Frankie Valli says Jersey Boys ain’t no Mamma Mia!
JERSEY BOYS Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe, directed by Des McAnuff. Presented by DanCap at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge). Previews to Saturday (August 21 to 23), opens Sunday (August 24) and runs to October 5, Tuesday-?Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-?Sunday 2 pm. $55-?$125. 416-?872-?1111.
It could be Joe Pesci i'm dealing with: the broad Italian-American accent, the diminutive stature, the edgy energy.
But I'm talking to Frankie Valli, former lead singer of the Four Seasons, one of the most successful American pop music acts in history. Wearing matching blue suits and frilly shirts, the group cranked out over 20 top 10 hits in the early and mid-60s, all of them fuelled by the insanely catchy backup vocals to Valli's fab falsetto.
Valli's in Toronto to talk about Jersey Boys, the documentary-style musical based on the story of the band that opens this weekend.
Directed by the same Des McAnuff who's the sole surviving artistic director at Stratford, the winner of the 2006 Tony best musical award is another jukebox musical, featuring a whack of the group's tunes - Big Girls Don't Cry and Sherry, for example.
But don't even breathe the words Mamma Mia! in front of Valli.
"Mamma Mia! is a story written around the music," he says, sitting alongside show co-writer Rick Elice. "We started with the story, and it's a play with songs.
"There's more integrity involved in this. We're doing the real-life story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and we have to sound like them. So the job of finding actors who can act, sing and dance and be musicians, that's immense."
Finding the tension in the story was also a challenge. Dreamgirls discovered it in the storyline about the rise of the not-so-great but dishy backup singer to lead singer status. But Valli was always the lead, and when he broke off from the Four Seasons, he gave them a slice of everything he subsequently earned. So no big deal there.
Turns out Elice, alongside Marshall Brickman (yes, Woody Allen's collaborator), started with tons of disparate anecdotes that were teeming with contradictions.
"How were we gonna figure out what was true?" asks Elice, looking like the ad exec he once was. "One of the band members would say, ‘That's all bullshit; I'll tell you what happened.' And Marshall and I had the eureka moment: we didn't need to tell the truth. The tension isn't in what happened, it's in who you believe."
Despite Valli's status as a purveyor of pure pop, he misses the old standards.
"I grew up at the tail end of the big-band era - the Ink Spots, the Andrews Sisters. What I hear today isn't even music. Singers today are doing vocal acrobatics. Where's the melody?"
He names Frank Sinatra as his favourite singer, and when I mutter about the Chairman's iffy intonation, Elice feigns having to come between Valli and me.
Valli doesn't mind a few vocal flaws, and he's not impressed with the new technologies that can tweak vocals to the point of perfection.
"Yeah," says Elice, "Frankie's an analog man in a digital world."
"If we listen to some of the greatest records ever made, there are intonation problems with all of them," Valli says. "For any more than two seconds it's hard to stay absolutely in tune. I don't care what your name is, how many years you've studied, you're human and it's a physical thing. That's what makes them organic. I want imperfection, because it's real."
He's always connected music and romance - even beyond popular songs' lyrical content. It started with his childhood movie experiences.
"I actually thought that when people kissed music played. The first time I kissed someone and there wasn't any music, I said, ‘This can't be it.'"
On the shift from r&b to pop:
On the new technologies and tweaking vocals:
More on going to the movies with his mum and thinking music happens when you kiss: