Q&A with Rick Elice, writer of Peter and the Starcatcher, Jersey Boys

Rick Elice is a writer, a former stage actor and a charter member of the American Repertory Theatre. In his past, he’s been a former copywriter, producer, creative director and executive vice president of an advertising company as well as a creative consultant to Walt Disney Studios. Elice co-wrote the book for the four-time Tony award-winning musical Jersey Boys as well as Peter and the Starcatcher, a five-time Tony award-winning play that is coming to San Francisco. MUSE had the opportunity to interview Elice about everything from his academic experiences to what’s coming next.

You earned a BA from Cornell University, an MFA from Yale Drama School and were a teaching fellow at Harvard. What was your academic experience like?

I joined the College Scholar Program at Cornell the middle of my freshman year, where you have an independent major. Once I got accepted, I didn’t have to follow the syllabus — I could take any course of any level at any of the eight colleges, and I could take as many or as few units as I wanted. This was a fantastic thing, because as an obsessive-compulsive workaholic, I was able to do a ton of stuff that ordinarily undergraduates couldn’t do.

This gave me a leg up in terms of number of credits, so I was able to apply and get accepted to graduate school after three years of undergrad. To date, I’m still the youngest person to attend Yale — I graduated Cornell at 19.

After Yale, I returned to New York, got cast in a Broadway show, got fired from that Broadway show and did a soap opera. I then joined the first company of American Repertory Theatre.

At Harvard, I taught the sociology of public opinion once a week.

How has all of your education contributed to your career?

I don’t necessarily feel like people in college now need to respond the way I did; back then, going to college was the only sensible option. I was lucky and bright, so I was the beneficiary of a liberal arts education. I wanted to learn as much about anything as I could, and I learned a lot. I’m glad I learned what I did, but in terms of creative aspects of the advertising industry, those were latent facilities I discovered while doing.

From 1982 to 2000, you were a creative director at Serino Coyne Inc., where you produced ad campaigns for some 300 Broadway shows including A Chorus Line and The Lion King. How did you get into this industry?

I met someone who ran an ad agency who thought I was amusing, and they asked if I could come to the office and write funny headlines for someone who was on vacation. In 1982, if you could write a postcard, you could write ads. I had a knack for doing it, and when the woman who was on vacation came back, she gave me a part time job as a copywriter. That job moved to full time, and before I knew it, I was directing commercials in Hollywood. Thirty years ago, publicity wasn’t paid for. Television time was cheap and what Broadway could afford.

You served as a creative consultant to Walt Disney Studios from 1999 to 2009; what made you change from the advertising industry to Disney?

I did the advertising for The Lion King show, and Julie Taymor and the producers of the show asked me to come and work for the chairman of the studio. I didn’t want to be a studio “suit,” as I wasn’t equipped for that. The chairman asked me to draft a ten-point plan of my dream job, and I wasn’t interested in leaving the ad industry and was already 40 years old. I didn’t know that I wanted to do this, so I made up a deal he couldn’t possibly agree to.

He did, so next thing I knew, I left everything I knew and the safety of all that and decided to try my hand at being a creative trouble-shooter. It was a wonderful fellowship, and in many ways this man saved my life. Suddenly, I had time, something I never had in the ad industry after having risen in the ranks. I had time to think, consider things and write.

Please explain how this turned into you writing Jersey Boys.

So, when someone called me and asked if I wanted to write Frankie Valli songs into a show, I was able to. After Disney, I was able to. This was a life-saving opportunity where I learned a ton about how Hollywood works, but that isn’t anything I’ll use again.

I called Marshall Brickman, and we thought of writing a movie since we didn’t know how to write a musical. We decided to meet up with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, and since Mamma Mia was a big hit at the time, we wanted to do a fictional story too. I remembered their songs from the radio, but I didn’t know anything about Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. I knew about The Beatles and The Who. They explained to us that they never told their story because no one was interested in writing it down — they weren’t exotic enough. We knew we were on to something.

Eight years ago this week, Jersey Boys opened on Broadway. Seven years ago, it opened at Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

Editor’s note: Jersey Boys won four 2006 Tony Awards including Best Musical.

So tell us about Peter and the Starcatcher.

Because I was at Disney, I read a lot of scripts and novels in galley form. Rights were purchased to make it into an animated film, which didn’t happen. Tom Schumacher re-upped the option as a theatrical possibility and reached out to Roger Rees to get his sense to see if it could run as a show. Roger thought it would be a good thing to adapt and had a theatre and access to interns to devote time to invest effort into a lab and workshop.

Since it’s written for an eight to ten year-old reader, they didn’t want to do children’s theatre; they wanted an adult sense of humor and adult themes. There wasn’t a lot of material besides the plot, so they asked me to write some text for the actors. When Dave Barry, the writer of the book, asked who wrote the text, they pointed to me. I was just sitting there, purely by accident — lucky accident.

After playing in La Jolla in 2009, we had to solve some problems. I did a rewrite, and we took it to New York Theatre Workshop. I thought they weren’t going to do Peter Pan — they had done Rent! They wanted to do it.

We had a production in 2011 and critics came and went nuts for it. The show became an off-Broadway hit, so we went into “let’s go to Broadway” mode, but Broadway has become somewhat inhospitable to plays that weren’t already big.

Well, we opened on Broadway in April and a week and a half later, we had nine Tony nominations. It was such a happy day, and it was insane. We won five, which was more than any that year. Now we have a national tour, which plays don’t usually do. The response has been amazing, and I’m excited for it to come to San Francisco. SF loved Jersey Boys, and it’s that time of year for people to go to the city. It’s a show where you can bring anyone and have a great time.

Peter and the Starcatcher is similar to Jersey Boys in that it’s about creating your own family, not the one you’re born into. I keep writing the same thing, because I suppose I know what it’s like to be disenfranchised.

Jersey Boys is will now be a movie, and you co-wrote the screenplay. What can you tell us about it?

Warner Brothers finished shooting the movie two months ago, and Clint Eastwood is directing it. Clint saw the show in San Francisco and decided to cast one of the actors on tour. The singing is done live in the movie, because we wanted the immediacy of live performance. It should be coming out sometime next year, maybe near Thanksgiving.

What’s next for you?

A couple days ago, we did a workshop for a new musical with Old Globe in San Diego in spring. I’m also writing a musical for Disney about 18 year-old misfits who enter a magicians contest. It has the same theme of connecting and trying to feel connection that the musical has. That’s what I’m doing immediately in the moment.

Why should people go and see Peter and the Starcatcher?

You know that feeling of looking into a nice warm room with your nose pressed against the glass from the outside? It’s about how someone finds their way into the room. Anyone will like the show because everyone has felt that way. We let people imagine what’s going on throughout, so the audience gets to play along instead of spectating, and that’s my favorite thing about the show.

Peter and the Starcatcher will be at Curran Theatre in San Francisco from Nov. 5 to Dec. 1, 2013. Tickets can be purchased through the SHN website www.shnsf.com.

ELIZABETH ORPINA can be reached at editor@theaggie.org.

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