Biz builds as fervent auds spread buzz on biotuner
Standing ovations may be a dime a dozen on Broadway these days, but some nights the new tuner “Jersey Boys” earns two — and that’s before the curtain call.
It’s not just auds who are enthusiastic. As the previewing musical gears up to open at the August Wilson Nov. 6, even notoriously tough-to-please industry folk are saying it’s a solid show. B.O. is steadily building, and group sales are going strong.
All of which has prompted insiders to ask three key questions: Will “Jersey Boys” be the sleeper hit of the fall? Will the show be the redemption of the widely maligned jukebox musical? And will it provide Dodger Theatricals with a much-needed hit?
If it succeeds, the show, based on the life and music of the Four Seasons, stands to turn a couple of legit trends right around.
First, “Boys” would reverse the fortunes of Dodger Theatricals, the producing org that last season suffered through high-profile losers “Good Vibrations” and “Dracula.” Even the company’s long-running 2001 Tony winner, “42nd Street,” didn’t manage to make back all of its $12 million capitalization when it closed in January after a 3½-year run.
Second, a profitable “Boys” might just add legitimacy to the jukebox musical. The perceived scourge had looked to be out after three strikes — flops to the tunes of the Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”), John Lennon (“Lennon”) and Elvis Presley (“All Shook Up”).
“Jersey Boys” has tried as much as possible to distance itself from the derogatory “jukebox” label, hyping a book by Oscar-winning screenwriter Marshall Brickman (“Annie Hall”) and Rick Elice.
Unlike “Vibrations” and “All Shook Up” (and even the smash pointman of the trend, “Mamma Mia!”), “Jersey” doesn’t try to shoehorn pre-existing hit songs into a fluffy plot.
As the biotuner chronicles the hardscrabble roots and mob entanglements of Frankie Valli and his bandmates, music is included in a more documentary approach, similar to movies “Ray” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
It helps, too, that the Four Seasons, despite catchy hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” aren’t the icons that the Beach Boys, Lennon and Elvis are, meaning auds can come with less baggage and fewer expectations.
“Even people who loved our music really didn’t know anything about us,” Bob Gaudio, the Four Seasons’ songwriter who is affiliated with the show, said in an earlier interview. “We were never a phenomenon.”
(Creatives for “Jersey Boys” declined interviews for this article, saying they preferred to let the show speak for itself.)
Another point in “Jersey’s” favor: It worked in San Diego. The show was the longest-running, highest-attended show in the history of the La Jolla Playhouse, where helmer Des McAnuff is a.d. It extended three times and ran for four months.
“We started out believing this was a baby-boomer show,” says Lendre Kearns, communications director at La Jolla. “But the boys-make-good story really connected with young audiences.”
Crowds were just as raucous in La Jolla as they are on Broadway. “There are these moments in the show when the theatergoers take on the role of a concert audience,” Kearns says.
In Gotham, “Jersey” can exploit overlapping demos. “I think the Broadway demographic is now the boomer demographic,” says Rocco Landesman, prexy of Jujamcyn Theaters, owner of the August Wilson. He is also loosely affiliated with Dodger Theatricals, though not an investor in the show.
“The people who are old enough and rich enough to afford a Broadway ticket grew up with this music. And we’re a lot closer to New Jersey here.”
Whether critics will laud the show remains to be seen, especially since the songbook musical remains genre non grata on the Great White Way.
There are, however, the beginnings of a backlash to the backlash.
Some legiterati have started to admit that “All Shook Up,” which was shut out by the Tony nominating committee and failed to lure auds, got a bad rap. And “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show” arrives on Broadway in February propelled by the strong buzz it earned in its Buffalo, N.Y., tryout.
An informal survey of Gotham critics suggests that they’re not harboring any grudges against songbook musicals, “Good Vibrations” notwithstanding.
But maybe the producers won’t have to rely so much on them.
“I think the model here is ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe,’ says Landesman, referring to the revue of rock ‘n’ roll tunes by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The show got a mixed bag of reviews, but it grew into a success that ran nearly five years at the August Wilson (then named the Virginia). “The future of this show is dependent on audiences, rather than critics.”