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Rock and Roll!

Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff talks about the making of a hit show

When Des McAnuff was first asked to direct Jersey Boys, he said, “No thanks.” The original treatment was a fictionalized story that sentimentalized the lives of Frankie Valli and the New Jersey-based singing group, the Four Seasons. It was a very traditional musical that made use of the group’s hit songs, and a Greek chorus of Jersey Girls. It all seemed very false, and McAnuff wasn’t interested at all.

But Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, who were writing the show, really wanted McAnuff. Why wouldn’t they? The Tony Award-winning director had an incredible Broadway track record, and a talent for transforming promising ideas into hits. At that point he’d done How to Succeed… with Matthew Broderick (1995); The Who’s Tommy (1993 Tony Best Director; 1997 London Olivier Best Director/Best Musical); A Walk in the Woods (1988); and Big River (which won seven Tonys, including Best Director and Best Musical in 1985).

So Elice and Brickman courted McAnuff by proving they could change their vision to match his. They asked him for his recommendations, and made radical revisions to their treatment for the story. McAnuff signed on. The result was a Broadway mega-hit based on the true and uncensored story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, making use of an unconventional four-narrator structure, and the group’s music—from “Sherry,” to “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You,” to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” to “Walk Like a Man,” to “Oh, What a Night.”

The show is far different from jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! or the more recent Rock of Ages, that job a roster of songs into a contrived narrative. Critics were astounded; audiences were ecstatic.

Jersey Boys won four 2006 Tony Awards including Best Musical. The original cast recording received a 2006 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album, and has been certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. (The recording has remained in the top three of Billboard’s Broadway Albums Chart every week since it went on sale in 2005.) With the highest average ticket price of any show on Broadway, the New York production is among Broadway’s top grossing shows every week, even in a theater with a smaller seating capacity than most other musical venues. More than 8.9 million people have seen the show across the world, bringing in more than $800 million.

Denise Payne: Buffalo Gal to Jersey Girl

There are just three girls in Jersey Boys, which opens at Shea’s on Tuesday. Denise Payne, a native of Buffalo, is one of them.

“I grew up on the West Side of Buffalo, near the Peace Bridge,” says Payne. “I attended Holy Angels grammar school, Calasanctius, and Holy Angels Academy. Then for college, I went to Niagara University.”

You can’t be a Jersey Girl without also being a phenomenal dancer. Buffalo gave Denise a solid foundation. “I received my dance training at Betty Rogers School of Dance. That’s where Michael Bennett went as a child!” she enthuses, referring to the pioneering Buffalo-born creator of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls.

“Unfortunately, Miss Betty has passed on, and the studio has closed, but she taught thousands of Buffalo dancers during her lifetime—and legend has it the lyric from A Chorus Line—‘up a steep and very narrow stairway’—actually refers to her studio. I knew that stairway well!”

Denise remembers Miss Betty as an inspiration. “She was so glamorous. When she was in her 80s, she could still wear leotard, tights, and high-heeled tap shoes. She was a Rockette. She was gorgeous!”

Denise actually did quite a lot performing locally. She did the MusicalFare production of A Chorus Line at the Katharine Cornell Theatre at UB, back when the company was called Summerfare. She did their production of Broadway 1960. She played Hope in a production of Anything Goes at Artpark.

“The group that I worked with that will be most familiar to the city is the St. Joe’s Swing Choir. I also did the musicals there.”

Versatility is a critical quality for a Jersey Girl, says Denise. “The three women in the show play 54 characters! I have 19 quick changes. Our wardrobe person is amazing—our costumes are meticulously organized and labeled with our photographs. Some of them are extremely expensive. I play Frankie Valli’s mother; I also play his daughter. I play the date at the church. I play the woman of the evening. It’s all a lot of fun!”

Even with the thrill of touring in a hit show like Jersey Boys, Denise is excited to be performing at Shea’s. “Shea’s is a dream for every Buffalo performer. My family is still in Buffalo. My mom, sister, brother-in-law, aunt, uncle, two nieces, half-sister, and on and on. I keep telling everyone on this tour that they are going to love Shea’s and that they will love the Buffalo audience. Buffalo audiences are so responsive, so energetic! No city loves live entertainment more than Buffalo!”

Jersey Boys opens Tuesday. Oh, what a night!

Beginning Tuesday, Buffalo gets a chance to see Jersey Boys when the national touring production comes into Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

Des McAnuff knows Buffalo well. The Canadian director grew up in Guelph and in Toronto.

“My parents used to take us to Buffalo for weekend vacations,” recalls McAnuff, speaking by telephone from Ontario’s Stratford Festival, where he is now the artistic director. “I had my first shower in the bathroom of a Buffalo hotel when I was a child. I remember my father somehow got stuck on the interstate highway in Buffalo when it was under construction—we were in the car for hours. Then my best friend went to school in Buffalo, and I have always been interested in the work of [UB English professor] Leslie Fiedler, who wrote Love and Death in the American Novel and “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Buffalo has always been on my radar.”

It bears mentioning that McAnuff also cast Buffalo actor Stephen McKinley Henderson as Van Helsing in his Broadway production of Dracula.

“Steve is just such a wonderful actor, and with the character’s Dutch name and history of travels, there was no reason why he shouldn’t be African. I loved working with Steve.”

McAnuff’s interest in the Four Seasons also goes back a long way.

“When my family moved to Toronto, I was allowed to buy a record album to console me for the loss of my old neighborhood and for moving away from my friends. I bought Sherry and 11 Other Songs. I loved the music.”

This long-standing awareness of the group informed McAnuff’s sense of what Jersey Boys should be like.

“While the Four Seasons’ songs tend to be quite innocent, I knew that their story couldn’t be. There is a rough rock-and-roll edge to it. They suffered loss and conflict and run-ins with the law. I said that to Rick and Marshall. The first treatment also ignored the fact that the Four Seasons’ story can be told from the four distinct viewpoints. I told them that the show should have an unconventional narrative structure.

“I didn’t dictate how they should accomplish all that. But they took my suggestions, went away, and made them their own. That’s what makes a good collaboration. Their new treatment really blew my socks off. It was edgy; it was surprising. They wrote a terrific script. It tells the real story behind the success of the group.”

From the beginning, McAnuff suspected he had an unusual hit on his hands.

“We did it first at the La Jolla Playhouse [in California, where McAnuff was the artistic director]. At our first marketing meeting, I sat with the marketing and box office staff and said, ‘You need to be ready for what’s about to happen. I have a hunch you are about to get flattened.’ That’s exactly what happened. After the first week of previews, the entire box office staff and the entire administration was on the phones taking ticket orders. Our phone system could put 24 calls on hold, but we were still backed up. We had to get a new phone system.”

Jersey Boys has been a hit everywhere it has played.

McAnuff has a knack for looking at a script and giving it an original and compelling spin. He’s been working this magic with the work of William Shakespeare as artistic leader at the famed Stratford Festival in his native Ontario.

While Jersey Boys is headed to Buffalo, McAnuff is busy getting ready for the Stratford opening of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—the pastoral comedy in which Rosalind flees persecution in her uncle’s court and finds love in the Forest of Arden. This is the play that gives us the sentiment, “All the world’s a stage!” McAnuff’s production will star popular and charismatic Canadian star, Brent Carver, as Jacques and Andrea Runge as Rosalind.

“We’ve set it in the 1920s and are using the rise of totalitarianism in Europe during that period to suggest the court as a repressive place. The Forest of Arden is all palm trees—a place where love can flourish.”

After As You Like It, McAnuff will direct Christopher Plummer as Prospero in the culminating masterpiece of Shakespeare’s career, The Tempest.

“I hope everyone in Buffalo will come to Stratford this summer,” McAnuff says. “I’ve got to tell you, your dollar may not be as strong as it was last year, but our box office is still up 40 percent over last year.”

Yes, from Shakespeare to Jersey Boys, Des McAnuff knows how to deliver a hit show.

Jersey Boys will play Shea’s through May 9.