Before there was Jersey Shore, there were the Jersey Boys. It's the show that puts the joy into "Joysey", as one reviewer wrote of the 2009 Australian premiere of Jersey Boys in Melbourne.
The turbulent rags-to-riches story about the Italian/American blue-collar quartet from Newark, "Noy Joysey", Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is more than a jukebox musical peppered with some of the best pop songs of the 60s and 70s.
At times, it feels like a foot-tapping episode of The Sopranos as the fab four from the wrong side of the tracks, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Frankie Valli, run with the Mob, wrangle with producers and grapple with the spoils and pitfalls of fame - the broads, the bread, the booze and the sometimes bitter personal rivalries.
Musical-theatre audiences are normally dominated by women 70-30, but Jersey Boys producers have found this show is more evenly split, so that the interval queues for the men's toilets are just as long as the women's.
By the time it opens at Crown Theatre Perth in April, more than 1.3 million people around the country will have tapped their feet to hits Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Bye Bye Baby, December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) and Can't Take My Eyes Off You.
"The show basically talks about mateship which is why perhaps it appeals so strongly to Australians," says Anthony Harkin, a WAAPA graduate who plays Tommy DeVito, the smart-talking former jailbird and guitarist who was sent packing from the group in 1970 because of accumulated debts. "It is about four guys who were pretty down and out who found a way out. It is an underdog story."
Queenslander Glaston Toft, another WAAPA graduate, is the only remaining member of the original foursome from the show's Melbourne premiere. He plays the lugubrious Massi, the bass player who left the band in 1965 and died in 2000. "Unfortunately, the other three guys can experience the success of Jersey Boys first-hand but he died before getting to see the show," Toft says.
"It seems to resonate more than any other jukebox musical around, particularly with men as well as women. It is a great true story, so much more compelling than anything you could contrive. There is so much natural drama that is so much more interesting than if you were to take the Four Seasons songs and write a completely fresh storyline around them."
All the cast members have met Gaudio and Valli, who give their blessing to each actor selected to play them in the various productions around the world.
Directed by Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys won four Tony Awards on Broadway in 2006 and the original production continues to tour the US. Recently, it surpassed Hello Dolly as the 18th-longest-running Broadway show of all time.
Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice were given free rein with the story by Gaudio and Valli.
"It is all out there," Harkin says. "They haven't prettied up the story for public consumption. They tell everything that happened which is a pretty rare thing for icons of the music world."
Led by Valli's extraordinary falsetto voice and songwriter Gaudio's genius ear for a tune, the Four Seasons sold 175 million records between 1960 and 1975. Yet, unlike other major acts whose songs permeated pop culture such as the Beach Boys, Beatles and Rolling Stones, their biographical story was not so well known.
Valli, who is still touring the world at the age of 78, blames the record industry's failure to promote the group. Guided by their mafia connections about how record companies short-changed their artists, the Four Seasons retained the rights to their songs which meant smaller profits and less incentive for label owners to publicise them.
The group's blue-collar roots did not excite the media, either. "We were just a bunch of working stiffs not fashion-magazine pretty boys," Valli says.
Gaudio, who will be 70 next month, wrote his first hit, Short Shorts, at the age of 15 with the act the Royal Teens. As legend has it, he was introduced to DeVito and urged to join the group that became the Four Seasons by a pesky young New Jersey boy called Joe Pesci, who went on to Hollywood stardom in Goodfellas.
"Our people were the factory workers, the truck drivers, the pretty girls with circles under their eyes behind the counter at the diner," Gaudio says. "They were the ones who really got us, who pushed us over the top."Jersey Boys opens at the Crown Theatre Perth, on April 19.
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