Rick Elice doesn’t live up to the New Yorker stereotype. Speaking from Sydney, where he’s previewing the Addams Family musical, the follow-up to his smash hit Jersey Boys, there’s nothing brisk, pretentious or aggressive about him.
‘Thanks for talking to me,’ he genuinely enthuses. ‘It’s going to keep my from succumbing to jetlag.’
The Big Apple-born Elice has enough accolades to justify any arrogance. Along with writer-in-crime Marshall Brickman, he penned the smash-hit Jersey Boys, which took out the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006, as well as the Outer Critics Circle and Olivier Awards for Best Musical in 2009. Peter and the Starcatcher, a Peter Pan prequel he wrote based on the novel of the same name, also took home a swag of different awards.
It all began for Elice at the age of three, when his parents, who were avid theatregoers, took him along to a production of My Fair Lady, staring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.
‘I think on some DNA level there was something about sitting there in the dark, watching these tiny people a million miles away on stage that really connected with me,’ he remembers. ‘I’ve been a fan ever since.’
But a career in theatre would elude Elice for another two decades. Before he was tasked with writing Jersey Boys he worked in advertising at Serino Coyne as a copywriter, producer, Creative Director, and eventually Vice President. Before you start thinking he was a bloodsucking advertiser, it pays to know that Serino Coyne is America’s longest running live entertainment advertising agency. Their bread and butter is crafting creative campaigns for Broadway musicals, which is exactly what Elice did during his time there, producing campaigns for over 300 shows, including A Chorus Line and The Lion King.
Being involved in the musical word inevitably lead to Elice being approached to write Jersey Boys. ‘I just happened to get a phone call form a guy who said, “How would you like to write a musical about the four seasons?’ and I said, “Oh, I love Vivaldi – that’s great!”, he said “No, I mean Frankie Valle and the Four Seasons”.’
Producers were looking to emulate the success of Mama Mia! and Elice was the man they believed could do it. Turns out they were right, even though he and his writing partner Marshall Brickman had never written a musical before.
‘I’ll do anything once and not only was this a true story, but it was a good story and it was an untold story – what a great gift for writers to be handed.’
Not that he considered himself a writer at that point. ‘I had written a lot of postcards from various vacation spots around the world,’ he jokes.
But that wasn’t quite true as he’d been writing advertising copy, which proved a huge boon when it came to writing Jersey Boys.
‘Copywriting is a very tough skill in terms of economy and I think that was a great training ground for me because in a musical, like Jersey Boys for example, it’s two hours long and there’s an hour and fifteen minutes of music, so you have forty-five minutes to tell a story and you’re covering forty-five years! That’s a minute a year, so you have to learn to make every word really count and in that sense, it’s very much like advertising copy.’
You can hear the hangover from his copywriting days talking to him. He has a slightly poetic way of speaking, his rhythm suited to small snippets. When talking about The Addams Family, he casually calls them ‘a veritable dynasty of dysfunction’.
There were other benefits to copywriting that translated to the creative process, with Elice pointing out that the ad business is a deadline business, which meant he knew how to write quickly. ‘We were prompt, there’s no luxury of writer’s block when you’re working in a deadline situation, so we were never blocked, we just kept going and did the show rather quickly.’
Of course, not everything he learned came from storyboards and slogans. While he’s in Sydney seeing the previews of The Addams Family, there’s always the chance to work further on the play he wrote in 2010. Moving a production overseas, offers the chance to improve it, which may have been on his mind after the Broadway production of The Addams Family received mixed reviews (though it is a commercial smash hit).
‘Are there disappointments along the way? Sure, but as a craftsman – I don’t think of myself as an artist – working in theatre is a craft, it’s like being a carpenter except every night an audience comes in and grades us,’ he says. ‘To ever sit back and think “That’s it, I’m finished, it’s done” is just a sucker’s play. You’ve got to take the information that the audience gives you every night and work to try and make it better. Sometimes you sit up in the middle of the night and think “Oh that’s a better joke” or “if we just change the order of this it would land better”.’
Okay, so this lesson was inadvertently related to advertising. During his time with Serino Coyne he did a lot of work on the plays of legendary American playwright Neil Simon. ‘He used to turn a play out a year, he was the Mount Everest of playwrights – if there was someone who could sit back on his laurels it was Neil Simon.’
According to Elice, Simon was always sitting in the back of the theatre with a notepad on his lap ‘writing writing writing’. Elice finally got the courage to ask Simon why he was always scribbling when he work was always superb.
‘He said, “Well if I can make it better, wouldn’t it be stupid not to take that opportunity?” That’s what’s so great about the theatre, it’s a lively art, you can make it better and if you can, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? If it’s good enough for Neil Simon, it’s definitely good enough for me.’
He’s done this on both Jersey Boys and The Addams Family, admitting that ‘we’re constantly putting in little tweaks here and there, just to make sure the audience has the best possible time.’
This investment in the reaction of the audience reveals another of Elice’s tips for budding writers. ‘I don’t think of myself as a particularly fascinating person – I’m a good listener,’ he says. ‘If you’re a good listener, you can be a good writer because writing is a combination of listening and rewriting and listening and rewriting.’
He doesn’t just mean eavesdropping on people on the train ride home, although he does do that. ‘I mean listening to an audience, listening to a thousand people all at the same time – that’s a good way to listen – if you can do that and go back to work and be energised by that… then anyone who can do it could be a writer.’
Whether hoping to land their very own Jaguar account or pen a multi-award winning musical, Elice’s advice for budding writers is very simple.
‘A combination of exercise and gin, I replace the tonic with weight lifting.’
Starring John Waters, Chloë Dallimore and Russell Dykstra, The Addams Family is now playing in Sydney at the Capitol Theatre. For further information and tickets head to The Addams Family website.