'Lennon,' the Yoko Musical, Needs 'Help!'
Thursday, July 21, 2005
By Roger Friedman
"Lennon," the Broadway musical that's supposed to be about or inspired by John Lennon, is a horrid wreck of a thing that needs major overhauling before it opens Aug. 4.
Yesterday afternoon, I let curiosity get the better of me. On a whim, I called up May Pang, Lennon's girlfriend for a big chunk of the 1970s, and suggested we go take a look at what Yoko Ono and friends had whipped up for Broadway audiences.
This is not a review, since "Lennon" has not officially opened yet, and should not be quoted as such. These are just observations, from a Beatles fan and from a woman who knew John and Yoko better than most. We are very protective of the Beatles legacy, you know, those of us in our later years!
"Lennon," you should know, is a biographical musical that almost completely avoids the Beatles. There is no mention of the group, and scant reference to its other members.
A heavyset black actor plays Paul McCartney. Ringo Starr and George Harrison are mere blips in the script.
The show boasts not one actual Beatles song, with the exception of "The Ballad of John and Yoko," which was written and recorded by Lennon and McCartney together. (That point is not made, however, because McCartney is meritless in Yoko's universe.)
Otherwise, no "In My Life," "Come Together," "Help!," "A Day in the Life," "I Feel Fine," or any of the other Lennon standards from the Beatles catalog.
At one point the opening guitar chord from "A Hard Day's Night" is heard, and then dropped.
Indeed, from Lennon's solo repertoire, "Jealous Guy," "No. 9 Dream" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" are noticeably absent as well.
That's because Ono, no matter how much you may think she's either a widow still in pain or a genius performance artist, has made "Lennon" all about her.
I've no doubt that Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife, and Julian Lennon, his eldest son, will skip the show entirely. Ditto McCartney, Starr and George's widow, Olivia Harrison.
They would all cringe as the show quickly dismisses the entire Beatles era so it can get to Lennon proclaiming his love and adoration for Yoko. She's his "Ono and only."
The whole experience was bizarre, made more so by the fact that May Pang was my companion for the afternoon.
After all, Pang went to work for the Lennons in 1970 and had a nearly two-year-long affair with John in 1973-74. She was there for the recording of his "Rock & Roll" and "Shaved Fish" albums. She lived with him in Los Angeles during his infamous year-and-half-long "Lost Weekend."
So imagine her reaction when "Lennon" just skips any reference to her. It's like being airbrushed out of a picture.
"I sent John to Los Angeles," Ono — played by talented, attractive Julie Danao-Salkin — declares at that point.
Pang almost did a spit-take at that point.
"No," she informed me, "I took John to Los Angeles."
Though the Lennons are reunited on stage during a romantic song, Pang points out: "Yoko summoned John home. She told him she could cure his smoking through hypnosis."
She rolled her eyes. "When I saw him again, it was as if he was a different person altogether."
Also not mentioned is that Pang — who tried to reunite Lennon with McCartney — continued to have a friendship with Lennon until a year before he died.
But that's the problem with "Lennon." Ono and pals have so rewritten or unwritten history that you have no idea who John Lennon was. You get no sense of his humor, of how he wrote songs or of his actual friendships with the other Beatles.
How could a man who helped compose dozens of catchy melodies with McCartney be rendered on stage as a cipher? Where is the magic of writing "Michelle" or the satisfaction of producing the "Sgt. Pepper" album? It's as if none of it happened.
Imagine, if you will, a McCartney musical that only focused on his participation in Wings.
Instead, "Lennon" throws in a lot of unimportant songs, mixes them with events to which they had no attachment and jumps back and forth in time until it's almost too confusing to figure out what the heck is going on.
Does an audience paying $100 a ticket really want to hear "Mother," "Mind Games," "Steppin' Out" and a torch-song rendition — performed off-key — of "Woman Is the Nigger of the World"?
I think not.
And we did not need a screechy — that's the only way to describe most of the female voices in this cast — rendering of "How Do You Sleep?"
The show does boast two unrecorded Lennon songs, "India India" and "I Don't Want to Lose You." The former is pretty; the latter is a bit pretentious and not Lennon's best work.
Neither one of them is presented very well, with "India India" used really to mock the Beatles' famous trip to that country. Another "lost" Lennon song, called "Cookin' (in the Kitchen of Love)," promised in press materials long ago, is not included.
"Lennon" has already been cited by my colleague Michael Riedel in the New York Post for being in trouble. But really, this is the kind of trouble the creative team could only have brought on itself.
The show reminded me of the god-awful TNT "Tribute to John Lennon" Ono produced four years ago. That was another show that omitted the Beatles and promoted the latter part of Lennon's career.
For the record, the Broadway show seems to still be in flux. Two songs — "New York City" and "Oh My Love" — were in the printed program, but didn't make the cut. The orchestrations, by the usually more level-headed Harold Wheeler, are almost all wrong for the songs.
Lennon must be turning in his grave. (So, too, must former Yippie Jerry Rubin, who really gets a raw deal by being portrayed as a buffoon.)
What can director Don Scardino do? Postpone the opening for two more weeks. No one really cares at this point.
Re-title the show "In My Life." Tell the story in proper chronology, not jumping all over the place. (There is much that should have been fact-checked.) Add "Across the Universe" and maybe a half-dozen Beatles songs (Michael Jackson needs the money, after all).
Try some laughs. Even putting in the rollicking blues number "Oh Yoko!" would do more to explain Lennon's interest in his mysterious wife than presenting her as a misunderstood martyr.
Lose the all-female rock band with big hair from the '80s, the ones who inexplicably shriek the Motown hits "Twist and Shout" and "Money."
Lose the multiple actors playing Lennon, keeping only the very talented Will Chase. Another "Lennon," Terrence Mann, who looks more like Boz Scaggs, could be recast as an older McCartney.
Ease up on the "I told you so" speeches by Yoko. Really. Otherwise call the show "Ono."
Finally, at least for now, I can't get over the irony of Clear Channel Entertainment producing a John Lennon musical. Clear Channel, destroyer of radio, masticator of the concert business, would have been Lennon's archenemy had he lived.
Clear Channel certainly has the money and power to have a place on Broadway. But you almost feel that this show, of all shows, is haunted by inappropriate corporate sponsorship. It's a little icky.