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November 15, 2005

Lennon on Broadway

Mark David Chapman was never mentioned in Don Scardino’s play Lennon, which closed in September after a brief run on Broadway, but Chapman’s horrible crime was alluded to briefly as the play began, and loomed over the more than two hours that followed. Part biography, part musical review, Lennon told its subject’s story from birth to death, and its primary source was John Lennon’s own words. (To a lesser extent, Scardino also quoted Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono.) Lennon lived much of his life in public -- the songs he wrote after the Beatles split up were often nakedly confessional, and the interviews he gave over the years, which are heavily quoted in the play, were similarly frank.

Although the play has closed, Lennon is worth examining because the John Lennon it presented onstage tapped into emotions we have about him and his time. I remember vividly the moment I heard that Lennon had been murdered. To rock and roll fans in the 1960s, Lennon was an intellectual and a truth-teller. Paul McCartney was old show biz -- too eager to please, too ready with a smile and a compliment. At his best, Lennon was witty, cutting, and brutally honest. He also, at times, held opinions that were fashionable and na´ve.

Lennon had an uneasy relationship with celebrity, courting it one moment, pushing it away the next. In the end, he created a persona -- maybe more than one -- that many of us identified with. In the years since his death, Yoko Ono has maintained and embellished his image. Scardino wrote Lennon with advice and guidance from her, and thanked her prominently in the Playbill. His central idea for staging the play was that the cast would be a multicultural mix of five men and four women, each of whom would take turns portraying Lennon. It was this idea of presenting Lennon as embodying all of us that appealed to Ono and won her trust.

It’s not hard to recognize other aspects of the play that might have pleased her. As the audience settled into its seats before the play began, bits of Lennon’s lyrics and short quotes from interviews with him were projected onto a white screen at the front of the stage. (Attentive fans noticed that some of Ono’s words, too, appeared.) The play begins with Lennon’s birth and childhood (members of the cast played his mother and aunt), but telescopes the events in his life until his first meeting with Ono. His time with the Beatles was presented oddly. Four of the male actors portrayed them at points, but in the re-creation of their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was the cast’s four women who donned the famous Pierre Cardin suits.

About 30 minutes into the play, Lennon (played in this instance by Will Chase) addressed the audience: "If I had to go through all the things I did in my life . . . just to finally land and meet Yoko . . . then it was all worth it." Following that statement is a reenactment of Lennon’s first meeting with Ono, at the Indigo Gallery, and the play’s remaining hour and a half centers on their marriage, artistic collaboration, and involvement in various political causes. Lennon suggests that its subject’s time with the Beatles was a prelude to his personal and artistic fulfillment with Ono. A more accurate title might have been John and Yoko.

Although Lennon garnered mostly poor reviews, anyone who lived through the 1970s would probably have found the play brisk and enjoyable. The songs were given a Broadway sheen, and in some cases that approach worked just fine. Chuck Cooper’s performance of "Instant Karma" rejuvenated the song, and Marcy Harriell’s interpretation of the regrettable "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" made it sound like a much better song than it is. The use of photo backdrops and videotape projections to help re-create Lennon’s time brought back vividly the confusion of the early 1970s, when Lennon and Ono were trying on the various personae the times offered them: avant-garde artists, political activists, and international revolutionaries.

Lennon disdained any idea that the Beatles played a part in the mythology of the 1960s, yet his actions on behalf of the antiwar movement and other, more radical causes were logical outgrowths of the times he helped create. The play points out the absurdity of the US government’s attempts to force him and Ono to leave the country, but never held Lennon accountable for aligning himself with extremists such as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and John Sinclair. "We were na´ve," Lennon said of his and Ono’s discovery that the militants they’d been hanging out with weren’t interested in peaceful solutions to America’s problems. But all three of those men wrote extensively; the least we should expect of intellectuals is that they research the things they champion.

The immensely likable Rona Figueroa played Yoko Ono the evening I caught the play, and I could understand why the John Lennon portrayed in that performance would be drawn to her. In truth, Ono herself was somewhat forbidding. Many of us have grown to like her more over the years, but it’s because she’s lightened up. In the videotapes used in the play of her appearances on television with Lennon, she looks as stern as a nun. She always seemed to be saying, "I’m a serious artist, I don’t have time for foolishness." Her effect on Lennon was to deflate his sense of humor. During the intermission, my wife said something to me that I’d been thinking but hated to admit: "He became a little preachy after he met her." It was as if he’d forgotten all the fun he’d had listening to Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, and had decided to take as his role models all those smug folkies, such as Pete Seeger, that the Beatles had inspired Dylan to pull himself free of.

It’s possible to love John Lennon and still have reservations about the image of him we’ve allowed ourselves to carry around. Even Elvis Costello, clearly an admirer, sang, "Was it a millionaire who wrote ‘Imagine no possessions’?" One of the surprises of Lennon was how little resonance much of his solo material has. There’s no shame in that -- he, Paul, and George each created one solo LP that approached the greatness of what they had done together, and perhaps one very good additional record. The rest were merely workmanlike.

It may be that many of the songs Scardino chose for Lennon are topical and thus, by definition, dated. Clearly, Scardino wanted us to focus on Lennon as a cultural figure who embodied the ideals of his time, and it’s just as clear that Ono thinks that’s her husband’s legacy. I suppose it’s fine to enjoy a play like Lennon and relive the days when we could believe simple things stated with conviction. But the younger, sharper, more cynical John Lennon would have scoffed at the saint he’s become.

...Joseph Taylor
josepht@ultraaudio.com

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