It is a time for farewells on Broadway — big time. From New Year’s Eve until the end of January, the casts and crews of 13 productions have been packing up the greasepaint and wondering what stories — that is, what jobs — will be the next obsessions in whose lucky lives.
Some shows, including “Falsettos” and “The Front Page,” were intended as limited runs. Others — “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Matilda, the Musical,” “Something Rotten,” “The Color Purple” — have had their hours, or years, upon the stage and must make room for the next crop of hopefuls.
For the longest goodbye, look to “Jersey Boys.” The company was told in September that the closing date would be Jan. 15, though advance warning probably won’t make that final curtain call any less emotional.
The show about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, which opened Nov. 6, 2005, is the gold standard of jukebox musicals. It won four Tonys, including the big one for best musical, and leaves an impressive list of fun facts and stats. It is Broadway’s 12th longest-running show, a record breaker for the August Wilson Theatre. By the most recent available accounts, the total gross, so far, is more than $550 million.
Productions have been seen in 162 cities and 11 countries. “Oh What a Night” is said or sung 26 times per performance. You do the math, because I certainly will not.
Then there is Peter Gregus, an impressive statistic all his own. Gregus is the only cast member who has been with the show since its start in the fall of 2004 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. All these years, except for occasional breaks, he has portrayed Bob Crewe, the band’s producer and frequent lyricist, along with several other characters.
“I remember the first table reading,” he muses about that theatrical ritual, the first read-through with the cast and creative team around a table. “The original script was as big and sprawling as an encyclopedia.” He says he watched director Des McAnuff and co-creators Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman working on the script with such focus, recalling how “they were concerned about every word on that page.”
Everyone had hopes, of course. “No matter what, you always believe this is going to be the next best thing,” says Gregus, who has been in the original casts of other shows that didn’t make it. But it wasn’t until the first preview, the first time before an audience, that “we knew something magic was happening. Even the local crew knew it.”
And still there was no guarantee that the show would even get to Broadway. So many jukebox shows had flopped — including ones that used songs by John Lennon, Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys and Elvis Presley) — that Elice and Brickman had trouble getting investors and theater owners interested.
“The jukebox had become hated,” Elice told me in an interview several years ago for a column on jukebox musicals, a label he dislikes for its lack of specificity. “Here we were a different animal — a play about the guys who made something that happened to be these songs that people knew. Until the very last minute, it looked like ‘Jersey Boys’ was going to just end at the La Jolla Playhouse . . . and no one would ever see it again.”
That, of course, did not happen. “Jersey Boys” turned out to be far from the usual dim-bulb show that used sanitized made-up stories as excuses to plug in familiar hits. This one was a gritty, straightforward biography of the group that struggled with mob ties while defining a street sound with lovely, dopey romantic lyrics, gorgeous harmonic blends and an immaculate yet easygoing doo-wop beat. Each of the four guys got a chance to narrate his own idea of the glory days of falsetto highs with “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll.” All without a wink of parody.
What the show has in common with those other shows is that all of them “repurpose,” said Elice. “I guess that’s the verb du jour, popular songs known in one context by serving them up in another context.”
For Gregus, the “Jersey Boy” success naturally involves the nostalgic appeal of the music. “Instead of creating a story around the music, it tells the story of the music,” he says thoughtfully, adding “one of the things it has going for it is that it’s a guys story — a blue-collar show with a sophisticated story. So many of the Broadway musicals are about females,” he says, citing “Wicked” and “Mamma Mia.” “I can see men of a certain age crying in the audience.”
He has had years to think about the show, of course, which has offered him the rare opportunity to have steady work on Broadway. He and his husband have been able to buy an apartment in Brooklyn. He has watched the cast have babies — more than 30 so far. “Oh, my God, the babies! It’s a very fertile show,” he jokes. “We tell people not to drink the water if they don’t want to get pregnant.”
There have been especially happy moments; for example, watching James Gandolfini bring veterans to see the show. “He was such a bear of a man and he’d come backstage with four or five guys just back from the war.”
But both of Gregus’ parents have died during the long run. “The hardest moment was getting the phone call that my father had passed,” Gregus says. It happened five minutes before he was supposed to take his place onstage. He had to do the first act before his understudy could get there. “There’s nothing better to help you grieve than the cast rallying around,” he says softly. “These people are your family.”
Long runs are hard on relationships, hard on friendships with people who work 9 to 5. “Friends not in the business forget about you,” he says, “They always assume you’re working. And they’re right, I am working.”
He isn’t planning his next theater step. “I am putting it on the back burner,” going scuba diving with his husband, a freelance creative director for films and television. Then he wants to do regional theater and maybe summer stock, “play great roles and have fun every two or three months.”
He appreciates everything “Jersey Boys” has given him, but “I’m not anxious to do another long run.” As producers continue raiding baby-boom songbooks for a show that, just maybe, could be another “Jersey Boys,” Gregus wants to check out the feel of happy hour at 5.