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| Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Steyn on the Lennon biomusical, from The New Criterion

By Mark Steyn

From The New Criterion for October:

        The “musical biography” is the most dopily reliable theatrical form ever invented.  All you need is a driven genius misunderstood by the forces of reaction, and happily there are thousands to go round.  Doesn’t really matter who you pick: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Mozart, Patsy Cline, Laurence Welk.  It helps if they died young, but they’d have a hard time expiring as prematurely as the drama always does.  There’s invariably a scene where the misunderstood genius confronts a squaresville music-biz exec who doesn’t get it and defiantly tells him, “I gotta play ma music ma way.” Then he does.  Producers love these shows: they come with a catalogue of big hits and a write-by-numbers script that does its best to stay out of the way.  You can sing along to the songs and the dialogue.

        Yet even those of us with a lifelong antipathy to John Lennon would have to concede he’s an unlikely candidate for the theatrical equivalent of a $2.99 Wal-Mart lifetime-achievement diploma.  For long stretches of Lennon, at the Broadhurst Theatre, one feels vaguely one must be watching an elaborate theatrical spoof spilled over from Spamalot next door.  If you were running late and had ten minutes to knock off a treatment for a Lennon biotuner in the cab en route to the producer’s office, how would you end the show?

        Got it!  A full-company rendition of “Imagine.”

        Great, now that problem’s solved, how about the First Act finale?

        Got it!  A full-company rendition of “Give Peace A Chance.” No, wait, even better.  Weren’t the Sixties about, whatchamacallit, “flower power”?  Let’s get the company to advance through the aisles handing out flowers!

        Hmm.  What kind of flowers?  Geez, who cares?  Ask the florist what he’s got.  Orchids?  Nah, too bourgeois, too “safe.” I know: Daisies.  They sing “Give Peace A Chance” and hand out daisies to hundred-bucks-a-head Broadway theatergoers.

        Imagine a show that can’t seem to imagine anything.  Half the time, a likeable if poorly directed cast wanders around uttering generic dialogue from an over-introspective daytime soap—“Living with John was a very trying situation”—and pretending to be cartoon G-men investigating Lennon because his message of world peace is a threat to the dark schemes of Nixon and Hoover.  And in the half that’s left, as those hand-me-down climaxes suggest, there are a few moments when the show operates efficiently enough to approximate the slick self-congratulatory humanity of a lame telethon.  You’ll recall that, in the days after 9/11, the first clue that the righteous anger of the national mood was unlikely to last was when the all-star all-network fundraiser decided to go with “Imagine,” the perfect post-national anthem for cotton-candy nihilists: “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us.”

        Oh, I hope that’s not so, if only because I like to think, in one or the other, John Lennon’s looking down or up on this show and roaring his head off.  Back in the Sixties, asked to explain their working methods, Lennon and McCartney said, “There are two things we always do when we sit down to write a song.  First we sit down.  Then we write a song.” There’s more wit, character and sly revelation in that than in this entire show.  They sat down together but they didn’t write together, not really: the Lennon and McCartney songs divide into Lennon songs (“I Am The Walrus”) and McCartney songs (“Yesterday”), and on the whole, though the rock critics prefer the Lennon, it’s the McCartney numbers that will last.  That said, I liked “Jealous Guy” so much that I once worked up an arrangement and did it on the radio, which is more than most New Criterion contributors can claim.

        But a Lennon show isn’t about his music, so much as his place as the presiding Messiah of the counterculture, the Scouse Sartre, the Merseyside Maharishi, the Marxist-Lennonist.  “It’s easy to be clever,” Jule Styne used to say, “but the really clever thing is to be simple.” And faking simplicity is even harder.  I remember hearing Bobby Darin’s manager give an unintentionally hilarious account of Darin re-writing and re-re-writing his Sixties “folk” anthem, “Simple Song Of Freedom,” because he was having so much difficulty getting it to sound simple enough.  When you examine “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance”—the robotic repetition of “All we are saying,” the near parodic feyness of “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one”—you marvel at the sheer professionalism of their child-like contrivance.  The subject of this biotuner would, I’m sure, despise this show—not because of the hard sheen of its showbiz opportunism but because its reverential sentimentality is so pathetically inept.

        According to the marquee, Lennon is written, directed, and “conceived” by Don Scardino, a man who, despite the routine triple-threat billing, seems to have no obvious qualification for any of those roles.  His obsession is with John’s “identity,” so he gives us lines like “The hardest thing is facing yourself” and “Our life became our art,” and, whether that’s true or not, the plonking flatness of the dialogue is tonally jarring next to the songs.  A lyric can be clichéd; indeed, in the old days, Cole Porter and Larry Hart and Ira Gershwin used to ransack the language for them because they understood that a commonplace sentiment can be transformed when it’s set to the right notes.  John Lennon’s no Richard Rodgers, but even the hippy-dippiest banality is better for being sung rather than spoken.  And Lennon in conversation could be be funny, withering, perceptive, absurdly self-aggrandizing, brutally vicious—but rarely as blandly fatuous as presented here.

        Scardino is aware that John Lennon is more “complex” than “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance” might suggest.  Granted, few sentient beings could fail to be.  But, evidently befuddled at how one conveys such “complexity” on stage, Scardino has instead opted for the most convenient shorthand for it: To show how complex Lennon was, he’s played by nine different actors, four of whom are actresses.  Geddit?  He has so many sides to him, no single thespian could possibly encompass him.  You need a whole crowd scene of Lennons.  When he sings “Mother,” he’s white.  When he sings “(Just Like) Startin’ Over,” he’s black.  When he sings “Beautiful Boy,” he’s a woman.  In that spirit, I would have delegated “Give Peace A Chance” to a Muslim.  But this is Broadway experimentalism, where all the experiments are stuff you’ve seen a thousand times before.

        Just to make clear that the black man, the white woman, the Polynesian pre-op transsexual are all meant to be Lennon, they don his signature wire-rimmed glasses for retailing his anecdotage.  In fact, the spectacles are the only spectacle.  The set is all but bare, except for the on-stage band.  Eventually all nine Lennons come together to sing “Who Am I?”: “Look at me/ Who am I supposed to be?”

        Beats me.  This is one of those theatrical concepts that’s great as a concept and terrible as theater.  When you cast nine actors, you don’t get nine Lennons, you get no Lennon.  Whoever he was disappears under the scrum of “interpreters.” The one the customers warm up to is Will Chase, the most Lennon-like John.  You can feel the audience willing him to elbow the others aside and just be the John, give ’em a star turn like Hugh Jackman does as Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz.  But the scene ends and one of the other eight Johns takes over.  And the conceit of the play—that these are all aspects of the “real” John—is even harder to swallow when Broadway economics require some of the Johns to assume additional roles such as Her Majesty The Queen, Sir Winston Churchill, and Sir David Frost, all three of which weighty cameos fall upon Terrence Mann, who acquits himself very unimpressively.

        In idle moments, you wonder: why nine?  Is it because there were actually nine aspects of John Lennon’s character?  Or is it because the producer said they couldn’t afford ten?  The female Lennons give their songs an anachronistic “American Idol” ululatory pseudo-soulfulness that the material can’t quite support.  Years ago, a female singer friend and I used to joke about creating a fictional vocalist called Melisma Queen who held the world record for the number of syllables she could get out of the word “love.” There’s a lot of that going on here.

        On the other hand, amid the vast phalanx of Johns there’s only one Yoko, played by Julie Danao-Salkan.  And wouldn’t you know it?  Simply by being the one constant in an ever-rotating cast of wire-rimmed specs, she becomes the anchor, the focus.  Curious, that.  Insofar as the play has a theme, it’s that John was a little boy lost until he met Yoko.  Even if it didn’t feel for much of the time as if all nine Lennons were auditioning for Best Supporting Actor nominations in The Yoko Ono Story (Yoklahoma?) it hardly seems worth assembling an army of Johns for such a reductive characterization: the dry sardonic working-class Scouser of the early Sixties, for example, is nowhere in sight.

        What’s even more hilarious is the way reviewers have discussed the show’s absence of Beatles songs as if it were some kind of “artistic” decision.  The most important credit on Lennon is not Don Scardino’s various hats but the one below them: this show comes to us “by arrangement” with Yoko Ono.  Any “arrangement” amicable to Yoko Ono is unlikely to commend itself to Paul, Ringo, George’s estate, or Michael Jackson, who owns the publishing rights to the early Beatles songs, though he may have hocked them to that Saudi prince who’s keeping the crumbling Neverland empire afloat these days.  The rock biz is the apotheosis of the internal contradictions of the progressive mind: the most ruthlessly capitalistic business in the western world passing itself off as permanent socialist revolution.  I don’t doubt there were many meetings between Mr.  Scardino, Yoko’s lawyers, and the Beatles publishers’ lawyers over the conditions under which some Lennon and McCartney songs might be used.  But, for whatever reason, no agreement was possible.  So the challenge for Mr.  Scardino was to devise some “artistic” concept to cover it.

        Here’s what he came up with: while nine actors of various genders and hues play John, in the rare glimpses we get of the Fab Four, they’re all played by women.  For a while, the multiple Johns prompt one to ponder the singular Ringos: Is the play making a point about the feminization of the relationships in the Beatles?  Or is it that Paul threatened to sue if he were represented on stage?  The funniest joke in the show is that the sole Beatles content of the evening is the intro to “A Hard Day’s Night”: the band plays that first distinctive chord and that’s it, over and out.  What’s left is, indeed, a hard day’s night working through Lennon’s post-Beatles catalogue—“Mind Games,” “Instant Karma,” and other highlights of the Yoko years.  It’s almost a relief to get to the anthemic celebrity-fundraiser carthasis of: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.”

        Scardino’s staging of the number presents it as a piece of self-conscious non-staging, in tribute to its “authenticity.” “Imagine” is an amazing song: an article of faith for people who have none, it’s astonishing how deeply it’s penetrated in a mere three decades to every corner of the culture.  At my daughter’s school a couple of Christmases back, it was the grand finale of the holiday concert.  The music department had thoughtfully printed the lyrics on the program, and the teacher, inviting the parents to sing along, declared the number summed up what we were all “praying” for: “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky/ Imagine all the people/ Living for today.”

        Ah, that’s the message of the season, isn’t it?  Happy holidays!  The next time I heard those words was when I switched on the TV a few months later and saw a half-Jewish/half-Muslim choir backing Bill Clinton, who was up on stage crooning them down the cleavage of some hot Zionist babe as the top-of-the-bill lounge act at Shimon Peres’ birthday party.  I am not making this up.  I wish I were.  But I doubt any “creative writer” would ever create such a scene: Too implausible—or rather, all too plausible but too obviously tacky.  Yet it happened.  And there’s more imagination in President Clinton’s staging of the song than anything in Lennon.  In fact, in its own way, the mesmeric garishness of the Islamo-Zionist “Imagine” is a greater tribute to its composer than anything in this lamely predictable biotuner.

        Doesn’t a show about Lennon owe us more than just the droning vamp and the company stepping forward to intone the sacred text?  Shouldn’t it at least give us an “and then I wrote” moment?  Wouldn’t it be productive to explore the song’s meaning as Lennon saw it and his own ambivalence toward the sentiments?  You may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not—whatever the moonily devoted young company sleepwalking downstage may think.  I mentioned a couple of years ago the flurry of stories about how Lennon was a very generous contributor not just to organizations that support and fund the IRA, but to the IRA itself.  He could imagine there’s no countries and nothing to kill or die for, but until that blessed day he was happy to chip in his tuppence-ha’penny to support an organization willing to blow the legs off grannies in shopping centers.  Lennon grew rich peddling fluffy multiculti pap to the masses, but he didn’t fall for it himself.

        Here’s one of my favorite Lennon moments, from one of the last interviews of his life.  It appeared in the 1980 Christmas issue of Playboy and, compared to most of the other features—“Cleavage In The Office: The New Breed Of Upwardly Mobile Women by Michael Korda”—and most of the cleavage, it holds up remarkably well:

        PLAYBOY: What about the suggestion that the four of you put aside your personal feelings and regroup to give a mammoth concert for charity, some sort of giant benefit?

        LENNON: I don’t want to have anything to do with benefits.  I have been benefited to death.  Every one of them was a mess or a rip-off.

        PLAYBOY: What about the Bangladesh concert, in which George and other people such as Dylan performed?

        LENNON: Bangladesh was caca.  It’s all a rip-off.  So forget about it.  All of you who are reading this, don’t bother sending me all that garbage about, “Just come and save the Indians, come and save the blacks, come and save the war veterans.” Anybody I want to save will be helped through our tithing, which is ten percent of whatever we earn.

        PLAYBOY: But that doesn’t compare with what one promoter, Sid Bernstein, said you could raise by giving a world-wide televised concert—playing separately, as individuals, or together, as the Beatles.  He estimated you could raise over $200,000,000 in one day.  $200,000,000 to a poverty-stricken country in South America.

        LENNON: Where do people get off saying the Beatles should give $200,000,000 to South America?  You know, America has poured billions into places like that.  It doesn’t mean a damn thing.  After they’ve eaten that meal, then what?  It lasts for only a day.  After the $200,000,000 is gone, then what?  It goes round and round in circles.  You can pour money in forever.  After Peru, then Harlem, then Britain.  There is no one concert.  We would have to dedicate the rest of our lives to one world concert tour, and I’m not ready for it.  Not in this lifetime, anyway.

        Fabulous!  I know I was skeptical of Sir Bob Geldof’s recent Live 8 extravaganzas, but I don’t recall being as magisterially dismissive as that.  How come, among the nine John Lennons at the Broadhurst, there’s no room for that one?  How come, indeed, it feels like one of those benefit concerts he swore he’d never give?  John Lennon’s life ended with a bullet outside his home on Central Park West twenty-five years ago and, though Don Scardino’s show is certainly freighted by the tragedy it’s working up to, it misses the point of it.  In the Sixties, Lennon famously said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ.  It’s not true and I don’t think he meant it, but a lot of people thought he did—including his murderer.  By the end, he was playing a “seminal countercultural spirit of the age” rather than being one.  It was his misfortune that not all his fans understood the difference.  In its numbing hagiography, this show makes the same mistake.

        If Lennon’s First Act finale reminds you of Hair with its clothes on, why settle for a dull Xerox of the era when you can experience the true awfulness?  To bring to a close George C.  Wolfe’s tenure at the Public Theatre, this year’s “Shakespeare in the Park” decided to revive (at the Delacorte) Two Gentlemen of Verona—not the version by Wm.  Shakespeare, but the rock musical with a score by the Hair composer Galt MacDermott.  The Hair piece had its moments, but Verona exposed MacDermott’s limitations as a writer of that thin gruel, “theatre rock.” His lyricist on this occasion was John Guare, whose verses struggle hard for the same century-hopping Manhattan wiseacre sensibility Lorenz Hart brought to an earlier Shakespearean musical, The Boys from Syracuse, or to his Mark Twain adaptation, A Connecticut Yankee.  He doesn’t quite manage it: “You’ve rent my heart, and you control it/ If this is rent control, then I extol it.”

        Perhaps, like all the other dated Shakespearean rock musicals, this sounded groovy in its day (1971).  Kathleen Marshall, a very talented director-choreographer who drew the short straw here, does her best to evoke the era, but does it so well you wonder why anyone would want to evoke it in the first place.  She stages the thing on a day-glo polka-dotted blob that looks like a set for the catsuited dance troupe’s number on an ancient variety show.  When he turned Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story, Arthur Laurents consciously avoided 1950s New York gang slang because he knew nothing dates faster than the up-to-the-minute cutting-edge.  Instead, he largely invented the gangspeak, which helps give West Side its own functioning internal reality.  By contrast, Verona is like reading an English-language brochure from a Romanian tourist resort and coming to the conclusion it would have been clearer to leave it in the original.  All those earnest types who say we need to make Shakespeare “relevant” should be made to sit through this: the clumps of original Bard are less impenetrable than the ersatz-hipster rewrites.

        So why revive the unrevivable?  Here’s a clue: the Duke of Milan is campaigning for “re-election” on a promise “to bring the boys back home.” I think we’re meant to see this as a devastating satire on today’s warmongers, though, if memory serves, George W.  Bush campaigned on a platform of not bringing the boys back home, and it was Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich who took the Duke of Milan’s line, with John Kerry falling somewhere in between, according to what day it was.  But why split hairs with the guy who wrote Hair?  A savage indictment of Nixon, a savage indictment of Bush, what’s the diff?  Whether or not Iraq is Vietnam redux, between Verona and Lennon Broadway certainly is.


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