Say the words "New Jersey" to almost any American, and they'll conjure an image.
The image probably won't be pretty. After all, the state has always had a bad reputation - for being dirty and smelly, for being a breeding ground for corruption and crime, for harboring rude and obnoxious jerks.
Although the stereotypes persist among outsiders, so does the strong sense of Jersey pride among natives. They're proud of their accent. They're proud of their pizza. They're proud of the pop-culture touchstones that couldn't have been possible without N.J., from the TV sensation "The Sopranos" to the Broadway smash "Jersey Boys," which opens here Wednesday.
They're not just proud; they're vocal.
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Says Rick Elice, who co-wrote "Jersey Boys" with Marshall Brickman: "There's a shout-out at the beginning of the show to the state, generally, and when there are people from Jersey in the audience, they tend to go berserk. And you think, 'Oh wow, I guess there's a witness protection program here, too.'"
Over the next three weeks, the Tony Award-winning musical about the 1960s vocal group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons will be performed 24 times at Belk Theater. The odds that N.J. natives will be in the house? Pretty good. According to U.S. Census data, 7,100 newcomers moved here from there in 2007 and 2008. For several years running, New Jersey has been one of the most common places of origin for newcomers to Charlotte.
Stigmatized, yet celebrated
When Megan Nowak is asked where she's from, she gets defensive.
"You get the 'Ohhhhh' when you say you're from Jersey - which means their first thoughts are 'Which exit on the Turnpike?' and funny accents," says the 29-year-old Indian Trail resident, who grew up in Branchville, N.J. "I immediately go into a spiel about how it's such a great state and all its great attributes. This gets a funny look because all they did was ask me where I am from."
Why do New Jerseyans react this way? It could be an inferiority complex: Theirs is the 11th-most populated state, but it's the fourth-smallest size-wise. Or it could be a chip on their shoulders: It's always played second fiddle to the Big Apple in the North, or Philadelphia in the South.
At the same time, New Jersey has a history of being artistically fertile, as proven by "Jersey Boys," musicians Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi; scores of movies set in the Garden State (including a 2004 film titled "Garden State"), and the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore," among other examples.
If you'd even call "Jersey Shore" art. The series - which follows eight housemates spending their summer on the New Jersey Shore - has been criticized heavily for being an offensive and inaccurate portrayal of Italian-Americans. Yet former N.J. residents like Lauren Brisby of Charlotte say the show isn't pure fiction.
"I watched 'Jersey Shore,' and it brings back hugely fond memories of Wildwood on The Shore," says Brisby, 32, who grew up in Oakland, N.J. "Make no mistake, many people from New Jersey are like that.
"You can look at it one of two ways: embarrassing and silly, or like its own little piece of fabric in the quilt that makes up the North. I choose the latter."
'A major homage'
Brisby, Nowak and other prideful expatriates will no doubt be thrilled to find "Jersey Boys" has been loaded from start to finish with respectful references to their home state.
"People frequently are very pleased to hear the names of places that they recall or even places that they've been," says Elice, the co-writer. "It takes place all over the state, and... what people from Jersey have told me is that they feel very well-served by the play in terms of it being a major homage to the state of New Jersey."
As for how transplants will respond to "Jersey Boys" during its three-week Charlotte run, Elice thinks they'll be consistent with what the show - which opened on Broadway in 2005 and began touring in late 2006 - has experienced elsewhere.
"I have seen the reaction of audiences over a period of years to this show," Elice says, "and it's a genuine, jingoistic, almost patriotic reaction, the kind of reaction you'd think you would get on Memorial Day when the flag passes by. You get a real patriotic, New Jersey reaction, people glorying in what it is to not be special, but to be part of a larger group of people who are just like you."
Elice pauses, then can't resist: "They finally get to touch their roots again through our show, even if they bring unlicensed weapons into the theater."