SAN FRANCISCO -- "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 this week before heading to Broadway in July.
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 "Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance," "Money (That's What I Want)," "Twist and Shout" and "Instant Karma." Created by writer/director Don Scardino, with a little help (and two previously unrecorded songs) from Yoko Ono, "Lennon" emerges as one of the most-buzzed about shows of the spring season and a dream come true for Beatles maniacs everywhere.
"I still can't believe this is really happening," says Scardino, during technical rehearsals at the ornate theater. "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 "Mamma Mia!" and "Tapestry," the Carole King revue at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose to "GoodVibrations," the Beach Boys musical that the New York Times called a singing headache and next season's world premiere of "Ring of Fire," the "best-of-album" revue seems to be taking over Broadway. Add to that list the Elvis musical, "All Shook Up," and the Queen musical "We Will Rock You," and the jukebox genre isn't just a trend, it's a full-scale invasion of the American musical theater.
Still, Scardino, who was among the screaming hordes greeting the Beatles at Kennedy airport back in 1964, takes pains to distinguish "Lennon" 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 Britain in 1940 to his murder in Manhattan in 1980, not just some grafted-on bubble-gum plot (like the big fat white wedding story in "Mamma Mia!").
"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. "These songs are telling the story they were meant to tell. John was like a diarist. His songs tell the story of his life."
Ono's stamp of approval
The authenticity of the "Lennon" project, which takes most of its dialogue and lyrics from the singer's actual words, seems unassailable. And Scardino has Yoko 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 much the score (not to mention idolizing the central character), which gives "Lennon" a leg up at the box office. "Yeah, everybody does love the Beatles," notes "Lennon" producer Allan McKeown, who knew the lads from Liverpool way back in the day. "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 "Mamma Mia!" That gold-plated kitsch hit made its U.S. debut in San Francisco in 2001 before taking the rest of the country by storm, thus inspiring throngs of singalong wannabes.
Maverick Broadway impresario Harold Prince, for one, dismisses it as little more than a passing fad.
"Someone has a good idea, and then everybody copies it," says Prince, the 20-time Tony winner behind hits from "West Side Story" and "Phantom of the Opera" to "Evita." "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.
"It's a demographic thing," notes Michael Miller, executive director of American Musical Theatre. "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).
"It definitely says a lot about where we are right now in our heads. It's been a tough five years for us as a country," says "Tapestry" actress Annmarie Martin. "We've got so much coming at us all the time that we don't want anything heavy when we go to the theater. We want fun."
Of course, the bigger the fan, the higher the expectations. Will a generation that spent its youth worshiping John Lennon miss the sound of his voice? Some die-hard ABBA junkies longed for the Swedish pop group's signature bubble-gum sound while sitting through "Mamma Mia!" and the New York Times noted that hearing Queen music sans the vocals of "Freddie Mercury is like a Garbo movie without Garbo."
"It's easier to turn them off than turn them on," notes Miller. "I mean it's not like you're going to be hearing John Lennon, and that's hard to overcome."
Pop and politics
But Scardino says his musical is not just about pop, it's also about politics. A child of the '60s who calls people "man" without irony, he wants theatergoers to walk away from "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.
Ono, in an e-mail interview, noted that she signed off on this project (after turning down many other pitches over the years) largely on the strength of its theatrical vision, that her late husband could and should be played by men and women of all races.
"He would be proud of that," writes Ono. "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.
"Come and see the show and you will be surprised how important it is to bring back the story of John Lennon," writes Ono. "Many people wish that John was here now to direct the world in the right direction."