Gay actor Jonathan Hadley, who plays music producer Bob Crewe in the touring production of “Jersey Boys” that opens July 20 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, knows the most popular gay love song of all time. And he’s chagrinned by the fact that very few people – gay or straight – know that it’s a gay love song.
Crewe is referred to in the musical as “the Fifth Season” because of the strong influence and hit songs he contributed to the creation and launch of the pop sensations The Four Seasons. In 1967 Crewe co-wrote “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” with Bob Gaudio for lead singer Frankie Valli. The song went on to reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, was a hit in 31 countries and has been covered by everyone from Andy Williams and Maureen McGovern to Lauryn Hill and the late actor Heath Ledger.
Although not out at the time he wrote the song, Crewe has since admitted that he is bisexual, a fact corroborated in a souvenir book sold at each “Jersey Boys” performance. According to legend, Crewe was struggling over the lyrics to the song one night when he happened to look over at his young male lover lying in bed. It was then that the lyrics started to flow.
“I love that story,” says Hadley, 46, who came out during his mid-20s as a young actor in New York. “Here you have arguably one of the best pop songs of all time, and no one knows that it’s a gay song.”
Hadley, a Charlotte, N.C., native, has been playing Crewe since 2007, two years after the Tony-winning musical opened on Broadway. Hadley has performed in the Broadway “Jersey Boys,” as well as with both the Las Vegas company and the current touring production, which concluded a 12-performance run at Appleton’s Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in June.
Hadley says he never gets tired of the show.
“This is probably the best so-called ‘jukebox musical’ to come out, and it’s all due to the strong book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice,” he says. “What’s fascinating to me is that it’s the only musical I’ve ever performed in that attracts straight guys.”
“Jersey Boys” is the rags-to-riches story of four street kids who make it to the top based on their musical talent. “It’s like a musical version of ‘The Sopranos,’ or something that Martin Scorsese might have directed,” Hadley says, explaining the play’s appeal to heterosexual men. “In Appleton, we received a wild response. People leaped to their feet before we even reached the climax of the final song, and it was usually guys that were leading it.”
But some of the same elements that resonate with straights – along with Crewe’s character – have also made “Jersey Boys” wildly popular with gay audiences.
Crewe is referred to in the play as “flamboyant” and has a male assistant – both of which are 1960s code for a gay orientation. The fact that Crewe was so influential in the careers of The Four Seasons is something of gay success story, Hadley says.
“It’s fascinating that you essentially had these four street thugs who accepted this obviously gay man based simply on his talent,” Hadley says. “I like it because it’s such a subversive way to show gays’ influence on the arts.”
Crewe’s influence on the arts goes far beyond his work with The Four Seasons. The Newark, N.J., native, now 70, was a songwriter, dancer, singer, manager and even male model during his youth. He wrote a string of hits for the Four Seasons, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll” – all of which capitalized on Valli’s distinctive falsetto. He also composed songs as diverse as the instrumental “Music to Watch Girls Go By” and “Silhouettes,” covered by Herman’s Hermits. He provided the raw, muscular arrangement of “Devil With a Blue Dress On” that helped turn the formerly unknown Billy Lee & the Rivieras into rockers Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.
But it is his work with the former New Jersey doo-wop group that made Crewe’s career.
Hadley believes that, as a gay actor, he may understand and appreciate the nuances of Crewe’s life a little better than a straight actor might. But in the end, he says, sexual orientation had little to do with Crewe’s talent or influence in pop music.
“I’ve never met Bob, but I e-mail him every Nov. 12 on his birthday, and he e-mails me back,” Hadley says. “I hope some day he shows up at one of our performances.”
“Jersey Boys” runs July 20-Aug. 14 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Go to marcuscenter.org.