Friday, October 9, 2009

Two “jukebox musicals” hit Broadway in 2005, each featuring the songs of a popular ‘60s singing combo. The subject of one of the shows was an iconic group loved by critics and the subject of abiding press attention in the decades after its peak.

The other musical was about one that, despite achieving a similar level of commercial success, had been forgotten — or dismissed as “bubble gum” — by much of the musical media establishment and had to be reintroduced to many audience members.

It must have seemed like a slam-dunk to predict which one of those musicals would bomb and which would turn into a Broadway smash still selling out theaters more than four years after it opened.

Yet “Good Vibrations,” set to the soundtrack of the Beach Boys, closed after two months. “Jersey Boys,” the musical celebration of the neglected Four Seasons, is going stronger than ever, with sales of its official cast album just certified platinum and with a national touring company, which premiered to a packed house this month at Washington’s National Theatre.

A large part of the latter’s success and the former’s failure, of course, is simply the quality of the individual shows. “Embarrassingly bad” with “tacky choreography” and “lame” dialogue was how one critic described “Good Vibrations.” By contrast, the Tony-winning “Jersey Boys” combines a talented touring cast and brilliant choreography with a moving and sometimes sad story arc of a band’s sudden rise from a blue-collar Italian neighborhood to superstardom.

In chronicling the Four Seasons’ ascent, the musical has accomplished an unexpected feat: It has helped lift the foursome’s place in the pantheon of popular music. After four decades, the spotlight finally is shining on the contributions of the group, which racked up many hits but always stood in the shadows of the Beach Boys and many other ‘60s bands that were critics’ darlings.

As William Ruhlmann points out on the authoritative Allmusic Web site, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons “entered the charts with their first major hits in the same month, August 1962,” and “both were among the few American performers who managed to withstand the British invasion led by the Beatles in 1964.” Like the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons created a harmony-layered sound with a chorus of voices centered around a lead falsetto.

Both groups played their own instruments, and both had their songs written by one member who served as the major creative force — Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys, and for the Four Seasons, Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote most of the hits with the band’s producer, Bob Crewe.

Yet, notes’s bio, the Four Seasons “did not, for most of their career, enjoy the kind of critical approbation and media profile of many of their peers.”

As a songwriter, Mr. Gaudio may not have scaled the musical heights Mr. Wilson did in writing symphonic compositions such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” but, with Mr. Crewe, he did pen sophisticated tunes that have more than stood the test of time. And his lyrics made the Four Seasons poets of the ethnic Northeast street corners in much the same way that the Beach Boys served as ambassadors of the surf and sun of Southern California.

Classics of the Four Seasons repertoire come alive in the context “Jersey Boys” provides. “Walk Like a Man” offers firm fatherly advice about getting over failed relationships. “Rag Doll,” inspired by Mr. Gaudio’s observation of a little girl in tattered clothing cleaning car windshields, is a stark look at urban poverty.

Then there is the universal genre-crossing love song, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Sung tenderly by lead singer Frankie Valli, the tune was a comeback hit for the group in the late ‘60s. It has since been covered by scores of artists, including hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill.

So what took the critics so long to come around? Part of the answer could be that the group wasn’t taken as seriously as the Beach Boys because it was primarily a singles band, continuing to concentrate on releases of 45s just as they were falling out of favor with the rise of “Sgt. Pepper”-era concept albums and FM radio’s album-oriented rock format.

A more likely explanation is that the media just wasn’t as interested in the group because it did not make headlines as part of the ‘60s drug culture, as did the Beach Boys’ Mr. Wilson and many other artists. Although, as the play shows, many of the band members were far from saints — committing petty thefts in their youth and entangling themselves with the mob — they largely “kept their problems to themselves,” notes.

As the “Jersey Boys” narrator explains, the Four Seasons’ fans were not the countercultural youth interested in “levitating the Pentagon,” but the blue collar and middle-class young people who were pumping gas, driving trucks and “shipping out” for Vietnam. Thanks to this hit musical, these fans finally have a voice, and the music world is better for it.

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