Lennon The Musical (Review of Preview)

This is a retro-post. I put this online 24 December 2005 using the date it was originally sent out.

(FIRST, an excerpt from the San Jose Mercury News)

By Karen D’Souza

“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 makes its world premiere at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre next week before heading to Broadway in July. (Where, sadly, it will not survive — 12/24/05 EAS)

This musical tribute to the counterculture icon transports us back to the Age of Aquarius with a catalog of ’60s anthems such as the aforementioned Give Peace a Chance,” Twist and Shout” and Lennon” emerges as one of the most-buzzed about shows of the spring season and a dream come true for Beatles maniacs everywhere.

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 the granddaddy of the movement, ABBA’s mind-bendingly popular “Mama Mia” to “Tapestry,” the Carole King revue at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose, to ”Ring of Fire” in San Francisco, the ”All Shook Up,” and the Queen musical ¨C8CLennon” 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 ”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. ”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 (not to mention idolizing the central character), which gives ”Yeah, everybody does love the Beatles,” notes ”I’ve really never known anyone who didn’t like John Lennon.”

So is the future of the Broadway musical all about looking to the past? Where did this singalong movement come from anyway? Is everyone hellbent on replicating the monster success of ¨C13CSomeone has a good idea and then everybody copies it,” says Prince, the 20-time Tony winner, behind hits from ”Phantom of the Opera” to ”That’s why the first one is always the biggest. Then come all the knockoffs, but none of them will do as well, and soon everyone will be doing something else.”

But right now, easy-listening nostalgia is doing boffo box office. With disposable income shrinking, producers must turn to safe bets and nothing sells to the Baby Boomer set quite like its own lost youth.

A Broadway formula ”The Baby Boomer age group spans such a wide range. I think it’s something like from 40-year-olds to 60-year-olds and that’s definitely part of what makes these shows so popular.”¨

A need for escapism from a chaotic world may also fuel the trend. A golden-oldies musical, unlike, say, something from the Sondheim oeuvre, can be a mini-vacation from having to think too hard (or indeed at all).

”Tapestry” actress Annmarie Martin. ”Mamma Mia!” and the New York Times noted that hearing Queen music sans the vocals of ”It’s easier to turn them off than turn them on,” notes Miller. ”Partridge Family” musical be far behind? (Is it too late to get the rights to that?)

”Everything is starting to sound the same because that is what people are being trained to like. That’s what they think is good. It’s the `American Idol’ phenomena.”

But Scardino says his musical is not just about pop, it’s also about politics. A child of the ’60s who calls people ”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.

”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.”

The Lennon philosophy

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.

”So let’s drop the barriers, the things that divide us, and share the world.”

Ono notes that she signed off on this 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.

”People will again realize how much he believed in the idea of the global village, when you see this play.”

Indeed, the superstar’s widow doesn’t see the show as a splashy musical fluff at all. She thinks looking backward to the ’60s, a time of social unrest not unlike our own, could give us the perspective we need to make sense of what’s happening now.

”Many people wish that John was here now to direct the world in the right direction.”


Here’s a list of the biggest hits and the new stuff (two never recorded Lennon songs) in the new Broadway-bound show.


“Power to the People”


“Attica State”

“Working Class Hero”

“Gimme Some Truth”

“Money (That’s What I Want)”

“I’m Losing You/I’m Moving On”

“Twist and Shout”

“I’m Stepping Out”

“Cold Turkey”

“I Don’t Want to Lose You” (never recorded)

“Oh My Love”

“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”

“Real Love”


“The Ballad of John and Yoko”

“Beautiful Boy”

“Crippled Inside”

“(Just Like) Starting Over”

“Give Peace a Chance”

“Grow Old With Me”

“Woman is the Nigger of the World”

“Imagine” (Reprise)

“Instant Karma”

“Give Peace a Chance” (Reprise)

“India, India” (never recorded)


 “New York City”

So, India, India definitely should have stayed buried. However, the other new one was pretty good. The song Imagine (which opens and closes the show) is actually sung by John via video and is the only time we actually hear him. There are a number of video clips (silent) that play in the background showing him and his life.

There’s a few great scenes with one of the “Lennon” actors playing J. Edgar Hoover and The Queen. Mostly, though it’s straight biography of his life. If you know about it, this play will come as no surprise though the ending will still shock you to your core if you’re a fan. The interview with the officer that was first on the scene is agony and although it’s only a moment seems to last for hours.

The Play’s in two acts and runs two hours including intermission. As I saw it in preview mode, I can’t say if the play is, as of yet, in final form.

All-in-all, I was pleased and glad I went.

If you’re going (SFO, Boston, or Broadway) I can tell you that you’d rather be in the center and far back than close and to the sides because the action is all center-stage with nothing on the wings.¨

— E, in reviewer mode

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