The first time he was asked to consider working on a musical about the 1960s pop/rock sensation Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Marshall Brickman declined.
"I still wake up screaming sometimes, thinking how my life would have been different had I stuck with saying no," he said by phone from his New York home.
The Bronx-born Brickman, former head writer of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and co-screenwriter of such Woody Allen classics as "Annie Hall," had a good excuse when actor/writer/creative consultant Rick Elice suggested a Four Seasons show.
"I was not that into their music," he said. "When I was growing up, it was Bob Dylan, nonelectric stuff. And I was a folk music player. … That was my kind of background. But Rick handed me a double CD of Frankie Valli, and it really grabbed me."
So did the back story of the Four Seasons, which Brickman and Elice heard in 2002 from Valli, the lead singer with the distinctively developed falsetto, and Bob Gaudio, an original member and the group's main songwriter.
It's a tale of young blue-collar guys in New Jersey who form a successful group with a string of infectious songs, from "Sherry" to "Oh, What a Night." Mobsters and financial setbacks figure into their history, too, but, mostly it's about making it — and hanging on to what they've got.
Valli and Gaudio were pretty sure their experience would translate into a theatrical treatment.
"I think Frankie would concur that when Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman came on board," said Gaudio from his Nashville, Tenn., home, "is when we first thought we could be right about getting this onstage."
But could another "jukebox musical" make it?
"'Mamma Mia' had been successful," Brickman said, "but three or four others had crashed — shows about the Beach Boys, Dylan, Elvis. The message from that was: Don't do it — period."
That was the message the collaborators heard a lot when they started shopping around the concept.
"Nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in this," Brickman said. "We were ready to give up. It doesn't make you feel confident if people look at you like something just moved in the wastebasket."
Still, there were some strong things going for "Jersey Boys."
"We knew we had a [song] catalog that was pretty diversified," Gaudio said. "Musically, we could have ups and downs in the show. We had ballads, and we could rock the house if we wanted to."
The actual experiences of the guys in the group provided a dramatic thread to hold that catalog together. "You know how you see a film credit and it says 'based on a true story'? It never says it's based on a good story," Brickman said. "We felt we had both."
Brickman and Elice spent time with Valli, Gaudio and the other surviving member of the ensemble, Tommy DeVito (the fourth, Nick Massi, died in 2000).
"Bob and Frankie had more or less the same story," Brickman said. "Then I found Tommy, and he was, like, 'They don't know what they're talking about.'" (DeVito is the closest thing to a villain the story has — more "the lovable rogue," Gaudio said.)
The issue of "how deep to go" with the biographical material had to be addressed. "Frankie and I did not want this to be a blood bath, so to speak," Gaudio said, "but we thought this could have the nitty-gritty and still be uplifting. There are times in the show when I think: 'Gee, Frankie really thought that?'"
Eventually, Dodger Theatricals decided to give "Jersey Boys" a chance. The 2004 premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse in California quickly sold out and had to be extended.
"It turns out there is a big subculture of Four Seasons fans," Brickman said. "I think one of the reasons is that when the Four Seasons were popular, there was not a lot of information out there about who they were. There probably had been some discouraging of looking into their past. So, to fans of the music, the show became a revelation."
The Broadway opening in 2005 likewise lit up the box office; "Jersey Boys" is still going strong there. For that matter, Valli is still going strong, too; his concert tour with the current roster of the Four Seasons will play Baltimore in April.
Since the "Jersey Boys" triumph, Brickman co-wrote the musical "The Addams Family," which remains on Broadway despite eviscerating reviews. ("I agree with Noel Coward's line that sometimes you just have to settle for a huge popular success," he said.)
In 2009, Gaudio added something unexpected to his accomplishments — a diploma from his high school in Bergenfield, N. J. He dropped out after writing his first hit, "Short Shorts," in 1957. "They re-created the whole commencement for me," he said, "and the high school band played 'Who Loves You.' Gosh, it was really, really great."
The original creative team will soon be working on a film version of "Jersey Boys."
"I want to try to duplicate the stage experience for the cinema audience," said Brickman, who occasionally drops by the Broadway production to check on the show. "You don't see that sort of excitement," he said, "except maybe at a hockey game."
If you go
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons will perform April 9 at the Hippodrome in a benefit for the Hippodrome Foundation. Concert-only tickets are $55-$75 (plus fees). "VIP" packages, including receptions, are $250 and $350 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.