‘Jersey Boys’ co-author Rick Elice, on his life-changing musical … and the horrible, life-changing year he has endured
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Rick Elice still remembers the first time he saw Roger Rees. In fact, it was exactly 34 years ago this month.
“I saw him in Nicholas Nickleby, and my life changed,” he says. The two formed a professional and personal partnership that lasted for decades, culminating a few years back when Elice wrote, and Rees directed, the award-winning riff on Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatcher. Both were Tony-nominated for the show. They were riding high.
Then last year, Rees was diagnosed with brain cancer. Within nine months, it would take his life.
When writer Joan Didion lost her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, she referred to the aftermath as “the year of magical thinking.” But 21 weeks after Rees’ passing, Elice has a different term for it.
“It has been horrible — every day,” Elice says grimly. “We were together for many, many years — he was a much more prominent part of me than I am of myself. It leaves a gaping hole in your life — as someone asked me, ‘How do you move on without your arms or your legs?’ He was performing until six weeks before he died; that’s the kind of man he was.”
The loss has cast a shadow over 2015 (“I’m so sad all the time, I miss him every day,” he says) but Elice still finds the strength to look on the positive — including the continued success of Jersey Boys, which he co-wrote 11 years ago and which continues to wow audiences worldwide. (The national tour returns to Dallas Dec. 16, and settles in at the Winspear until Dec. 27.)
In case you’ve been under a rock since 2004, Jersey Boys is the smash jukebox musicals featuring the songs of the Four Seasons, the Frank Valli-led pop group that transitioned from streetlamp doo-wop to pop chart success. Elice and Marshall Brickman met the band members and were entranced by their anecdotes, becoming convinced it would make a great play. In the process, they helped usher in a sub-genre of jukebox musicals: the bioplay of supergroups and musicmakers from Barry Gordy (Motown the Musical) to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis (Million Dollar Quartet) to Carole King (Beautiful).
Elice says his only goal was to make good theater, and dismisses the idea he helped invent a new musical trend.
“People want to [pigeonhole] shows, but it’s sort of like walking into a gallery and saying ‘Oh, no, not another rectangular painting.’ The recontextualizing of popular songs did not begin with Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys,” he says. “As a genre, the jukebox musical predates the jukebox really — Irving Berlin was doing this in the 1920s. If you do Oklahoma now, it’s a jukebox musical because people go to hear ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ and ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ — no one goes to see who Laurie takes to the box social. Hamlet is a jukebox show to see what Benedict Cumberbatch does with ‘to be or not to be.’”
Nevertheless, Elice does appreciate how Jersey Boys has continued to amaze audiences … and even surprise him on occasion.
“I feel entirely, utterly grateful [for Jersey Boys],” he says. “It changed my life in many ways. The writer starts with a very active role, but then the writer is in a passive role of spectator, hearing people laugh at something you wrote. The real delight is in seeing people playing the show now who were too young to even audition when the show opened so who would never have been able to be in it, but who bring something really fresh to it. I like seeing when someone else brings their art to something you think of in one particular way. What’s nice about Jersey Boys and shows that last is, they stand up to various interpretations.
(Elice politely distances himself from the 2014 film version of Jersey Boys which, despite a screenwriting credit, he had little to do with. “There was no process [of making the film] for me,” he says. “Marshall and I had written a screenplay many years before, but it wasn’t a shooting script — more of a treatment. Then four years went by and we got a call that Clint Eastwood wanted to shoot our prior screenplay. He had a certain window and budget and decided to shoot the script he had in his hand, which Marshall and I thought was never quite finished. We were never on the set.”)
The success of any piece is something you can predict, Elice says (“There’s so much you can’t control — it’s why there’s no formula for success or every show would be a hit”), but he admits that the title of Jersey Boys — which he stressed was not his idea — really has contributed the show’s meaning and longevity, which is deeper than just appeal to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd of Broadway attendees.
“[Band member] Bob Gaudio’s son, Shannon, suggested Jersey Boys. As soon as I heard it, I said it was a great idea,” he says. “If you stick up for people, if you have your friends’ back, if you’re drawn back to your old neighborhood … you’re a Jersey Boy.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 11, 2015.