According to Ron Melrose, the world has “sped up” since Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons released Sherry in 1962.
“If you were to stop 100 people on the street and say: ‘sing me the first eight bars of Sherry – how fast does it go?’ Everybody’s going to sing something about ten to 12 beats per minute faster than the record actually was,” Melrose says.
It mightn’t be something many of us think about much, or even notice, but that significant shift in our musical mindset is an essential factor for Melrose to consider in his professional life.
Melrose is a musical director, supervisor and arranger with 18 Broadway shows to his name, including the smash hit Jersey Boys, which he has worked on since its development in 2004. He was recently in Australia to oversee the audition process for a new national tour of the show, which tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Daily Review spoke to him about his long and illustrious career in musical theatre and the process of musically-directing what’s now widely regarded as one of the finest jukebox musicals ever staged.
Melrose first entered the business in the 1970s and was associate conductor on the original Broadway production of Annie, a conductor for the original production of Little Shop of Horrors, and has even written arrangements and played for Liza Minnelli.
But it wasn’t until 2004 that Melrose found himself musically directing a massive hit in Jersey Boys. According to the musical director, the process was blessed right from the start.
“I called my wife from La Jolla after the first week of rehearsals and said ‘I don’t know what this is — it doesn’t feel like any of the others. It might be a huge hit; it might be the one I hoped for. It’s certainly intriguing in a way that most other things haven’t been.’”
When Melrose first started working on the show, the central objective was to find the appropriate musical landscape for the theatrical incarnation of the Four Seasons. The biggest challenge was striking the balance between a slavish devotion to the original recordings and reinventing the songs to fit a contemporary piece of musical theatre.
“The audience is coming to experience a known quantity,” Melrose says. “If they come to the show and you’ve distorted the music and made it sound nothing like it was, people are going to be disappointed.”
But Melrose says even a “meticulous recreation” of the original records won’t necessarily sound like the audience’s memories, which is why Sherry is played at a slightly faster tempo in Jersey Boys than on the original recording.
And there are moments in which Melrose has made more significant adjustments so that these pop hits, designed as standalone pieces of music, work as part of an integrated, sustained full-length musical.
“Many of the original [Four Seasons] vocal arrangements were grounded by the tonic note on the bottom,” Melrose says. “But if we’re in a part of the show where we’re rushing through something on the way to something else, I’ve rewritten those chords so that an uncomfortable note is on the bottom so that your ear doesn’t rest and feel like it’s at home.”
There’s also a moment in the second act when the members of the Four Seasons reunite after many years apart, using the band’s 1964 hit Rag Doll.
“On the original recording, Tommy, Nick and Bob put all their vocal cut-offs in the same place and Frankie’s is deliberately different,” Melrose says. “We lined them up in Jersey Boys. It’s a story about four guys coming together, not three guys coming together and another guy singing something different.”
Melrose is currently musical supervisor for the quiet achieving Broadway musical A Bronx Tale, but is working through a similar process to Jersey Boys for the upcoming Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Summer will see Melrose reunite with Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff to tell the story of another musical icon. Like Jersey Boys, it will have its first showing at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
Melrose is working on transforming some of her disco hits into gospel-inspired numbers to tell of Summer’s connection to religion that’s never touched on in her recording career. He’s also working out how to recreate, in a live setting, the pioneering electronic sounds created for Summer by legendary producer Giorgio Moroder.
“There are basslines coming out of a synthesiser in those recordings that are literally too fast for fingers to play. Although the music union would love to say ‘any note played in this pit has to be played live by a musician’, we can’t. It’s beyond human possibility.”
But as with all new musicals, it still has a long road ahead of it to become a Broadway hit. Melrose says the exorbitant cost of staging a new musical and mounting it on Broadway means the creative process has become much longer and more arduous than it was in the 1970s and ’80s.
“When I first joined this world, you would take a show out of town to Boston and bring it to New York five weeks later. There wasn’t the same level of caution of — we need to do a sit-down table reading, then an un-choreographed workshop, and all these steps along the way.”
Melrose has extensive involvement with the development of new shows and he says often things that feel right in a workshop room — such as the 1986 Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman musical Smile and the 1997 musical Side Show — stumble when they transfer to a bigger space with expensive sets and costumes. It means that work which seemed hugely promising often fails to make much of an impact.
But Jersey Boys remains a major achievement for Melrose, and the kind of show that many people spend an entire career on Broadway waiting for.
“Of everything I’ve done, this show feels the most like we got it right. To sit in an audience it feels like there’s a Swiss watch up there in the way that all the departments interact and the director’s vision has tied it all together. I feel like everybody was at the top of their game. And that’s not bragging, that’s just to say that sometimes everybody isn’t, and it’s very rare.”