Stage

The Jersey Boys Are Back in Town and Theatre Under the Stars Has Them

Four guys who came together to become the Four Seasons.
Four guys who came together to become the Four Seasons. Phot by Joan Marcus

In 2004 there wasn’t yet the great collection of juke box musicals that has come in the years since. “It was still a relatively new genre,” remembers music arranger Ron Melrose. But, of course, with the success of Mamma Mia using ABBA’s music, that was about to change.

Melrose got called in to work on one such project, but one with a distinct difference. Jersey Boys wouldn’t just use the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, it would tell the story of how Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio got together.  "We were looking at a very different kind of show," Melrose says.

The script (by writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) was compelling in its own right. At the same time as The Four Seasons were scoring  one hit song after another — think "Sherry," "My Eyes Adored You, "Walk Like a Man" and many more — everything wasn't going so well backstage and at home. Eventually, despite all their success, the group fell apart.

Houston audiences will have another chance to watch the story unfold and hear the soaring notes, infectious beats and trademark falsetto that were the hallmarks of the group’s work, thanks to a touring production brought here by Theatre Under the Stars starting on May 10.

Given that the selection of songs to include in the musical was so important, Melrose knew Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff was handing him a crucial task when he called him in. Melrose began sorting through the Four Seasons catalog — Gaudio wrote or co-wrote most of their music — and was faced with a lot of hard choices in weaving songs into the story structure. There was just so much to choose from.

“The Four Seasons catalog was deep and there's only so many hours you can use in a show," Melrose says. "So if you go to the show, you'll see there's usually in the playbill a list called " The Ones That Got Away" and that's Bob Gaudio's list of songs that he loves that the Four Seasons did that didn't make it into the show."

Fortunately, for everyone, the song selection was a challenge that Melrose embraced.

"I love puzzles and puzzles that have music in them, I've described it as trying to do a successful Mars landing and invade a small country on the same day. There's just so much you have to pack in. And it's different kinds of puzzles. It's an audio puzzle. It's a on-paper puzzle. It's an interaction between different arts forms puzzle. It tickles my brain and there's nothing I've ever found that's more fun.

"A song got extra points if it could somehow be related to the plot," he says. "Tommy DeVito leaves the group and at that point we have Frankie singing the song 'Stay.' 'Stay' is a love song but it certainly applies to 'oh c'mon guy; there's got to be some other way. Please don't leave.' "

"Or a song that was just a major hit and people would go home satisfied if they didn't hear that song got extra points."

As it turned out, it wasn't just the songs being selected but where they would need to go in the story both to advance the narrative and to fit in the time scheme.

For instance, Melrose says that initially the song "Rag Doll" originally was in the first act but then they got word that Act I was running too long in rehearsal. So it was cut.  But later in Act 2, the song they picked for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame scene just wasn't working. And someone suggested Rag Doll. "It becomes a nostalgia song.  So Rag Doll became repurposed."

Any biography of Melrose (who has 18 Broadway shows to his credit) includes the note that he has a degree in philosophy from Harvard. an initial head-scratcher until he explains why he got that degree despite an early interest and eventual career in music.

"I had a great education before college. My father was a professor at the University of Iowa when I was in high school and the music department there had a program where every faculty member was supposed to try to find an hour a week to give to a local kid. I kept signing up for stuff; nobody else seemed to be doing it so I'd ride my bike over to the music building at the university after high school and I had classes in piano and harpsichord, arranging and cello, bassoon and horn, composing, vocal stuff. So when it came time to choose a college, I felt like I'd already had a conservatory education and I just wanted a broad liberal arts curriculum to learn more about the world. So that's why."

Upon graduation he headed right into his pursuit of a music career. "I knew that music theater was a first love and I knew that coming out of college I'd be looking for work in that field. So I moved to New York and  I did what you do get to know the people that are doing the work and the people who are making the decisions.

"And I had a very lucky break when I played some auditions for a Liza Minnelli musical called The Act and John Kander of Kander and Ebb, who's the composer of that show came up to me in the room and said 'This is going to be one of the strangest conversations you've ever had. I got my break when I was playing auditions for Jule Styne's Gypsy and he lost his dance music arranger that morning and on a whim he asked me if I would write the dance music for the show. Well I lost my dance arranger this morning and it's too good not to give back so what's your name and will you write the dance music for this show?'"

"One kind gesture like that can change your life and your career," he says. "And it's sort of once you're in the club, you're in the club. So I did The Act and that was followed by several other Broadway shows as a music department associate or a dance arranger or an assistant conductor and you just sort of work your way up across the shows until they're offering you jobs that are closer to the director and the choreographer. I've been on the music director, music supervisor tier since about 1997."

For any juke box musical to work, Melrose believes "You've got to pick an artist or a group whose music really does bring joy to people who listen to it even if the original artist isn't the one singing it and then you have to have some sort of a compelling reason that we're doing this in the theater instead of in a concert. What story could you tell? Would people be happy to sit through that if it was just a play."

One thing he says he always stresses as to why Jersey Boys continues to be successful.

"We’ve always thought this show works because every department is working at its height. I don't credit Jersey Boys' success to the music department. We're one of them. But if you look at the lighting, it's superb. And if you watch the projections, they're superb. And the set is designed beautifully and the costumes tell a story. We always stress group effort. You look around and everybody in the room is at the top of their form.

Performances are scheduled for May 10-22 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Masks required. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40-$136.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing