When Yoko Ono was presented with the idea for a Broadway musical about the life of her late husband, John Lennon, her first question was: Who will play him? She knew that finding the right actor to portray one of the world's most famous music and pop culture icons might prove a herculean task. But Don Scardino had an unlikely answer for Lennon's widow, the keeper of his flame: If one actor couldn't capture the spirit of the inimitable, complicated and charismatic man without resorting to rote impersonation, how about nine of them?
Ono loved the idea.
"John always said, 'We're all One.' So if we're all One, why can't we all play John? Why can't a woman play him? Why can't a black man play him, an old man play him, a young man play him?" enthuses Scardino, the show's writer and director and a rabid Beatles and John Lennon fan since his teenage years. "So that's what I did. I cast an ensemble and said, 'At some point, each one of you will be the voice of John.'"
So in Scardino's new musical, Lennon, which began performances this month at the Broadhurst Theatre after a spring tryout in San Francisco, the silver-haired, veteran theatre thesp Terrence Mann portrays John Lennon during the couple's famed Bed-In, urging Americans to "Give Peace a Chance." African-American actor Michael Potts plays Lennon singing the song "God." Actress Mandy Gonzalez imagines him in his Beatles days. To give the show an emotional center, actor Will Chase functions as "the narrator John" who is woven throughout the show. "We keep coming back to him. This way, the audience has a guy to hang [its] hat on," says Scardino.
Through 27 songs, including "Instant Karma," "Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance" and two previously unpublished works, all culled mostly from his solo career, Lennon tells the story of the legendary former Beatle through the major events of his life.
Scardino, who attended the Beatles' famous Shea Stadium concert in 1965, wanted the musical to feel like a John Lennon concert, with the audience connecting to the icon through his own intimately personal song lyrics, which sprouted from the singer's decision to turn his life into art. "John was a musical diarist," explains Scardino. "He wrote confessional songs that told the emotional story of his life in an active way and in a way that we expect as theatre audiences. They move the story forward. Like musical songs do."
Lennon takes the audience through the many evolutions and identities of this complicated and compassionate genius: abandoned child, gifted artist, rock 'n' roll icon, peace activist, introspective songwriter, former Beatle, and loving husband and father. "He kept having his consciousness shaped and re-shaped," muses Scardino. "He was constantly looking for answers. He is the perfect embodiment of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. He kept examining and looking deeper and deeper into his soul, into his heart."
Scardino, with full support from Ono, sought to avoid a whitewash of Lennon's life. His widow even insisted that Scardino keep a scene about a tryst John had that led to the couple's brief separation in the early 1970's. "It was very crucial to their breakup at that point," he says. "And it was a true story that had been observed by many people. She told me, 'Yes, you should include it,' even though I had shied away from it."
Ono asserts that her late husband would have wanted both the good and bad parts of his life's journey up on the stage. "John made the choice to [live in the spotlight] and did it well," she says. "He laid his life on [the] line to be so honest about himself and so truthful about the society he lived in. He was driven and obsessed to speak out the truth. That was him."
Yoko-philes won't get any grist for the gossip mill out of Lennon's cast and creative team. "She has been so supportive," says Scardino. "She came to one or two rehearsals and then to the run-through before we left town. Her notes were minimal but important because she lived it. She was there. She is a brilliant person, so I always pay attention when she opens her mouth."
Ono herself believes John would have loved the show and would have relished being on Broadway. "I think he would have been delighted. He liked this kind of a play that pushed the envelope a bit further. A quiet revolution in the form of a musical."