the help of Gaudio. It was staged on Broadway in 2005 and continues to attract audiences worldwide. Theatregoers will get a slice of the musical when Jersey Boys makes its tour stop at the Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur from April 15-27.
It’s almost a decade since the musical debuted and McAnuff makes sure the
quality is of par excellence everywhere it
“We have a team of spectacularly talented people and every member of the team is steadfastly determined to keep the standards of the work very high. There is not an actor anywhere that has done Jersey Boys that I have not auditioned in person, but if I am not able to get there, I will always weigh in after looking at the actor on tape,” said McAnuff in an e-mail interview.
“Jersey Boys is the kind of story that has universality – it is the sort of rags-to -riches and back-to-rags story that seems to resonate. Keeping it fresh is really not all that challenging.”
Casting the actors is an arduous process and the director and his team pay close attention to the original quartet’s physical appearance and vocal range. However, they do not discriminate against the actor’s height.
“The important thing for all of us is that the audience buys into the actors as the real Four Seasons within the first 15 or 20 minutes of the show. When we can get the audience to do that, they are heavily invested emotionally in the performances and the musical really takes flight,” he added.
With a decade’s worth of showbiz history, Jersey Boys remains a trim and sharp proposition when it comes to stageside performance.
As part of the show’s preparations, a week-long Frankie Camp is held in New York whenever a new production of Jersey Boys is set to open, with the performers working with vocal coaches and choreographers. That keeps the production in good shape.
In his stage productions, the American-Canadian’s style is characterised by the use of stage machinery for added effect, rather than the nuances of the spoken word, which explains why his musicals are bestsellers.
For Jersey Boys, instead of interpreting the story from his viewpoint, McAnuff based it on each band members’ view and broke it into four quarters.
“The writers had uncovered some contradictory statements and stories that had different spins from the individual members of the band, so we decided to take full advantage of that.
“By having four narrators tell ostensibly the same story, we were able to create a sort of Rashomon effect, which creates conflict between the four characters.
“They don’t actually have to fight face to face; they can fight through the narration
as storytellers, and I think this gives a certain truth and depth to the story,” he explained.
While some people hardly know the existence of The Four Seasons, McAnuff was already pretty familiar with the band.
“Hard as it may be to believe, the first album I owned as a little kid was Sherry & 11 Others (1962). I have always been a fan of the band.
“I loved the vocal arrangements and the kind of doo wop foundation they employed. On the other hand, I knew very little about them and their personal lives,” shared McAnuff, who was a rocker before he ventured into directing.
“Rick and Marshall had done a fair bit of research and I was absolutely astonished by the dark lives that the Four Seasons led in comparison to the innocent songs they wrote and sang.
“It occurred to me that if someone like me who had been a fan since I was 10 and didn’t know much about their extraordinary story, then others would be compelled as well. Apparently I was right.”
Of the four, McAnuff identifies best with Gaudio, the keyboard player.
“When I was a kid, I read the liner notes of that first album. At that time, it was news to me that a member of a rock band would actually write the songs so I was very taken with Gaudio.
“I always paid special attention to him when I saw the band perform on television, but came to admire him deeply as a composer.
“This paved the way for my appreciation for The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and other great songwriting bands that I was fortunate enough to grow up listening to. In many ways, it seems to me that the Four Seasons were well ahead of their time.”
McAnuff also has a knack for repackaging rock for Broadway. He reckons Jersey Boys is the quintessential story of a rock ‘n roll band.
It involves struggle, sacrifice, corruption and a tremendous amount of suffering as well as great accomplishment and at times, ecstatic joy.
For personal accomplishment, McAnuff has twice won Broadway’s Tony Award as best director (musical) for Big River (1985) and for The Who’s Tommy (1993).
He was also nominated for Jersey Boys in 2006 and although he didn’t clinch a third Tony, the production went on to win best musical.
“Music in general and rock ‘n’ roll specifically, seems to have a kind of common touch.
“Each cast brings to Jersey Boys their own unique interpretation of the show, but the standards are always equally rigorous. Audiences who have seen the show on Broadway would feel just as excited about it in Asia.”
Asked how the Justin Bieber generation will take to the musical, McAnuff had a philosophical viewpoint to share.
“I am sure Justin is enjoying the privileges and suffering through some of the indulgences that plagued the members of the Four Seasons in the 1950s/60s.
“He comes from very humble roots like the guys in The Four Seasons and clearly getting into the same kind of trouble they did.”
In the case of The Four Seasons, the Jersey Boys musical reflects the group’s struggles, dreams, wayward ways and quest for redemption. Talk about a musical biography brimming with life’s lessons to take home.
Jersey Boys is set to run at Istana Budaya, Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur from April 15 to 27. Ticket prices range from RM200 to RM680, and are available through all TicketCharge channels. For more info, log on to www.ticketcharge.com.my. Hotline: 03-9222 8811. For show info and a chance to win free tickets: www.facebook.com/jerseyboys.malaysia. The show is organised by Milestone Production Sdn Bhd. The Star is the gold sponsor and Red FM the official radio station.