John Lennon -- the Beatles' rhythm guitarist, singer, and songwriter who went on to lead a successful solo career and become a vocal proponent of the peace movement in the 1970s -- has been the focus of tireless rumination since being shot to death outside his New York home on Dec. 8, 1980. From the documentary Imagine: John Lennon and theater projects like One Night Only to Ray Coleman's 768-page book Lennon and Albert Goldman's hack-and-slash volume The Lives of John Lennon, biographers have sought to understand and explain a man who, during his short 40-year life, left an indelible impression on groups as disparate as screaming groupies, Berkeley peaceniks, and what used to be called the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
If this Lennonalia banquet weren't enough to keep fans masticating for decades to come, writer/director Don Scardino has decided to regurgitate the story one more time. In the publicity materials that accompany his new Broadway-bound musical titled -- wait for it -- Lennon, Scardino describes the show as a "visually stunning search for the real John Lennon." Given the fact that the public domain is packed with the work of people undertaking the same quest, I was curious to find out what Scardino could possibly have to twist and shout about.
In its pursuit of "the real John Lennon," the musical claims authenticity and novelty in a couple of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is through its close ties to Yoko Ono, a doyenne of the 1960s New York performance art scene and Lennon's second wife and artistic muse/collaborator. Ono not only gave Scardino and producer Edgar Lansbury her blessing (and for anyone interested in turning someone else's life into a consumer product, getting on the good side of the person who owns the rights to the subject's estate isn't a bad idea), but also donated two heretofore unpublished and unrecorded Lennon compositions to the production's 27-song mix. While Ono's generosity gives Lennon geeks some new tunes to savor, there's a reason these songs remained unperformed for so long: They're not very good. The love ballad "I Don't Want to Lose You" is pretty enough but entirely unmemorable. Meanwhile, not even Scardino's attempt to distract audiences during "India, India" (evoking the Beatles' experience in that country) with a garland-strewn parade featuring a bearded female cast member posing as the Maharishi can make up for the song's essential tunelessness.
Ono's influence may also help explain the musical's depiction of Lennon's life. If someone unfamiliar with the artist were to see this show, he'd come away from the experience believing Lennon to be the slightly unkempt and significantly less disciplined half of that most lauded of cultural institutions, the John and Yoko Show. The fact that the singer/songwriter was the founding member of the most celebrated pop band of all time would probably be lost on him. Packed with events from Lennon's non-Beatles existence -- including the highly publicized "bed-ins" he staged with Ono in protest against the Vietnam War, the couple's temporary split, and the years in which the artist abandoned his musical career to be a stay-at-home dad -- Lennon barely acknowledges the musician's association with the Fab Four. Presenting the audience with a less obvious perspective on Lennon's life isn't necessarily a problem, but this version is steeply skewed in Ono's direction.
The musical's depiction of Lennon's politically active later years does resonate, albeit in a clunky and rather superficial way, with our current warmongering climate. But an uncomfortable truth threatens to undermine the ideas encapsulated in songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Power to the People," rendered at high volume against mammoth, rock concert-style lighting rigs and mood-enhancing video projections: If it weren't for Lennon's superstardom, no one would have given a penny lane for the pop artist's political views.
The few moments in Lennon that do touch upon the Beatles dismantle preconceived notions about the band in an interesting way. In one scene, for instance, Scardino casts the four female actors (Julie Danao, Mandy Gonzalez, Marcy Harriell, and Julia Murney) as John, Paul, George, and Ringo, for an uptempo rendition of the early Beatles cover "Twist and Shout," with the male cast members (Will Chase, Chuck Cooper, Chad Kimball, Terrence Mann, and Michael Potts) weeping and screaming on the sidelines like a bunch of obsessed teenage girls. The role reversal not only makes fun of Beatlemania, but also sends a critical message about 1960s sexual stereotyping.
Lennon attempts to distinguish itself further via its approach to casting. Instead of giving the title role to one actor, as in other biographical musicals like Buddy and Evita, the production aims to personify the artist's "oneness" with the world by having actors of both sexes and assorted ethnicities and ages play Lennon. All nine cast members provide polished, spirited performances even though, on occasion, their accents sound more Livermuddlian than Liverpudlian. And filtered through the overly dramatic musical-theater singing style, some of the songs (e.g., "Instant Karma" and "Gimme Some Truth") sound disturbingly like they were written by Lionel Ritchie or Bryan Adams. But the production doesn't follow through on its conceit: Two of the actors -- the suitably cute, youthful, and mop-topped Chase and Kimball -- don the ubiquitous Lennon-style "granny" glasses with far greater frequency than the rest of the cast. As a result, the casting satisfies neither Scardino's grand idea nor our desire to feel connected to the central character.
Inasmuch as the musical presents Lennon as a working-class boy made good, a peace warrior, and a revolutionary icon, Scardino's "search for the real John Lennon" doesn't do much more than reiterate what we already know about the subject from the countless books, films, and plays out there already. Yet the very act of canonizing Lennon on Broadway, of all places, undermines everything the production claims the artist stood for. When asked (in an interview Webcast on www.lennonthemusical.com) for her opinion on how the deceased would have reacted to the idea of a Broadway musical based on his life, Ono replied, "He would have said, 'Hooray.' He would have loved the fact that we are going to be on Broadway." Gimme some truth, Yoko. If Lennon is anti-establishment incarnate, then what is the man who wrote "Imagine" and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" doing on the ultimate bastion of all things establishment, the Broadway stage?