I donâ€™t pay much attention to rock and roll revival musicals because I avoid rock and roll, to the limited extent possible in a world saturated with it. Paul Paolicelli is an author, fellow journalist and former jazz trumpeter just enough younger than I to have been a part of the first rock generation. He sent a charming essay concerning the Broadway show called Jersey Boys. I had never heard of it and had to look it up. It is about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I liked Paulâ€™s little story and asked him if I could share it with you. Here it is.
A Question Of Time?
I put the Jersey Boys CD into the deck in my carâ€™s radio. As it happens, another CD Iâ€™d loaded earlier that week was a Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane compilation. It made for an interesting juxtaposition and ride to the other side of town.
(I donâ€™t know what gets into these producers’ heads when they do these sorts of things. Within the first five minutes of the Jersey Boys CD I was treated to four letter words in dialogue a couple of times. More to the point, my soon-to-be ten year old in the back seat was also so enlightened. Donâ€™t these people understand that sharing music with your children is part of the fun? Why do they have to put the PG rating on everything?)
But language is, I think, of the essence here. I talked with my daughter about the social relevance of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Tried to explain to her how pervasive and inescapable popular music had been in that time period, my time period, my youth. Told her of how I had been a music student and couldnâ€™t have been less interested in this form of music, yet heard it often. Reminisced about how, in the army, you heard music everyday and, if you were a purist (and a bit of a snob) as I was, it didnâ€™t matter. You heard popular music. And that the truly surprising thing about it was that it now held a certain warm place in memory, a nostalgia that overwhelmed poetical or compositional inadequacies.
I played â€œSherryâ€ for my daughter. Asked her what she thought.
â€œItâ€™s neat,â€ she said.
Then I played Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane doing â€œMy One and Only Love,â€ by Robert Mellin and Guy Wood. What did she think?
â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ she said, damning it with faint praise.
I wouldnâ€™t let it go. Listen to the lyrics, I said. Listen to the difference in approach, in tone, in complexity. Hereâ€¦scan these lines:
Sherry, Sherry baby
Sherry, Sherry baby
She – e – e-e-e-e-ry baby
She – e – rry, can you come out tonight
She – e – e-e-e-e-ry baby
She – e – rry, can you come out tonight?
Okay? Now compare those lyrics with theseâ€¦
The very thought of you makes my heart sing
like an April breeze on the wings of spring.
And you appear in all your splendor,
My one and only love.
Do you see the difference? Can you see why a hopeful musician in my generation would want the sophistication and delicacy of a well crafted lyric? Why we thought popular lyrics and chord structures were silly, immature, superficial.
â€œWhatâ€™s splendor?â€ she asked.
I remember two of the most magnificent teachers Iâ€™d ever had, Bass and Helen Hutchinson who ran the Newport Beach Jazz Workshop in which I was privileged to play. Some years later, in an interview, Bass was asked what he had tried to accomplish in working with kids all those years. â€œWell, itâ€™s really fairly simple,â€ he said. â€œWe were trying to teach these kids the difference between artistry and noise.â€
The difference between artistry and noise.
In my youth, in my arrogance, I was convinced I knew the difference. Now I was trying to pass that wisdom along to my daughter.
So how does that explain the extraordinary success of Jersey Boys on Broadway? Hereâ€™s the really funny thing; Iâ€™m enjoying the music. Despite my sensitive, overactive, formally educated brain, thereâ€™s something in those simplistic lyrics and uncomplicated chords that is downright toe-tapping and head-bouncing. Something that captures the energy and spirit of that generation in a way that literature or graphic arts never did. Something that delves into the dynamics of a generation raised in the contradictions of a childhood in Eisenhower lethargy, a manhood and adulthood in Southeast Asian violence and Reganonomics. There is something in this music that expands beyond its structure. Is it nostalgia? Is it the fundamental human instinct to look back with fondness for what can never be again?
The shadows fall and spread their mystic charms
In the hush of night while you are in my arms.
I feel you lips so warm and tender,
My one and only love.
Lush and well-crafted words. Romantic poetry. The level of artistry I wanted to reach. Something haunting, beautiful, ineffable in the song and in the solos. Both men masters of their craft. Polished and evocative lyrical and musical statements.
And then thereâ€™s:
(Why don’t you come out) to my twist party
(Come out) Where the bright moon shines
(Come out) We’ll dance the night away
I’m gonna make-a you mi-yi-yi-yine
Simplistic twaddle sung in unbelievable falsetto. â€œI wannaâ€™ dance and make you â€œmi-yi-yi-yine.â€ I was so beyond and above that then.
So why is my foot tapping? Why can I still remember those semi-moronic words? Why am I sharing this with my daughter? On the cut, â€œCanâ€™t Take My Eyes Off of You,â€ Iâ€™m singing the lead trumpet part, remembering a tour of Germany with a sextet when weâ€”soldiers allâ€”played that song, so simplistic in its rhyme scheme, but so much fun in its syncopation and brass licks. Downright joyous in a way. And my daughter, for the first time, sees a young musician in her old man.
I give myself in sweet surrenderâ€¦
Sherry, can you come out tonight?
(Paul Paolicelli is the author of Dances with Luigi and Under the Southern Sun)
Now, with permission, here is one criticâ€™s view of Jersey Boys. The critic is our artsjournal.com next-door neighbor Terry Teachout. His review was for The Wall Street Journal.
YET ANOTHER jukebox musical has come to town, and this time I donâ€™t feel like arguingâ€”much. For reasons not obvious to me, â€œJersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasonsâ€ is not only giving pleasure to paying theatergoers (that part I get) but has also passed muster with certain critics who should know better. Contrary to anything youâ€™ve read elsewhere, itâ€™s nothing more than 32 songs performed on a cheap-looking set by a high-priced lounge band, strung together like dimestore pearls on the most vapid of all-tell-no-show books.
So why is this un-musical selling tickets by the carload? Because, judging by da accents I hoid in da lobby, New Jersey is full of boomers who grew up with such ditties as â€œBig Girls Do-Honâ€™t Ka-Rie-Yie-Yieâ€ and are flocking to Broadway to fondle their memories. They clearly donâ€™t care that â€œJersey Boysâ€ borders on the plotless: for them, a plot would be a distraction. What they like are the songs, the Joisey jokes and the gangster jokes, not necessarily in that order.
No doubt Iâ€™m the wrong person to review this show, seeing as how the hyped-up falsetto yelps of Mr. Valli (convincingly simulated here by John Lloyd Young) give me hi-yie-yives. All I can say is that it would be a lot simpler for everyone involved if theyâ€™d just move the whole thing to Newark.