Beaumont widow sues Four Seasons member for rights to 'Jersey Boys'

Marilyn Tennissen Jan. 7, 2008, 2:31pm

Tommy DeVito, left, with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons at the Broadway opening of 'Jersey Boys.'

The widow of a Beaumont attorney has filed a federal lawsuit against one of the founding members of the singing group the Four Seasons, alleging her husband's manuscript was the basis for the hit Broadway musical, "Jersey Boys."

All it took for 13-year-old Rex Conrad Woodard was to put the needle on the 45 rpm single of "Candy Girl" and he was hooked for life on the sweet harmonies of the Four Seasons. Even after a successful law practice in Beaumont, Woodard remained a fan and eventually had the opportunity to interview and write about his favorite singing group.

Woodard died in 1991 and never got to see his best work in publication -- a biography of Four Seasons founding member Tommy DeVito and the young singers' rise from the working class of Newark, N.J.,to pop stardom in the 1960s.

Now Woodard's widow claims DeVito put his own name on the manuscript after her husband's death and turned it into a Tony Award-winning Broadway smash -- without giving credit to Woodard and denying Woodard's estate its share of royalties.

Donna Corbello, Woodard's wife, filed suit Dec. 28, 2007, against Thomas Gaetano DeVito in federal court in the Beaumont Division of the Eastern District of Texas. She is suing for breach of contract and wants U.S. District Judge Ron Clark to have her late husband credited as the co-author of the musical.

According to the plaintiff's original complaint, Dallas native Woodard moved to Beaumont in 1975 after completing law school at Baylor University. He was certified in civil trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and had a successful law career with firms and in solo practice.

Growing up, Woodard became a music buff and began a side career as a freelance writer on the pop music of the 1960s and his favorite group the Four Seasons.

"Accordingly, he was both enthusiastic and well-prepared when the opportunity arose to write a feature article about the group for Goldmine Magazine in August 1981," the original complaint states.

After publication, the suit says "the article was well-received by fans and rock historians alike."

The article whetted Woodard's curiosity about the earliest days of the Four Seasons and its predecessor groups: the Four Lovers, the Varietones and Variety Trio. Woodard interviewed original member and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito, his brother Nick DeVito and Nick Massi, and a second article was published in 1982.

As an experienced attorney, Woodard noted there were some discrepancies in what he was hearing about the group's early days. In particular, the ages of DeVito and other members varied in different accounts and there appeared to Woodard that there were a few "missing years" in the group's rise to stardom.

Then in the late 1980s, Woodard received a call from Tommy DeVito, who said he had a real scoop to give the writer.

"Defendant informed Mr. Woodard that defendant had a sensational story to tell, but (he) was not a writer and wanted Mr. Woodard to tell it," the original complaint states.

The suit claims that DeVito said he wanted Woodard to write it not only because of his previous writings about the group, but because he was an attorney.

"… certain aspects of defendant's story were so sensitive that he felt it necessary to discuss them with an attorney before making them public," the court document states.

Woodward flew to Las Vegas to meet with DeVito to hear the "true story of his unaccounted-years."

According to the lawsuit, DeVito revealed to Woodard that he and other band members, with the exception of lead singer Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, were involved in criminal activities, spent time in prison and may have had connections to the Mob.

"These accounts differed radically from the public's perception of the Four Seasons as clean-cut kids singing in tuxedos on the Ed Sullivan Show, and Mr. Woodard was intrigued," the suit states.

The lawsuit alleges that DeVito wanted Woodard to write his story "with full credit for his efforts and an equal share in any resulting profits."

The work was to be based on Woodard's interviews with DeVito and any other information Woodard might deem beneficial,subject to DeVito's approval of the final text.

"Mr. Woodard agreed to undertake the task, and returned to Beaumont, Texas, to begin the process of creating the work," the suit states.

Woodward sent a letter to DeVito on Dec. 1, 1988, stating the terms they had agreed on: DeVito would get "top billing" but Woodard's name would also appear on the published work and Woodard would share in the royalties.

Woodard then got to work on DeVito's story, utilizing his interviews and memorabilia as well as legal documents. The lawyer also filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain DeVito's criminal records and to "confirm alleged U.S. government efforts to link defendant and/or the Four Seasons to organized crime."

The writer and the singer remained in contact and "as Mr. Woodard completed each chapter of the work, he sent a copy to defendant" and the two would discuss any desired changes.

Then as the writing was near completion and his health failing in late 1990, Woodard began to seek a publisher. An outline was even submitted to actor Joe Pesci to possibly develop the manuscript into a screenplay.

But Woodard was not able to secure a publisher before he died of lung cancer at age 41 on May 25, 1991.

"Mr. Woodard's dying wish was that plaintiff (Donna Corbello) and his sister (Cindy Woodard Ceen) would ensure that the work was published after his death," the suit states. "Mr. Woodard also hoped that income generated by the work would support his wife and children when he would no longer be there to support them."

For the next several years, Corbello and Ceen continued to send the manuscript to prospective publishers without success, and Ceen contacted DeVito again about the work in 2005.

Ceen claims DeVito was still enthusiastic about the manuscript, and told Ceen he had lost his copy and asked her to send him a replacement manuscript.

Around this time, the musical "Jersey Boys" was set to open on Broadway, and Woodard's family believed there would be new interest in the Four Seasons and improved chances of finding a publisher for Woodard's work.

But Ceen says DeVito's attorney then told her his client was no longer interested in pursuing publication of the untitled biography.
By the end of 2006, "Jersey Boys" had become a smash hit, and garnered four Tony Awards, including a Best Actor for actor portraying DeVito.

"Although plaintiff had not seen the show, and was unaware of the specific content, plaintiff surmised that the production's success would give rise to great demand for the work and decided to engage counsel," the suit states.

The counsel searched the U.S. Copyright Office in January 2007, but "failed to reveal any copyright registration issued to Mr. Woodard for the work," the complaint states.

But the attorney turned up a copyright registration for a literary work titled "Tommy DeVito -- Then and Now" with DeVito as the sole author. The registration was dated Jan. 11, 1991, which Corbello said was just as her husband's health was declining.

The plaintiff claims the text was "identical to the work written by Mr. Woodard," except for the title page.

"In fact, with the exception of the title page, the work deposited in support of Registration No. Txu 454118 is a photocopy of the manuscript typed by Mr. Woodard's secretary," the complaint states.

The plaintiff claims that at the same time it was discovered that the writers of "Jersey Boys" had obtained copies of the manuscript and that it had "inspired the form, structure and content of the musical." Corbello claims that the actors in the stage production also used her husband's work to prepare for their roles.

Corbello cites several references by the "Jersey Boys" director and writers to "DeVito's memoir" and DeVito's "unpublished autobiography."

She says DeVito is financially connected to the production and has received millions of dollars in royalties from "Jersey Boys."

DeVito has denied that he showed Woodard's manuscript to anyone, and claimed he had only "told stories to the writers and director."

Woodard's widow is arguing that the Dec. 1, 1988, letter between Woodard and DeVito constitutes a valid and enforceable contract.

The plaintiff says DeVito's breach of contract has deprived her of profits of at least $5 million.

The lawsuit says counsel for both parties negotiated unsuccessfully in October 2007.

Gregory Guillot of Dallas is representing Corbello.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ron Clark.

Case No. 1:07-cv-985-RHC

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