How Did Two Jewish Playwrights Come to Write Jersey Boys?

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

Jersey Boys: The story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is coming to Louisville’s Kentucky Center for the Arts July 28-August 15 as part of the PNC Broadway Across America Louisville series. The show has won Tony, Grammy and Olivier Awards, but what’s the connection between the story of four blue-collar guys who made it in the world of rock-n-roll and the Jewish community?

The answer is the two playwrights who collaborated to create this show, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (pronounced Ellis), are both Jewish, although they are a study in contrasts.

Brickman has a long track record of success. He is the author or co-author of the films  Sleeper; Annie Hall, which won an Academy Award; Manhattan, Manhattan Murder Mystery, For the Boys and Intersection. He was also the writer/director of Simon, Lovesick, The Manhattan Project and Sister Mary Explains it All.

Brickman left his mark on television, too, where he was the head writer for “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson;” and the head writer and co-producer of the ABC “Dick Cavett Show,” which garnered 2 Emmy Awards.

He’s no stranger to the music world either as he began his career as a musician with the folk group The Tarriers; then, with John and Michelle Phillips, formed the pre-Mamas and Papas group The New Journeymen. Brickman’s recording (with Eric Weissberg) of the soundtrack of Deliverance earned gold status twice.

He has also been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Playboy and other periodicals and was the 2006 recipient of the Writers’ Guild of America’s Ian McClellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement. Jersey Boys is his first venture into musical theatre.

Jersey Boys is Elice’s first Broadway credit. He has been the creative director for ad campaigns for some 300 Broadway shows, from A Chorus Line to The Lion King; and a creative consultant for The Walt Disney Studio.

In 2003, he appeared Off-Broadway in Elaine May’s comedy, Adult Entertainment.

Brickman and Elice teamed up with Andrew Lippa to write The Addams Family, which opened on Broadway in April.

“I was not raised in an Orthodox or observant home,” Brickman said. “My Judaism is primarily cultural and social.” Brickman explained that in Poland, his grandfather had been a shochet, a ritual slaughter. It was his father who emigrated from Poland to the United States via Brazil. In 1923, the U.S. had a quota, he explained, so the family settled in Brazil. Most of them chose to stay there, but his father came to this country, where he became a union organizer and socialist.

“He was proud of his Jewish roots, and read Yiddish,” Brickman said, but “Yiddish was spoken in my home only when my parents didn’t want kids to know what being said.” Portuguese was used the same way.

Still, Jewish culture influenced his choice of career. “there is something in the Yiddish and Jewish attitude and language which informed so many people who write and do comedy.” For him, it was a “love or irony and a love a language” and a father who had a sarcastic streak.

Brickman claims he never made career choices. “I’ve taken each step to avoid falling on my face. I met Woody Allen and we found that we liked and disliked the same things and came from the same kind of ethnic and cultural background,” and that blossomed into a creative partnership.

In contrast, Elice identifies himself as “a conscientious and temple-going Jew” in the Conservative tradition. At one point, he said, “I fancied becoming a cantor. I loved Judaism and loved to sing and was fascinated by it.” He continued his Jewish education through Hebrew high school.

“Both sides of my family came from Russia or Poland,” he said. “I’m third generation American.” Some of his grandparents were born in Europe and others were born here. One grandmother was born on a steamer en route from Kiev to New York.

Elice said he started going to the theater at age 3, and was actively encouraged to read, go to the theater and to “participate interactively with arts. … Theatre has always been very important to me – its about community and family which are so much a part of what it is to be Jewish.”

“Jersey Boys had no right to happen,” Elice said, “and wouldn’t have happened if Frankie [Valli] and Bob [Gaudio] hadn’t made catalog available. We never expected would be Broadway musical.”

Their first meeting happened in the back of a very dark Italian restaurant. “When they started telling us about band,” he continued, “we asked why we hadn’t heard about their story. They told us they weren’t written about.”

As blue-collar local guys from the wrong side of the river, Valli and Gaudio told Elice and Brickman, “the cultural elite deemed that they wouldn’t sell magazines, … so didn’t write about them,” Elice said. “Nobody took them seriously, … but they sold 175 million records.

“The people who bought them, Elice continued, were going to Vietnam. The Beatles songs were written for girls about love. The principal fans of The Four Seasons looked like guys in the group. Their primary fans were guys, and now those guys are the adults who populate the audience of the show.”

Brickman sees similarities between the Italian families The Four Seasons members came from and Jewish families, as both groups value family and loyalty, and Elice agrees. In addition, Brickman noted, both cultures are patriarchal and based on a moral code.

At first, Brickman said, “I didn’t want to do Jersey Boys. I had very little connection with them. I was folk singer when got out of college, and couldn’t have been less interested in this era of pop music.” But Elice encouraged him to listen to them, and after learning how many records they sold, Brickman decided, “Maybe there’s an audience” for this project.

“There are certain things that go thru Jewish and Italian life,” he continued, “maybe a Mediterranean theme. We managed to find something that worked for us and worked for the audience.”

Tickets for Jersey Boys, beginning at $40, are available at, at the Kentucky Center Box Office or by phone at 584-7777.

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