Jersey Boys writer Marshall Brickman is no career counselor— but he's a great interview

Apr 23, 2008 at 4:00 am

Marshall Brickman should be an inspiration to everyone who has never been able to hold a job. Brickman is the ultimate freelancer: He has had all kinds of jobs — comedy writer, screenwriter, director — but never for long. He's always moving on to something new. "I never tire of telling my kids that my life is no example of how to plan a career," he says. "My life has been like trying to cross a river by jumping from stone to stone." Brickman landed feet first on the latest rock two years ago when, at age 62, he co-wrote the book for his first Broadway musical.

Jersey Boys, which tells the story of 1950s rock & rollers Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was the surprise hit of the season. The show is still going strong on Broadway; this week the national company begins a four-week run at the Fox Theatre.

"I am not an avid theatergoer," Brickman admits as he acknowledges the improbability of the entire experience. "I don't go to see every new Sondheim musical that comes down the pike. When my writing partner, Rick Elice, showed up with this project, I was waiting for a movie to go into production. Initially I resisted working on Jersey Boys. I'm a red-diaper baby. My parents were progressive. When I was a little kid, Paul Robeson sang in my living room. The Four Seasons were not high on my list of music that I grew up to. It was Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Woody Guthrie. When all the people who are now coming to our show were in the back seats of their convertibles making out to 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You,' I was singing 'We Shall Overcome.'

"But the movie was stalled, so I said, 'We'll write it on the weekends. It'll never get done anyway, because only one out of a thousand projects goes to Broadway.' So the musical happened because the movie fell through. That's the show-business ecology: Something dies on one side of the pond so that something else on the other side can live."

Once the writing started, Brickman learned fast: "Rick and I would be pacing back and forth improvising. I'd say, 'Then we cut to—,' and he'd say, 'Excuse me. This is the theater. You don't cut to anything.' The legendary movie director Stanley Donen [Singin' in the Rain, Funny Face, Damn Yankees!] is a friend. Stanley once told me that you can learn technically just about everything you need to know about directing a film in two weeks if someone who knows it teaches you. It's not a secret. The secret is who you are and what your values are and how you can get those across. I don't denigrate the value of experience. But you can get a lot of people to support you during the process.

"I had an enormous amount of help on Jersey Boys," he continues. "Des McAnuff, our director, is very skillful. I learned a lot from him about how to keep it moving. Which is not to denigrate my own contribution, which is sensibility and the dialogue and the joke. A laugh in the theater is not a superficial thing. If you can get 1,500 people to all laugh at the same time about the same thing, then you've extracted some kind of basic truth about whatever it is that the laugh is."

Brickman was born in Rio de Janeiro but has lived most of his life in New York City. He attended the University of Wisconsin as a physics major but graduated with a degree in music. ("I switched because I already knew music, so I didn't have to study anything.") After a gig as a folk singer, he moved into television. His first job was as a writer/director for Candid Camera. "That was really the first reality show," he says. "It was the first show to put a lot of stock in the entertainment value of humiliation. The stuff that made it to air was palatable. But to see what some people were willing to undergo in order to get on television was sobering and eye-opening."

When pal Dick Cavett decided to leave his job as a monologue writer for Johnny Carson to try his hand at standup comedy, Brickman replaced him: "Carson hired me. I went to work on a Monday and got a 106-degree fever. It turned out I had contracted hepatitis on a recent trip to South America, and I was out for four months. Johnny saved my job for me. He called me in the hospital and said, 'Don't worry about it, just get well.' Two weeks after I returned to work, the head writer quit over a pay dispute. Before he left, he called me into his office and said, 'Nobody else wants the job, so you're it.' I didn't even have an office. I had an old Underwood typewriter on a rolling stand, and I would roll it around until I found some empty office or a space underneath the staircase where I could write my jokes."

He learned fast why no one else wanted to be head writer. "It was a backbreaking job," Brickman says. "The monologue writers just had to turn in a monologue every day at three o'clock. The head writer was responsible for everything else. He had to write the sketches. 'Carnac the Magnificent,' 'The Tea Time Movies.' It was a killer job, and I loved it. Johnny was great to work for, a sweetheart. I miss him."

When Cavett got his own talk show opposite Carson, Brickman jumped ship and joined his good friend. Meanwhile a new friendship with up-and-coming comic Woody Allen led to his collaborating on the scripts of such films as Sleeper, Manhattan and Annie Hall, for which they won screenwriting Oscars. That in turn led to directing movies — even though, Brickman now admits, "I had practically never been on a movie set."

The directing gig was short-lived (Simon, Lovesick, The Manhattan Project), in part, Brickman says, because "I was not — and still am not — 'in the club.' It's hard to direct movies out of the gravitational pull of Hollywood. Woody has done it. Marty Scorsese has done it. But I guess I was a little stubborn." To Brickman, stubborn means: "I wanted to do the movies that I wanted to do. The way I see it, every good work of art tells you a little bit about the artist, about the subject and about the medium itself. So a good movie will teach you something about what movies are, about the moviemaker, and maybe you'll come away with something that resonates with you as a person."

Ironically, Jersey Boys was developed in Hollywood's back yard (La Jolla) so as to avoid the gravitational pull of Broadway. "We came in at the end of a season with shows about Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, Elvis, and they had all crashed," Brickman recalls. "So everybody was skeptical about our show. And I give it to Rocco Landesman [the former St. Louisan, now president of Jujamcyn Theaters] because he gave us a theater when five other shows were desperate to come in. If it weren't for Rocco, I don't know what we would have done."

As the Jersey Boys royalties accrue, and Brickman eyes that next stone in the river, he will be guided by two simple rules. "My philosophy of life is twofold," he says. "The first rule is to always do the opposite of what my father suggested. That is a constant, like a weather vane that points in the opposite direction. The second is to work with people that you look forward to having lunch with. I have had some fabulous lunches."