Ten years ago, "Jersey Boys" was just a hazy idea hatched by singing star Frankie Valli and his brilliant partner Bob Gaudio. Valli's heyday with the Four Seasons was in the 1960s. In fact, one of their big hits was called "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." Now, back in 2004, the theater world was suffering from too many so-called "catalog musicals." Shows based on hits of the Beach Boys ("Good Vibrations") and Elvis ("All Shook Up"), busted like broken bulbs on abandoned Broadway marquees. The critics were aiming poisoned pens at any producer who dared show up with hits from the Kennedy-Johnson years.
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And yet I thought that "Jersey Boys" would light up the town. Why? Believe it or not, it was not the music that sold me. I did not care that Frankie Valli's piercing falsetto had sold millions. That was 40 years ago! Alvin and the Chipmunks sang falsetto and they also sold millions. The boys and girls who bopped to "Big Girls Don't Cry" were grandmas and grandpas now, more likely looking for their statins, not a hot date for Saturday night.
You've heard the expression "Here today, gone tomorrow." These days it's "Here today, gone today." What made the show current? I agreed to back "Jersey Boys" when it was being incubated at La Jolla Playhouse because it tapped into the zeitgeist of 2004, not 1964. First of all, Jersey was hot, and Italian-Americans from New Jersey were the hottest. The HBO hit "The Sopranos" inspired tours of Italian neighborhoods where the fictional Tony Soprano held court. A few years later, MTV's inane but insanely popular "Jersey Shore" would slink along. Valli's real name, by the way, was Francesco Castelluccio.
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Second, the show's ingenious director, Des McAnuff, used huge, blown-up comic strips to illustrate scenes, cartoons that looked like Roy Lichtenstein paintings. Lichtenstein's works were breaking records at Sotheby's. Third, certain scenes celebrated cars. What kinds of cars had been racking up tremendous prices at auctions? You guessed it, 1960s muscle cars, the kind that Frankie Valli's fans would drool over.
Finally, the script (written by Woody Allen's writing partner Marshall Brickman and former advertising executive Rick Elice) was far wittier and more poignant than any of the failed catalog musicals. In the end, I put up my money because the show encapsulated a bygone era without looking stodgy, and it roped the audience into a great story.
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In the first act, ringleader Tommy DeVito explains that his tough neighborhood was like a revolving door, a portal connecting a dim street corner to Rahway State Prison (aka "Rahway Academy of the Arts"). One night at a Broadway performance, when the actor playing DeVito uttered "Rahway," I heard a tough guy in the balcony proudly scream, "Yeah!!" Like it was his alma mater — as if you shouted "Notre Dame" in a crowded Indiana theater.
So, did any sentimental considerations sway my decision to invest in "Jersey Boys?" Well, every summer as a kid, I played in the sand on the beach at the Jersey Shore. And when I first met Frankie Valli, I told him that, whenever I hear him sing "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," I still recall the summery coconut scent of Coppertone wafting across the boardwalk. Never fails.
Commentary by Todd G. Buchholz, a former White House economic advisor and managing director of the Tiger hedge fund. He is currently the CEO of Sproglit, which makes educational tools for children. He is also the author of "New Ideas from Dead CEOs and New Ideas from Dead Economists." Follow him on Twitter @Rushbook.