‘Jersey Boys’ — Workin’ its way to Tucson

Here’s what happens when you’re a Broadway hit:

Big time awards.

A major motion picture.

An extended life on tour.

And a road-show stop in Tucson in June.

The Tony-winning “Jersey Boys,” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, swings into the Old Pueblo next week — the only time Broadway in Tucson was able to book the play.

The musical is about the early days of the group, which burst on the scene more than a half century ago with smooth harmonizing and can’t-get-them-out-of-your-head tunes. The musical has been such a hit that it’s been on the road for almost three years, and still draws big audiences in New York.

And on June 20, while “Jersey Boys” is still rocking on the Centennial Hall stage, Clint Eastwood’s film based on the play hits the big screen.

There’s a reason “Jersey Boys” is so popular.

“The music is timeless,” says Hayden Milanes, who plays Frankie Valli in the road show.

That’s coming from a relative youngster: Milanes is 29, but he has found the music of his parents’ era speaks to him, as well.

“Jersey Boys” isn’t just about the music, however. In an effort to break out of the mold of an iffy musical with a thin, fictional, story to support the songs, the creators Marshall Brickman (he wrote Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” among others) and Rick Elice wove the music into and around the true story of the band members. And it’s a good one: love, death, prison, fights, triumphs and failures.

A little history

It all started in the early 1950s, when Frankie Valli and Tommy DeVito formed a band called the Variatones. The name changed many times. By 1956, they were The Four Lovers and their song, “You’re the Apple of My Eye,” hit the charts, but subsequent records faltered.

By 1961, they were the Four Seasons. Bob Gaudio, a teen who had penned the hit “Who Wears Short Shorts,” joined and things started happening. Gaudio, who played keyboards and guitar, wrote “Sherry,” and it soared to the top of the charts. It was smooth going for a while as the band, which also included Nick Massi, had hit after hit, most of them by Gaudio. There were a few personnel changes, but record sales boomed. It was about this time that Gaudio and Valli made a handshake deal to split their profits from the Four Seasons. That deal is good to this day.

The end of the ‘60s saw the rise of hard rock, and the soft sounds of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons weren’t so hot anymore. Though they had a few more hits — tunes such as “Who Loves You,” “My Eyes Adored You” and “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)” — their days on top of the charts were fading. But like a lot of groups from the ’60s and ’70s (Beach Boys, Turtles, etc.), the Four Seasons remained in demand when it came to concerts.

The band, which sold more than 100 million records, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Troubled waters

The Four Seasons endured through personnel changes, jealous lovers and shattered friendships. There were money woes as well with huge debts and help from the mob to get out of them, and even a stint in jail for skipping out on a hotel bill.

One of the most serious threats came in the ‘70s when Valli was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a growth of bone in the middle ear which affected the sounds he could hear. He wasn’t able to perform his trademark songs and stepped back and let the others take the lead. Eventually, surgery corrected the issue and Valli’s famous falsetto was back.

Plenty of fodder there to take to the musical theater stage.

About that musical

“Jersey Boys” wasn’t a huge hit with critics when it opened on Broadway in 2005 (the New York Times called it a “shrink-wrapped musical biography”). But it snagged a Tony for Best Musical. And more importantly, audiences loved it. It is still playing on Broadway and has made stops in London (where it won an Olivier for Best New Musical in 2008), Singapore, South Africa and Australia, among others.

The bio-musical tells the story of the band members while weaving their hits in to punctuate a point. The tale is told from four perspectives — one from each member.

Being Frankie Valli

Hayden Milanes had a sense that he was right to play the role of the big-in-voice, short-in-stature Valli.

“When you are under 5-feet, 9-inches and have somewhat of a falsetto, it’s in my wheelhouse,” he said in a phone interview last month while on tour in Orlando, Florida.

Milanes has been on the road with the tour for three years, and he’s not tired of it yet.

“Frankie is a little guy with a big heart,” Milanes said of the Valli character. “He is the character the audience comes to care about. There’s so much emotion and so much heart there; you can’t help but be on his side and root for him.”

It takes a lot out of him, he admits.

“This role is all or nothing. You kind of have to be completely present to do it justice. You want to make Frankie proud and his fans proud. … It’s as gratifying as it is challenging.”

Milanes wasn’t too familiar with the group’s music before he took on the role, but his dad was a doo-wop fan, so Milanes knew the sweet harmonizing style.

His favorite song

in the show

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” is “a very special moment,” Milanes says. Valli released it as a solo in 1967, and getting airplay for it was a big struggle.

“I love the idea that it almost didn’t happen, and the fight they had to fight to make it happen,” says Milanes.

“That’s a testament to the story — if at first you don’t succeed, try again and again.”

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com