"Imagine all the people sharing all the world. " Now imagine nine actors, male and female, black and white, Asian and Latino, all sharing...
SAN FRANCISCO — “Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
Now imagine nine actors, male and female, black and white, Asian and Latino, all sharing the role of John Lennon. It’s easy if you try.
That’s the so-far-out-it’s-groovy directorial concept behind “Lennon,” the new musical biography of the slain former Beatle that made its world premiere at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre last week before heading to Broadway in July.
This musical tribute to the counterculture icon transports us back to the Age of Aquarius with a catalog of 1960s anthems such as the aforementioned “Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Twist and Shout” and “Instant Karma.” Created by writer/director Don Scardino, with a little help (and two previously unrecorded songs) from Yoko Ono, “Lennon” emerges as one of the most-buzzed about shows of the spring season and a dream come true for Beatles maniacs everywhere.
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“I still can’t believe this is really happening,” says Scardino. “I am a huge John Lennon fan. I’m one of those people who knows everything there is to know about him. So in putting together this show, I asked myself, what would I want to see? And this is it.”
Ironically, while Lennon stands as a legendary non-conformist, a man who gave voice to his generation by always going his own way, the musical made in his honor is certainly not one of a kind. In fact, it’s just the latest show to hop on the karaoke bandwagon. From “Mamma Mia!” (ABBA) to “Good Vibrations” (the Beach Boys), “All Shook Up” (Elvis Presley) and “We Will Rock You” (Queen), the jukebox genre isn’t just a trend, it’s a full-scale invasion of the American musical theater.
Still, Scardino, who was among the screaming hordes greeting the Beatles at Kennedy airport back in 1964, takes pains to distinguish “Lennon” from the rest of the greatest-hits pack. He points out that the songs in this show trace the biography of the artist, from his birth in 1940’s Britain to his murder in Manhattan in 1980, not just some grafted-on bubble-gum plot (like the big fat white wedding story in “Mamma Mia!”).
“We are absolutely not taking the songs out of context,” Scardino says, as he watches a series of psychedelic images (from the Beatle’s Maharishi Period) projected onto the stage. “These songs are telling the story they were meant to tell. John was like a diarist. His songs tell the story of his life.”
The authenticity of the “Lennon” project, which takes most of its dialogue and lyrics from the singer’s actual words, seems unassailable. And Scardino has Ono’s stamp of approval that the show accurately reflects her late husband’s legacy. But the bottom line may still be the show’s pre-established name recognition.
Many, if not all, theatergoers will walk into the musical already humming the score, which gives “Lennon” a leg up at the box office. “Yeah, everybody does love the Beatles,” notes “Lennon” producer Allan McKeown, who knew the lads from Liverpool way back in the day. “I’ve really never known anyone who didn’t like John Lennon.”
But Scardino says his musical is not just about pop, it’s also about politics. A child of the ’60s who calls people “man” without irony, he wants theatergoers to walk away from “Lennon” thinking as well as humming. Lennon’s music was always steeped in the state of the world, he says, and those messages still resonate with listeners today.
“His great crusade was against the Vietnam War, against all wars,” says Scardino. “Lennon believed that peace was possible, and in this society we don’t get to practice peace. We get to practice enmity and envy and violence. We get to practice feeling insecure because we don’t have what the guy on TV has, but we are not sold and marketed and advertised to be peaceful and loving.”
That’s why Scardino wanted each member of the show’s multicultural nine-member company to play the title role at different points in the show. He didn’t do it just to be politically correct, he says, but to embody Lennon’s philosophy in the structure of the show itself.
“John said it: I am here, we are all one,” says Scardino, “so let’s drop the barriers, the things that divide us, and share the world.”
Ono signed off on the project (after turning down many other pitches over the years) largely on the strength of that theatrical vision, that her late husband could and should be played by men and women of all races.
“He would be proud of that,” writes Ono. “People will again realize how much he believed in the idea of the global village, when you see this play.”