Clint Eastwood isn't exactly the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Broadway musicals. Yet just two days after reading a screenplay for "Jersey Boys," the award-winning actor and filmmaker agreed to direct the musical, bringing the megahit stage production about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to the big screen.
The film, which opens next Friday, follows the group from their inauspicious beginnings in 1951, singing under lampposts in working-class Belleville, New Jersey, to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Along the way, they sing hit after hit as their fraternal bond is tested by the pressures of fame, booze and ego.
Those hits -- "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "My Eyes Adored You," and on and on -- energize the film as they did the stage production. Eastwood even has his singers perform the songs live on camera (rather than pre-taping), for a slightly ragged, more realistic rock sound.
"Clint is a musician -- he's a good pianist, loves jazz," says Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote (with Rick Elice) the book to the stage musical and the screenplay. "I can see when I watch the movie that there's a guy with a good ear behind the camera." (Brickman's also the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Annie Hall.")
As it turns out, Eastwood's good ear is just one of several attributes that make him, in some ways, the perfect choice to direct.
His name alone "has given us a 50-country opening -- that's not chopped liver," Brickman says. "He's given the film cachet. People want to see what he's done with the material."
Unknowns get a break
For fans of the original stage version, there's much here that'll feel familiar. The story has not been wildly re-imagined, just "deepened," says Brickman, and they've kept certain devices -- like talking directly to the audience.
As with the Broadway version, the film relies on the talents of four relative unknowns, most plucked from the casts of various "Jersey Boys" productions.
John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Valli in the Broadway run (winning a Tony), stars alongside "Gossip Girl's" Erich Bergen (who played songwriter Bob Gaudio in the Vegas company) and Michael Lomenda (bass guitarist Nick Massi in the San Francisco production). Vincent Piazza is the newbie (best known as gangster Lucky Luciano on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"), here taking on the role of street-savvy, self-destructing guitarist Tommy DeVito.
For an actor who's played the same script "a thousand-plus times," says Young, getting the chance to delve deeper into the character, playing some scenes on location, was "deeply satisfying, like taking the scenic route instead of the highway."
"It was fun to go back to something I felt comfortable in," Bergen agrees. "It's like putting on your favorite pair of jeans."
No 'action' from Clint
That many moviegoers won't instantly recognize these faces makes the film more realistic, but "if it wasn't Clint directing, I'm sure the studio would've demanded stars," Brickman says.
Working with unknowns has its risks, but Eastwood's reputation for creating a safe and nurturing set allowed the newcomers to thrive, they say. He's renowned for shooting few takes, sometimes not even yelling "action," preferring to catch actors in an unguarded, more natural state.
"When Clint used to work on Westerns, earlier in his career, he noticed when directors yelled 'action' it would spook the horses," says Young, recalling an interview he heard Eastwood give at the Tribeca Film Festival. "He took from that that human beings are probably the same way."
For the 'real' people
Will Hollywood's "Jersey Boys," enjoy the same kind of popularity and success experienced by the Broadway version (which opened in 2005 and is now one of Broadway's longest-running shows)?
Part of its success is due to its being "a very contemporary musical," says Brickman. "It doesn't have big dance numbers. It's almost a play with music."
And this isn't about the infamous 1 percent -- it's a rags-to-riches tale that starts literally in the streets, with four guys harmonizing on street corners.
Brickman is reminded -- in an unexpected geographic analogy -- of summers he and his family spent in Montauk, once free of trendy boutiques and celebs, known as "the un-Hampton."
"I guess," he says, chuckling, "that 'Jersey Boys' is the Montauk of musicals. It's about real people."
This no doubt appealed to Eastwood. So many of his films -- from "Unforgiven," to "Mystic River" -- are about just that.
And, by the way, he shows no signs of letting up.
"He just turned 84 and is still making movies," says Bergin. "I mean, the man doesn't stop!"
Just don't ask him to yell "Action!"
'THE SOUND OF MUSIC' STILL TOP-GROSSING SCREEN MUSICAL
The hills are alive with the sound of ka-ching.
Nearly 50 years after its release, "The Sound of Music" (1965) remains the top-grossing screen musical of all time. It also tops the list of moneymaking movie musicals adapted from Broadway shows, BoxOfficeMojo.com says. (All figures are adjusted for inflation.)
1. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Austria's von Trapp family helped 20th Century Fox recoup plenty of "dough"-re-mi after the debacle of "Cleopatra" (1963).
TOTAL DOMESTIC GROSS $1.13 billion
2. GREASE (1978) Fans are still hopelessly devoted to this John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John smash that showed its box-office power again when it was revived in a sing-along edition in 2011.
TOTAL DOMESTIC GROSS $612.7 million
3. MY FAIR LADY (1964) Critics carped when Audrey Hepburn was cast over original Broadway star Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, but audiences didn't seem to mind. At least Rex Harrison got to repeat his stage role as Henry Higgins.
TOTAL DOMESTIC GROSS $477.6 million
4. WEST SIDE STORY (1961) Ave "Maria," as well as the rest of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's timeless songs, Jerome Robbins' athletic choreography and the Oscar-winning performances by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.
TOTAL DOMESTIC GROSS $445.5 million
5. FUNNY GIRL (1968) No one was about to rain on Barbra Streisand's parade: She was the obvious choice to reprise her stage role of Fanny Brice for the movie, which netted her an Oscar to boot.
TOTAL DOMESTIC GROSS $318.7 million