by Perry Meisel
Murray the K is shlepping out old pictures of the Beatles as we sit in the plush gloom of Broadway's Winter Garden theatre, where final rehearsals for Beatlemania are under way. Murray is the show's special consultant, and it is his tenuous link to the Beatles that grants any legitimacy to this Broadway simulation. With its multimedia barrage of slides, movies, and graphics designed to evoke the '60s in conjunction with the Beatles' musical development, Beatlemania is an experience comparable to seeing Washington cross the Delaware on You Are There.
Much of the curiosity the show has generated comes from an advertising blitz in the metropolitan area, including a promotional deal with Coca-Cola that offers a reduced ticket price with every six bottlecaps you can collect. So far, the only reviews have come during the show's two-week Boston run - and they were mixed. The New York critics have been circumvented by postponing the official opening and filling commercials with audience testimonials. This, together with an iron unwillingness to expose the eight impostor-Beatles (four starters, four stand-ins) to interviews or unauthorized photographers, seems designed to protect a reported $1 million investment until the show has scored commercially.
On top of all this is the unpredictable course the Beatles' lawyers will take. "Had they been able to stop me," says producer Steve Leber, "they would've." But McCartney's attorney John Eastman says he may still act because, as he puts it, "the guy's ripped-off the Beatles' name." Performance rights to the songs themselves are not, of course, an issue, since they can be bought as a matter of course by anybody who wants to record or perform a Beatle tune. Beatlemania as a whole, however, is "totally unauthorized by the Beatles," says Eastman, who, unlike John Lennon's attorney, Michael Tannen, felt free to express how appalled he was by the entire affair.
Beatlemania is producer Leber's first Broadway fling in a career of rock and roll management that now includes Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Bobby Womack, and Elliott Murphy. Leber's original idea had been a concert version of the Beatles at the old Liverpool Cavern, but once he hired veteran stage designer Jules Fisher, it developed into a show about what editorial consultant Lynda Obst calls the "dialectical" relation between the events of the '60s and the Beatles' musical development.
There is, however, no real narrative to Beatlemania, and certainly no attempt to flesh out in any detail the personalities of the principals involved, largely because of fears about intruding on the Beatles' actual history. Each of the sound-alikes has been trained to produce the gestures that identify a particular Beatle onstage (Ringo's bobbing head, George's slew-foot dance, Paul's bent-elbow wave). It is an eerie and gruesome entertainment. What you see are walking, talking, singing Beatleoids, frequently veiled by scrim and lights. At times, this ghostliness seems deliberate, as though the production were striving for a Brechtian effect by distancing the audience. But at other times, it strains for the kind of innocence the Beatles never really possessed. The result is to keep you wondering where the intent resides.
Broadway, of course, is simulation par excellence, and the robot quality of the whole gig is what makes Beatlemania workable commercial theatre - neither too hot for straight suburbanites nor too cool for their pubescent offspring. Its manifest markets are all those kids who never saw the Beatles, and all those young parents who saw the '60s from the sidelines. But, in fact, no one ever saw the Beatles - not even those who went to Shea or the Hollywood Bowl. There never were any Beatles: they existed for all of us on records and films. These documents remain more real than any adoration of effigies can ever be.
But we have a fetish for bearing witness, and Beatlemania is playing to it. The producer even goes so far as to deprive his actors of billing, although they are mentioned in the program, together with their birthdates and marital status, in another of the production's attempts to carry the Beatle pretense as far as it will go.
Leber enlisted his sound-alikes through ads in these pages about a year ago. Open auditions yielded four young men with little theatre experience who had never played music with each other before. Joe Pecorino, who portrays John, originally auditioned for the part of Paul. "The manager of my building knew him," says Kenny Laguna, who put the boys through their first paces as Beatle simulators. "He was stripped to himself and his guitar."
Drummer Justin McNeill had been working in Top-40 groups on the Island, while George-impostor Leslie Fradkin (who had some brief success with a group called Daddy Dewdrop) once played in Beatle copy bands. "He knew Harrison's effects cold," says Laguna. "He knew everything."
Onstage, Fradkins gives the distinct impression that he is impersonating the youngest Bee Gee, Robin Gibb. McNeill appears to shrivel behind his drums, and Pecorino looks about as much like Lennon-circa -Yoko as Keith Carradine would in a Lincoln beard and army fatigues. Only Mitch Weissman, the show's first-string Paul, actually resembles a Beatle." He looked like a fat McCartney," says Laguna. Apart from the pounds he had to shed, Weissman was, by all accounts, drenched in Beatle lore. Like the other three, he had been kicking around the music business with only minimal success (his previous gig was as last-minute bassist for Dino Dannelli's group, Bulldog). His voice, though, is uncommonly strong, even if it cracks on high notes in "Yesterday," and he even manages to dredge up some of the Beatles' r&b roots when he rocks out on the vamp to "Got To Get You Into My Life."
But there is no way in the world an astute listener could mistake Weissman for Paul, although the pretense is particularly ironic in view of the real McCartney's emergence as a Beatle sound-alike in his own right. Laguna praises the sound-alikes' musicianship, which is reasonable enough under the grueling circumstances of a gig that requires Weissman and Pecorino to sing 37 songs a day, eight days a week (when you include matinees). This is a far bigger load than either Broadway or rock and roll usually demands; the sheer strain of it may lead the staff to alternate its first-stringers with the stand-ins in an attempt to keep the threat of hoarseness at bay.
But the really hard work came in deciding not just what tunes to play, but how to play them. In rehearsal the musicians listened to Beatle records and argued about what they heard. Says musical director Sandy Yaguda, formerly a member of Jay and the Americans: "Every time you listen, you hear something else."
This may be true for subtleties of counterpoint and lines buried deeply in the mix. Otherwise, the parts are textbook clear, which is exactly what makes a simulation possible in the first place. You couldn't imagine such a project with another band - not from an instrumental point of view - since what distinguishes the Beatles is the way every detail of their sound carries an invariable signature, with no room at all for filling in the dots.
As an exercise in scholarship, the show has produced a reliable interpretation of Beatle scripture, although it is also one that ultimately fails to see into the sources of their power as a rock and roll band. I missed the low, twanging strings on George's guitar and the hard edge on John's; the extra kicks on "We Can Work It Out"; the "Lady Madonna" bass line on "Nowhere Man." Hard work and concentration can reproduce harmonies, inflections, and even personal colorations, like John's nasal timbre. But, as the best white imitators of soulin' can attest, there are ways of copying the masters that evidence some real apprehension of the secrets involved.
The lack of real Beatle punch may also be due to the poor miking of the drums and the insufficient volume of the bass. Such a light mix is necessary on Broadway, where rock and roll's deadly anarchism is strictly forbidden. You simply can't expect the nightshades of "Yer Blues" from a production whose aim is to present the most reassuring profile of the Beatles possible.
But in case anybody should tell you that the Beatles were a top-heavy band, I suggest you listen to Capitol's newly released Hollywood Bowl album. Ringo's mythology has always blinded us to his prowess, which is especially evident in this live performance. As for the peregrinations of McCartney's power-puff bass, Weissman's version is merely a shadow in its overly sustained touch and lumbering walk.
The show's touted hook, though, is not its performance simulation, but the multimedia presentation that accompanies it. Multimedia may be too charged a word for anyone who remembers how devastating the best Fillmore light shows were. Although some of the visuals are striking, for the most part the screens parade a hackneyed series of ban-the-bomb badges, films of Martin Luther King's "dream" speech, and a Times Square news ticker with unlikely headlines like "Hair liberates Broadway." When the sound-alikes hit the big ascending chord on "A Day in the Life," the screen shows a rocket launching, followed by an astronaut doing the Nixon space walk. This is an analogy for "I'd love to turn you on"? This is Broadway-style metaphor-making. It goes for the sign of the thing rather than the thing itself, it represents a representation.
It was on a related theme that Fisher patiently lectured the sound-alikes at rehearsal last week, while they listened, yawned, and smirked at each other like any group of undergraduates in a drama course. Fisher was trying to get them to act their parts with a little more animation, but every time he asked them to think of some private image that might crack them up, the four starters couldn't come up with a thing. Then Fisher asked if they didn't think their present situation was funny enough. "Every time I'm up here," said Weissman, " I look out and I say, it's unbelievable!" Murmurs of assent among the impostors, then giggles, then guffaws. By the time Fisher suggested that people might soon be asking for his autograph, Weissman was rolling on the floor.
Originally published in The Village Voice, June 13, 1977