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'Jersey Boys' stage stars find harmony in Eastwood's film adaptation

Published On: Jun 18 2014 10:58:29 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 18 2014 10:59:43 PM CDT
'Jersey  Boys' cast

Warner Bros.

Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, John Lloyd Young and Michael Lomenda in "Jersey Boys."

Not only are Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons workin' their way back into popular culture with the film version of the Tony Award-winning musical "Jersey Boys" -- thanks to the introspective direction of screen legend Clint Eastwood, the story of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group is being told from a unique, new perspective.

That's because "Jersey Boys," the movie -- based on the 2006 Tony Award-winning musical -- isn't so much about classic songs like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Who Loves You" or "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," as it is the fascinating true story of four guys from New Jersey who through humble beginnings and tumultuous times form and sustain one of the greatest singing groups in pop music history. The songs are expertly performed and have their right place in "Jersey Boys" to be sure; it's just that the film is much more than your standard movie musical.

"I would call it a musical biopic much in the way of 'Ray' and 'The Doors' – they have music in them, but they're classified as biopics. We certainly wouldn't call it a jukebox musical," John Lloyd Young told me in a recent interview, joined by fellow stars Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda.

Young, who won the Best Actor in a Musical Tony for the original stage production, reprises his role as Valli for the film version, while Bergen plays Bob Guadio, who, sang, played keyboard and co-wrote many of The Four Seasons' songs with producer Bob Crewe. Lomenda plays Nick Massi, who played bass and sang in the original lineup of the group and was responsible for many vocal arrangements; and Vincent Piazza rounds out the core cast as Tommy DeVito, the guitarist, vocalist and linchpin of the group who recruited Valli and fell headlong into the trappings of fame.

Even though the stage version of "Jersey Boys" moves along quite swiftly, Bergen likens the movie version of the story to smash Broadway drama "Lady Day," which recently earned star Audra McDonald her record-breaking sixth Tony Award.

"It's the story of Billie Holiday and there's about 20 songs in the play, but it's not considered a musical. The reason why, is, the songs further plot and serve the story," Bergen told me. "It just so happens that Audra is playing a famous singer, much like we do in 'Jersey Boys.' The songs are a product of the play and serve as some of the plot points. There's really not that much in 'Jersey Boys' about the creation of the music. 'Sherry,' 'Big Girls,' 'Walk Like a Man' -- the songs are what these guys were doing for work. 'Jersey Boys,' though, is really about four guys growing up and going through life together and experiencing the problems of brotherhood."

Fans of the stage versions of "Jersey Boys will no doubt hail Eastwood for sticking to his guns and casting the best people possible for the roles instead of casting familiar Hollywood faces in attempt to appease a demographic. Young, Bergen and Lomenda were all personally selected by Eastwood after he watched them perform their roles on stage, and while they knew the stage production backwards and forward, they loved how the Oscar-winning filmmaker had them perform their roles in a new sort of spotlight.

"Clint Eastwood puts the story in front on you. The music is what they do, but we also go behind the story of these guys, Young observed. "Whereas on Broadway, the music is put in front of you and it's electrifying every time they do a number, and that's great. I love both mediums. The play is like looking at the outside of a mansion, and you could see where the guys lived. But 'Jersey Boys' the movie is like taking you inside that mansion for a tour. The psychological reality of these characters is much more immediately on display in a close-up on film than you would get in an evening on stage."

"Jersey Boys" is bold in that it's a warts-and-all story of the founding four members, including their ties to the local mob in New Jersey, the in-fighting between the group's members, and the critical role each of them played to truly make The Four Seasons gel. And while most identify the group by Valli's trademark falsetto, the movie delves into less-celebrated aspects of the group, including Gaudio's role as songwriter, DeVito's muscle to find success for the band at any cost, and Massi's melding of the vocals.

"Frankie has sometimes said that Nick was his first vocal coach, and you see a little bit of that in the film which is really cool. He had great ears and helped shape Frankie's raw talent," Lomenda said. "Nicky was a musician first and his talent was arranging, so it's great to see him partially get credit for putting Frankie's vocals up top and all that harmony below."

Unfortunately, Massi and DeVito earned their credit the hard way through the troubles they experienced as the group started to come together.

"People, of course, know of Frankie, but story opens the curtains for the other guys," Lomenda said. "Not only do we see their musical history, but we see that they're hardcore, from the wrong side of the tracks guys who were in and out of jail. It took them a while to form The Four Seasons, because they couldn't stay out of jail."

"Nick learned how to play guitar in jail. They called the jail 'The Rahway Academy of the Arts,'" Lomenda added with a laugh. "The thing that's cool about them is that they're singing songs like 'Sherry,' 'Walk Like a Man' and 'Big Girls Don't Cry,' which some people consider as bubblegum pop. But these guys were really scrappers."

Parallel universes

Those who caught the Tony Awards recently will no doubt recall the brilliant stage duet between "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" star Jessie Mueller and the real Carole King. However, because of the old wounds "Jersey Boys" opens up for the Valli, Young doesn't expect to experience such a surreal moment anytime soon, even though the singer, 80, is still touring and is active as ever.

"He would never want to do that. Frankie is very possessive of his own life and career, and he sees them and 'Jersey Boys' as two separate things," Young said. "Frankie would much rather have a documentary of his life made ... because the way some of the things portrayed in film were done for dramatic effect. That's interesting to play for actor, but that's not true to life from Frankie's perspective. He's got a mixed-up feeling about it, and the mixed-up feeling the man has for the story being out there is something I can build from and put it into my character."

Bergen said the feeling is exactly the opposite for Guadio, though, as the legendary, 71-year-old  songwriter has been intricately involved in "Jersey Boys" since the beginning.

"Anyone who has done a 'Jersey Boys' stage production has worked with him," Bergen said. "He's very involved in the music, and he's produced the cast album and the soundtrack to this film. On the touring production I was in, he really encouraged us to leave out theater voices behind, and really found the R&B and doo-wop sound. We have a different relationship with him than we do with Frankie. Bob is very much a producer of the show and will do whatever the audience likes."

Tim Lammers is a nationally syndicated movie journalist and the author of the new ebook Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton (Foreword by Tim Burton).

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