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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 12/12/05        NJBiz online

What We Can Learn from "Jersey Boys"

by Ingrid Reed

I am such a fan of New Jersey that I was thrilled to see the giant sign for “Jersey Boys" when the Broadway musical was announced this fall. There was our state in lights and no one was laughing at it.

Several weeks later, "Jersey Boys," telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from Newark and Belleville, opened to rave reviews. Something good had come from New Jersey.

The crowds found “Jersey Boys.” Lines formed for tickets. Shows sold out. There was speculation that the audience was made up exclusively of people who had come east through the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and maybe over the George Washington bridge, to sing and clap along with four guys they could be proud of.

I decided I had to be among those New Jerseyans to cheer Frankie and the Four Seasons and hoot knowingly at the references to our state. My friends predicted that I could not possibly go just to have a good tune They were sure that I would find some insight for politics, some lesson for New Jersey today.

That seemed impossible in the rags-to-riches story of a bunch of young guys with natural talent who started out Winging in a bowling alley bar. Politics had nothing to do with it. Through sheer talent and naive determination, they made it to stardom with countless golden records throughout the 1960s and beyond. "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Rag Doll," and "Big Girls Dont Cry" are still played at wedding receptions.

The Jersey Boys are impressive, but their home state does not come off so well. The basic set is a chain-link fence and street light that could have been stolen from a Turnpike rest stop. The family and friends surrounding the four young singers could be rejects from "The Sopranos." And, you wont be surprised that there is a dark side to the success story.

The Jersey Boys take what they need by robbery and extortion. They gamble illegally and take and sell drugs and are in and out of the Rahway State "Academy of the Arts," as they cavalierly call it These are not pretty scenes, but they get lots of laughs and cheers. Once again, this is the New Jersey the world thinks it knows.

By the time Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons hit the top of charts, they are faced with debts and addictions that undermine their success.

That's when Frankie says enough is enough. He is going to walk like a man. He persuades his buddies to face the truth, own up to their debts, and keep performing to pay them off. The show reaches its finale accompanied by boisterous clapping and dancing in the aisles.

I thoroughly enjoyed my evening with the Jersey Boys and recommend the show to anyone who loves the throbbing music of the '60s, the engaging performances of new Broadway stars and happy but teary endings.

It also gave me hope for New Jersey. Yes, there really is an analogy to our state. Like the Four Seasons, New Jersey has been scheming to get where it wants to be without facing how hard it is to do it honestly. Like the Jersey Boys, we thought we could get away with dissembling and borrowing.

Now it looks like we may have a Frankie-Valli moment. The state faces a $5 billion budget deficit that is clearly our responsibility. The pension system is woefully underfunded. It looks like this time our leaders will face the fact that we have to pay up. Will this be New Jersey's moment to walk like a man - and woman - and do the right thing? The Jersey Boys might add, "Big girls – and boys – don't cry."