PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lennon: A Musical Everyman Plays On

Can we really be 40 years down the road from that day at Shea when The Beatles played their gigantic landmark concert? Incredibly, we can—and on Aug. 14, the day before that anniversary, one of their number made a beachhead on Broadway, and the beat went on.

Yoko Ono Lennon; Chad Kimball; Will Chase; Charlotte D'Amboise & Terrence Mann; Michael Potts; Julia Murney; Don Scardino; Roberta Flack & Rev. Al Sharpton; Liza Minnelli; Grace Hightower; Paul Shaffer; Geraldo Rivera; Phyllis Newman (left) & Amanda Green
Yoko Ono Lennon; Chad Kimball; Will Chase; Charlotte D'Amboise & Terrence Mann; Michael Potts; Julia Murney; Don Scardino; Roberta Flack & Rev. Al Sharpton; Liza Minnelli; Grace Hightower; Paul Shaffer; Geraldo Rivera; Phyllis Newman (left) & Amanda Green (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

Posthumously. John Lennon has a lingering afterlife in the minds of most people since so much of his life was put into music. Lennon, at the Broadhurst, is a celebration of both.

And when the show had run its 27-song course, Yoko Ono Lennon—his widow and the keeper of his forest fire—was ushered to the stage where she joined the ensemble of nine, jubilantly boogying out the curtain call to the timeless tune of "Give Peace a Chance."

What he was saying, she noted later at the after-party, is timeless, as applicable to George W.'s reign as it was to Nixon's. "His words have real resonance today," she said. "I'm happy about that"—and, yes, she can see him at the barricade fighting the good fight.

Not that this portrait of her husband is exactly wart-free. There's a portion in the show that owns up to the bad patch of their marital road, but she had no problem permitting it to be presented. "I wasn't being brave," she admitted. "It was just better for the drama."

She particularly enjoyed the multi-charactered depiction of Lennon. The entire ensemble gets a shot at showing the many sides of the man (when they're not portraying the many bold-face names that surrounded him), but, for the most part, four actors carry the Lennon load— Chad Kimball, Will Chase, Terrence Mann and Michael Potts—lateraling the lines to each other with the greatest of ease. (It sounds much harder than it, in fact, plays.) Chase, who is finally getting around to originating a role on Broadway (or at least a fourth of it), instead of merely replacing people (a la The Full Monty, Rent and Aida), was ecstatic about his plight. "To begin a part on Broadway is one thing. For that part to be one of the musical idols I grew up with is another," he admitted. "I couldn't be happier."

Kimball was especially unfazed by spreading the role around: "We're all an ensemble, and you know when your time comes. Everybody supports everybody." In fact, his favorite moment in the show is an ensemble moment—during the song "Mother" in which everyone joins in. "You can actually hear the ensemble uniting as one on that song."

"No debate about it," said Potts, "it's so much easier to play this show—or any show, for that matter—if you are the part of a real team. We rev up each other every night. If somebody gives a song a new lick or does a line in a different way, we're over the moon."

Julia Murney, the only cast member who acquired her name from a Beatles song ("Julia" on "The Beatles," better known as "The White Album"), seconded the ensemble's esprit de corps. "My favorite moments are watching everybody else get up there and perform. The show has been phenomenally cast, and the songs are so much fun to act and sing—the kind of rock and roll songs that you reach down in your crotch for. The trick is to have to do that eight times a week."

Murney was persuaded to go blonde for the show, and Mann's silver mane (visible in the production shots) "miraculously" turned brown for the opening. In addition to Lennon, Mann runs quite a colorful gamut of greats from Winston Churchill to Queen Elizabeth II and, with nothing more than a fast tie switch, from David Frost to Mike Douglas. "We're out there working all the time," he said. "There's no dressing room time at all for us."

Mann's favorite moment is understandably conditioned by the fact that he is introducing a new Lennon song, "I Don't Want to Lose You." "It was never recorded. It was something he was going to do, but he died before he did it, so you're hearing it for the first time."

Mrs. Mann, Charlotte d'Amboise, arrived at the party late, having slaved over a hot matinee herself, replacing Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity rather than her usual Roxie Hart stint in Chicago. (Who else on Broadway is on constant star-call like that?)

Some giddy casting allows a couple of African-Americans to flit by as old guard sons of the South. Potts delights in donning a KKK hood, contending that making fun of the Klan defuses its power and terror. And Tony winner Chuck Cooper pops up as Senator Strom Thurmond. Who knew? ("And who knew he had a black mistress?" Cooper countered.)

Julie Danao-Salkin had the Yoko Ono role, and it was not the hot seat you might have imagined, she claimed. "She didn't single me out. She didn't single anybody out. She let the director deliver the notes. I have a lot of respect for her. It was an honor to play her."

That director, Don Scardino, was the fellow who came up with the unique concept of an ensemble-sided Lennon. "When I pitched the show to Yoko," he said, "one of her first questions was `Who is going to play John?' and I said, `Well, everyone.' To me, a John Lennon impersonator distances me from the subject. There's something about an actor imitating him—how he looks like him, sounds like him—that works against the material."

Scardino, in his director's notes in the Playbill, says he took his cue from something that Lennon had written in "I Am the Walrus"—namely, "I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together." A certain universal Everyman could be made of Lennon from that line, so he took this idea to his widow. "I outlined the play and told her the songs we would like, and she made the whole catalog available." Just like that, a show was born.

Lennon opted for an almost-never-done Broadway-opening slot—Sunday afternoon—and held its post-premiere party at Sardi's. The last time this particular combo was tried was believed to have been for 1976's Home Sweet Homer, in which Joan Diener and a terribly hirsute Yul Brynner starred. Its chief distinction was that it had wigmaker Paul Huntley's all-time favorite hairpiece, a complicated creation designed so Brynner could magically remove his wig and beard in one fell swoop. The show closed practically as fast.

Sunday's afternoon swelter was in full swing, but the stroll was mercifully short, directly across West 44th from the Broadhurst. Staid old Sardi's had a little surprise up its sleeve on the second floor—a radical renovation in which the bar was moved forward away from the wall and a window area was opened up, revealing a panoramic view of Shubert Alley and the theatres up and down West 44th. The spectacle screams Broadway—to tourists and theatre pros alike. Max Klinavicius, who runs the joint, took a modest bow from dreaming up the idea but declined to name the cost. "I'm still getting bills," he explained.

An interesting mix of the political and the musical, with telltale dashes of small-screen celebrity, decorated the new environs: Roberta Flack, Rev. Al Sharpton, a lookin' great Liza Minnelli with Sirius Radio's Jason Drew, Tom ("Ed") Cavanaugh, Grace Hightower, Thorsten ("All My Children") Kaye and Molly ("V.I.P.") Culver.

David Letterman's band man, Paul Shaffer, weighed in with considerable praise for the show. "I just thought it was phenomenal. It reminded me of what an influence John was—how strong an influence he was not only in popular music but in culture, and how much we miss him. He was a remarkable writer. He'd do catchy so you loved the song right away, then the second time you would hear more of it. Let's face it: the more you listen to his music, the more you hear. I'm still learning things when I hear his songs."

Shaffer threw kudos to the band John Miller hired for the occasion. "From the moment the musicians learned about this show," Miller said, "the best of them wanted in. John Lennon's music is so primal to all of them, and they sincerely wanted a chance to play it."

Geraldo Rivera, who's depicted in the show fleeting by a mustachioed female, approved of the portrayal and seemed to be smiling under his own, quite real mustache. "John was a friend for ten years or so, and I was very moved by the show." (Even teared up, 'tis said.) Representing the Central Park West contingent of Lennon neighbors: Phyllis Newman and daughter Amanda Green. Both of them remember the Lennons from the 'hood. Green is writing lyrics for the musical with David Lindsay-Abaire, High Fidelity; Newman (or so she averred) is doing some "secret pornographic writing" in her room.

Ralph Nader, a friend of the Lennons since meeting them when the couple co-hosted "The Mike Douglas Show" (the episode after the one depicted in the show), was quite struck with the presentation. "You could watch it three times and see more every time," he opted. "It's quite pioneering, having all those actors play Lennon. That's hard to pull off."

Eartha Kitt was still aglow from her reception Friday at the Newport Jazz Festival. ("84,000 people just sitting there, listening to me. I was beautifully surprised. It was fantastic!") She drew raves for her recent gig at Cafe Carlyle and is currently in negotiations for another. "I'm hoping we can come to terrrrrrms," purred Eartha.

Almost every word in the show is Lennon's. The main exception was a moving monologue Scardino did for the show's close—for the cop who arrived at The Dakota two minutes after Lennon was shot. It's customary in such situations to ask a victim elemental questions to orient them, and, when he asked Lennon if he knew who he was, the answer was "Yeah." It was Lennon's last word and, fittingly, a positive one. The beat goes on.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)