Ricke Elice didn't expect that writing a theatre script would attract threats from the Mafia.
Elice began writing Jersey Boys with Marshall Brickman in 2002 when he found himself on the receiving end of a sinister warning.
"One of the characters in our story is a real-life Mafia boss and he died years ago, but he is still so feared, even in death, that we got this mysterious message when we were out in La Jolla [California] working and you think `Who the heck would have even known that?' I mean, we were in the middle of nowhere working on the show in the basement of some building somewhere on a college campus and there was a message to go to a supermarket at the pay phone and wait for the pay phone to ring," says Elice. "The pay phone rang at the appointed time ... and there's this guy who sort of talks like this on the other end [Elice puts on a raspy gangster voice] `I understand that this Gyp DeCarlo was a character in your musical'.
"Really? How did you know that?
"`Well, I saw it on the internets and he's still very respected in our community, so write down this telephone number, I want you to fax me all the pages that this guy appears on.'
"And I said, `You know, it's OK, in our show he's not a cold-blooded killer like he was in real life...'
"And he said, `Nevertheless, fax me the pages and if you don't, I know where you live.'
"So you better believe we faxed the pages to him really quickly because we just wanted to write a musical, we didn't really want to die."
Elice is talking at Auckland's The Civic, on a flying visit to see where Jersey Boys will play in April. The musical tells the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, four young men (Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi) from the wrong side of New Jersey who formed a band in 1960. These "blue-collar boys" sold 175 million records and became one of the best-selling musical groups of all time, known for hits like "Big Girls Don't Cry", "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You".
The show is a money-spinning sensation. It's scooped 54 awards internationally, including four Tonys, has run in theatres all over the world, including New York, London, Las Vegas and Sydney. A film is the natural progression, and one is in the works, scheduled for release in November 2013.
Elice was an actor briefly and a creative director at an ad agency for 20 years. Jersey Boys was the first script he wrote (not the songs – music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe) and he has continued writing for the stage and collaborating with Brickman again on the productions Turn of the Century and The Addams Family.
"Frankie and Bob weren't sure that they wanted us to write [Jersey Boys] so we kind of had to audition as writers for them ... and we wrote a couple of scenes that are still in the show," says Elice.
They approached director Des McAnuff (who had directed Elice in The Death of von Richthofen in 1982) in 2003, and he gave them a deadline to finish the show in a matter of months.
"We'd never written a show before and it's especially challenging, I think, when you're writing the story of real people because they're really there and you have a responsibility.
"[The Four Seasons] are the guys who made the records, they're the guys who understood what the sacrifices of a life on the road meant, they're the ones who felt the pressure of success and the constant threat of failure, they're the ones who were aware of the Mafia in and around their lives as a constant presence.
"When they said go ahead and put it up there, that's kind of courageous, you know. If someone said to me `I'm going to make a show about your life', it would make me very, very nervous, and I have a very boring life, it would make a very boring show."
Elice, 55, doesn't come across as dull. He is softly spoken with a hefty New York accent, and speaks with such zeal he barely takes a breath – by the end of the interview his black coffee is almost untouched.
Elice stresses Jersey Boys is a team effort. "The four guys that play The Seasons do everything that they appear to be doing. They are really playing the guitar, they are really playing the keyboards, they are really doing the moves, they are really doing the singing. It's a completely hard thing to do because that's just the songs – then they have to be able to act and make you laugh and make you feel things and stir you up," says Elice. "And the women play, I think something like 100 different parts – they're constantly ripping wigs off and putting new dresses on and new shoes."
Nearly a decade on Elice is as excited about Jersey Boys as when he was writing it. He attends shows when he can, preferring to watch the audience. "[When] you stand in the back of the theatre and you hear a couple of thousand people all laughing at the same time at something that you wrote, it makes you feel so wealthy," he says.
"You want to see the effect because ... the audience, collectively, is always the smartest critic in the world, you know, the audience is never wrong. They may be, on one night, more willing to laugh, or on the next night more willing to cry, or on the third night there's some cougher who always manages to cough on exactly the wrong word ... there are always things that work that you never thought would, and there are always things that you thought were foolproof that somehow lay an egg."
Elice believes Jersey Boys has enjoyed international success because it focuses on a universal theme of belonging to something. "Everyone knows what it's like to be part of a group. Now it may not be a rock band but it could be a bowling team or fans of the All Blacks or a think tank, whatever it is, a family – we all know what it's like to be part of a family of some kind and so we recognise what these four guys are going through, their desire for respect and affection and a sense of belonging, and a quest to find home where you can belong."
For Elice, home is the theatre, the bright lights of Broadway and the Edwardian charm of London's Prince Edward Theatre.
"I grew up loving the theatre. But for me the dream is when you go through the stage door, nobody says `Excuse me, what are you doing here? Who are you?' and instead they go `Hi, how are ya?' and that's my feeling of belonging, that's the family I always wanted. I love that Jersey Boys has delivered that for me."
Jersey Boys, opens on April 14 at The Civic, Auckland. For bookings visit buytickets.co.nz, ticketmaster.co.nz or call 0800 BUY TICKETS.
- Sunday Star Times