Writing a story revolving around the hit songs of a performer was not initially appealing to Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the book to the musical Jersey Boys.
Pictured from left are Rick Elice (Marshall Brickman’s writing partner), Bob Gaudio, Brickman and Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff.
“I looked at the many jukebox musicals that have failed – musicals about Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan – and wasn’t interested in creating another. Although Mamma Mia became a commercial hit, I still wasn’t interested in this genre,” Brickman said.
The 67-year-old writer and director has earned the right to be choosy. Brickman received an Oscar as screenwriter for his collaboration with director Woody Allen in the film Annie Hall and earned eight other awards over his career for his unique movies, so he did not want to waste his time on a project that didn’t have a good story.
“I would not have written Jersey Boys if there was not a compelling story to it. My writing partner, Rick Elice, and I had a chance meeting with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and learned how dramatic their lives were, four blue-collar guys from a low-income New York neighbourhood who had been threatened by tough guys and rose to become famous,” Brickman said.
“Once I heard their true story, Rick and I knew Jersey Boys would not be another wasted jukebox musical and we were hooked. The dynamics of creating a musical with the stories of four people on the stage would hook an audience.”
Although the music of the Four Seasons created nostalgia for the audience, it is Brickman’s story of Jersey Boys, with humour laced with drama, that has won the raves of critics. Debuting on Broadway in 2005, Jersey Boys won numerous Tony Awards in 2006, and Brickman and Elice were nominated for a Tony for creating the book for the musical. Jersey Boys is still on Broadway, with a national tour running simultaneously. Toronto box office sales of Jersey Boys are doing so well that the musical has been extended one month through Nov. 9.
Brickman himself is no stranger to music, having played banjo with John and Michelle Phillips in their pre-Mamas and Papas days in 1962-63. He turned to writing comedy in 1964, first with Candid Camera. He went on to become head writer for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in the late 60s and then The Dick Cavett Show in 1968. After meeting Allen on Dick Cavett, the duo decided to collaborate and made many famous films in the 1970s.
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The premise of several of Allen’s movies – Sleeper, Annie Hall among others – revolved around a sentiment to Jewish New York, with the script built on the neurotic, nebbish Allen character looking at the world from his viewpoint, or was it Brickman’s?
“Nobody writes a film by himself, so I’ll take some of the credit for some of the success of my work with Woody. We both created the jokes and some of the funniest lines in the films, but the character that Woody made famous is his work alone,” Brickman said.
He has earned critical praise for other projects he created as a director without Woody Allen, such as The Manhattan Project, a 1986 film about a gifted high school student who decides to construct a nuclear bomb for a national science fair. Brickman credits his Jewish upbringing in New York for his vision.
“I spoke Yiddish growing up with my parents as my parents, Abraham and Pauline, were new immigrants from Poland. My father was involved in politics as a labour organizer, so I had a taste of left-wing politics. I grew up reading a lot, including the works of Shalom Aleichem and other Yiddish writers, so I had a lot of respect for my heritage.
“But I also grew up differently from my parents. My parents were practical and were not initially happy seeing me play the banjo or writing comedy. They thought I should have become an accountant, doctor or lawyer.”
Although Brickman wrote films for Hollywood, he chose to reside in New York. He has been married for 30 years to Nina Feinberg, a former ballet director who is now his film editor, and has two daughters – Jessica, 28, and Sophie, 24.
“I lead a very conventional life, quite different than what people think of when you say you work on Hollywood films. I wouldn’t have it any other way and made the right decision to live in New York.”
Brickman has finished writing scripts with Elice for two other musicals – Turn of the Century, starring Jeff Daniels and Rachel York, and a play based on the television series The Addams Family, starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. Both plays are scheduled to debut within a year.
Jersey Boys is at Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. For tickets and showtimes, call 416-872-1111 or go to www.dancaptickets.com.