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(The original version of this review of Willy Russell's play was written in November 1985 and published in Good Day Sunshine magazine #31, February 1986.)
At long last, America (or a small part of it, at least) has finally had a chance to enjoy a production of John, Paul, George, Ringo... & Bert. This play by Willy Russell opened in Liverpool and then London more than eleven years ago. For three weeks in November, 1985, performances were given at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) campus. Parts were open to theater students, music majors and general students as well. It was an ambitious production, running three hours and combining theater, music and dance. Judging by the enthusiastic response from the sell-out crowds, the show was a hit, appealing not only to fans of the Beatles, but to general audiences as well.
You probably know something about the first four guys in the title, but who is this Bert character? Bert McGhee shows up early at a Wings concert, but his imagination has gone wild. He assures us that even though the posters say Wings, none other than the B! E! A! T! L! E! S! will be performing tonight. You see, Bert is a fanatic, the Beatles' number one fan by his own reckoning. But you'll never hear him make ridiculous claims like, "I once had a mate whose brother's milkman was bitten by a dog that had pups by the mongrel that lived in the kennel next door to the woman that once served in a sweet shop that once sold a lolly ice to Ringo Starr." Oh no, he doesn't need too, because Bert WAS a Beatle - in the beginning, when he would scrape out his three chords with the Quarry Men. Unfortunately, the axe fell when he was caught playing A minor when he was supposed to be playing G7. He knew he was musically inferior - after all, Lennon knew four chords!
A kid in full punk get-up asks Bert for money to see a group of punk rockers. Bert refuses, and tells the kid that he's already in the right place to see a REAL band, the Beatles, and would gladly lend him money for that. The kid laughs at the mention of the old-fashioned group - he remembers his grandfather talking about them. When Bert produces an early photo of the group, the kid is surprised to see how much they look like his punk group. Now his curiosity is aroused and Bert takes the kid back in time, to 1958, to the Casbah, to lead him on the amazing trip through Beatle history.
Along the way most of the highlights are presented - going to Hamburg, signing with Brian, securing a record contract, sacking Pete, playing for royalty, conquering America. Then we get a look at the "more popular than Jesus" episode, the Sgt. Pepper era and Brian's death, the formation of Apple and the falling apart of the group.
Supporting the basic Beatle story was a wealth of detail that a knowledgeable fan would appreciate. There's the Jacaranda, Alan Williams' van, shoplifting in Holland, the NEMS record store, and Ringo at Butlin's Holiday Camp. We hear about a man on a flaming pie, and the toppermost of the poppermost. Paul's father works at the cotton exchange, Pete won't comb his hair down and Stu can't play his bass. The four Beatle actors had the Dezo Hoffmann poses down pat, and also the Hard Day's Night "bit in the field" romp.
I am anything but a qualified theater critic, but anybody could see the acting, music, dance - and whole production - were of a very high standard. I'd call it "vibrant." The Beatle actors were reasonable look-alikes and their clothes very authentic for the different Beatle phases. Ringo's character does triple duty, begging first to play Stuart Sutcliffe, and then Pete Best. When he sneaks onstage for these roles, the other Beatles demand to know what he's doing there: "It's 1959! Ringo's not even been invented yet!" But Ringo pleads that 1962 is a long way off, and there's nothing much to do backstage, so they let him.
The costumes of the rest of the cast had to be seen to be believed. They were bizarre, in keeping with the fantasy element of the story, and generally hilarious. (A Baltimore newspaper described them as "colorful paper-doll half costumes.") On the negative side, John's post-fame character seemed to go overboard with anger, agitation and anguish. I'm sure we have film and interview tapes documenting a humorous, friendly and happy side. My biggest complaint was the unnecessary amount of vulgar material thrown in the play.
The music was provided by a 4-member band (non-look-alike) positioned behind the action. At times, one or more of the Beatles or other cast members would take over the vocal. Songs were often selected for their message content, not for consistency with the era or performer. Thus we have Brian singing "Anytime At All" to declare his dedication to the Beatles, and Ringo singing "Good Day Sunshine" after the Parlophone contract is secured. On their first U.S. visit, the Beatles bow out of the British Embassy bash to the tune of "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party." Brian's "I Need You" is directed at the Beatles after they have given up touring, and John gives a solo "Yesterday" after their manager's death. Bert, himself, sings "I'm A Loser" after the Beatles' breakup. "They were a group in a million, my friend. I should have known they would win in the end..."
Memorable scenes were numerous - a monologue from Brian outside a Cavern which surged and throbbed with human life to an insistent bass-drum heartbeat; the Hamburg experience represented by a reincarnated Hitler sentencing the "Enklish Peetles" to hard labor in "vonderful, vonderful" Germany; a southern minister preaching unto us that "the Devil walks in our city, and his name is John Lennon!"; a machine-gun wielding Allen Klein terrorizing the Apple rippers-offer into putting their apples back in the basket. The play was updated to include a heart-wrenching impression of John's murder, after which Bert traces the corpse's body in chalk on the pavement while the real Beatles are heard playing "A Day In The Life". I read the news today, oh boy...
At this point Bert finally wakes up to the fact that there are no more Beatles. The kid tries to console Bert and asks him if he wants to see the punk band. "They're great, y'know."
It dawns on Bert - this is the same thing he tried to tell everybody about the Beatles when he was 14. "But they wouldn't listen." He offers the kid a single, but declines the invitation. Still, he determines not to make the same mistake. "You say they're great, ok, they're great. I hope they're so good that in 20 years' time they're still talking about them!"
The kid explodes: "What for!? What do I wanna be talkin' about a group for in 20 years' time, anyway? It's just a band ya go and watch! It's only bleedin' music, innit?"
The kid calms down and tries again to get Bert to come. But again Bert declines, saying he belongs in the past - and the band plays "Let It Be". But surely this can't be the way to end a show about a group that has given so much happiness to the world, can it? Nope, the band cranks up a rip-roaring reprise of "A Hard Day's Night" while the Beatles take one more romp in the field.
That was the extent of my review in Good Day Sunshine. Here's a little background on the play. The director Sam McCready managed to get permission for the songs he wanted from ATV "in the nick of time" - just before they were sold to Michael Jackson. (I don't understand why, but somehow Jackson owning the songs makes it less likely it will play again any time soon.) The director also had a tough time "chasing up" the play since it was never published. He finally "got it in manuscript in a pretty dreadful state", although he viewed that as "exciting". He said, "So, in a sense, we're still dealing with a relatively new, fresh piece of work."
A funny little anecdote relates to a picture of the main characters that ran in some local papers. It must have been captioned by someone with just enough Beatle knowledge to be dangerous. After an "obvious" typo was corrected, the caption read, "John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Best". (My italics.)
No need to take my word alone about the play; here are some excerpts from published reviews.
"Director Sam McCready has been hailed as a top figure in the world of drama since he arrived from Ireland. Also receiving top acclaim from critics are: the set design, which is under the direction of Gavin Holmes who has worked with over 200 rock and popular music groups including Queen, Kiss... and Elvis Presley; the costume design...; and the choreography." (Retriever, Nov 5 1985)
"The entire production is top-notch and well worth seeing... It is the better than excellent UMBC actors, musicians, and dancers that make the play work... All the dancing in the world would be useless if the music wasn't good, but here it is very good. So good in fact, that you might want to go just to hear the band." (Retriever, Nov 12 1985)
"Sam McCready and his incomparable UMBC crew are at it again... The show features an on-stage band performing a couple dozen Beatles songs as part of a fantasy flashback on the part of one Bert McGhee, a superfan who claims to have played rhythm guitar for the group for one gig in their early Liverpool days. Amazingly, the band sounds pretty good, even to an unregenerate Beatles lover who cringes at most non-Beatle renditions of Beatle material. Better still, McCready uses a large chorus of singers and dancers to create what might be described as an old-fashioned happening, a joyous swirl of music and slide projections and movement and emotion. It is, without a doubt, a crowd pleaser." (Baltimore News American, Nov 13 1985)
"As a play, Willy Russell's John, Paul, George, Ringo... & Bert is certainly not Hamlet. But as a stage show at UMBC, where this British "Beatles musical" is getting its American debut, it turns out to be, well, a smashing entertainment. Filled with youthful spirit, creditable musicianship and professional stage savvy, this show goes well beyond the scope of most college theater... Thanks largely to the unique and complimentary talents of UMBC's current crop of directors and designers, John, Paul, George, Ringo... & Bert has all the elements essential to any evocation of the Beatles: energy, drive and imagination... McCready's actors are clearly giving 100% of themselves here, with none of the crippling self-consciousness associated with student performances." (Arbutus Times, Nov 13 1985)
"John, Paul, George, Ringo... & Bert, a wryly satirical musical saga of the Beatles' rise from obscurity in Liverpool to world super-stardom, is making its debut in UMBC's nifty little theater - and is nothing short of marvelous. Under the brilliantly innovative directorial hand of Sam McCready, the excellent all-student cast soars to professional heights... The timing is flawless, and the pace never lets down... Ron Bopst is outstanding as Bert, the Beatle that never was, and John Wellman is top-notch as a musical caricature of Hitler and a revivalist minister." (Baltimore Evening Sun, Nov 14 1985.)
Here are my transcriptions of 3 great scenes from the play. UMBC graciously lent me the videotape of the play when I asked some years later. From that, I made an audio tape. Listening to it all these years later (in 2000) still makes me laugh my head off in many spots, and brings tears to my eyes in others - it's that powerful. But I should warn anyone who craves to see the videotape that, as is always the case with videotaped plays, it doesn't do the original justice at all. I'd say it gives about a 5% experience. I have the advantage of having seen the play live three times, so even the audio tape fires up vivid mental images.
Hitler: You might be under ze impression zat Chermany vill provide you viss lots of fame and money. Zat iss not so.
John: You're a swine.
Hitler: (shouting) Vhile you are in zis country, you vill do eksactly as ordered! Zere vill be no fame for you, but zere vill be lots and lots of hard vork!
George (cheerfully): No, it's not gonna be like that. See, we come to Germany to be made famous...
Hitler: Be qviet!
George: ...so me mum can get this gold-plated vase she's always wanted. Ya see...
Hitler: BE QVIET!!! From zis place you vill be taken to ze Indra Club, vhere you vill play every night for 8 hours!
Beatles (shocked): Eight hours???
Hitler: Vhere you vill play until your fingers bleed!
Hitler: Your vocal chords vill svell and your eyes vill close up because of ze lack of shleep!!!
Hitler: And for a dressing room ve have provided you vith vhat I tink you call ze john!
Hitler: For a hotel room ve have managed to secure ze local cinema...
Beatles (cheering): Oh, great! Yeah!
Hitler: ...but you von't be able to shleep zere, because ze films never stop running! Gut? Gut, ja??? You vill shlog out ze guts until ze blood in your veins dries up, you vill shlog and shlave ze whole day long! Zere vill be no shleeping like ze log! You vill be tired as a dog! It vill be a HARD... DAY'S... NIGHT!!!
Southern U.S. city, 1966
Congregation (sings): When the roll is called up yonder, when the roll is called up yonder, when the roll is called up yonder I'll be there.
Preacher: Oh my friends, oh my dear friends in Christ, as you walk through this city tonight, the devil walks in your sight.
Preacher: As you enter your house, and turn on the radio, the devil is ringin' in your ears.
Preacher: He loves you, yeah...
Congregation joins preacher: yeah, yeah.
Preacher: That devil, brother, he has a smile.
Preacher: And that devil, he has a loud commandin' voice.
Preacher: And that devil, he has the look of an angel.
Preacher: But do not be deceived, my friends. No. When you switch on your radio, or when you put another record on your phonograph, or when you look at another picture in a fan magazine, the devil smiles!
Preacher (voice rising): When you are looking at John - look at him, brothers and sisters - when you are looking at John Lennon you are looking at the devil himself.
Preacher: Satan, in all his glory, who has come to our city from Hell, from over the sea in Liverpool, England, to persuade our young people and ourselves to stoop to lasciviousness and sin...
Preacher: ...to fooorrrnicate with our neighbors, to lie and steal, to lead our country into the hands of the atheists...
Preacher: and the commmunists.
Preacher: And do you know what we say to that devil?
Congregation: What do we say, brother?
Preacher: Do you know what we say to Mr. John Lennon?
Congregation: What do we say?
Preacher: We say, how dare you come into our homes?
Congregation: How dare you come into our homes!
Preacher: How dare you come to our country?
Congregation: How dare you come to our country!
Preacher: Selling your wares like the scarlet whore of Babylon!
Congregation: ...of Babylon!
Preacher: How dare you try to drag our beautiful God-loving America down into the depths of your Sodom and Gomorrah?
Congregation: ...Sodom and Gomorrah!
Preacher: How dare you set yourself up to be greater than Jesus Christ!
Congregation: (gasps, cries, shouts)
Preacher: And do you know what we're gonna do with that devil?
Congregation: What do we do?!
Preacher: Do you know what we're gonna do with that blaspheeemer?
Congregation: What do we do?!
Preacher: Do you know what we're gonna do with that commmunist?
Congregation: What do we do?!
Preacher: We're gonna close our ears to them!
Congregation: Close our ears to them!
Preacher: Close our doors to them!
Congregation: Close our doors to them!
Preacher: Send them from our shores!
Congregation: Send them from our shores!
Preacher: We'll burn their buttons! their books! their records! And we will do this publicly before this beautiful congregation! We have no place for the devil and his worship! We have no place for Lennon and his 3 fallen angels, McCartney, Harrison and Starr! WE WILL DESTROY YOU! Say it with me now, brothers.
Congregation and preacher: DESTROY YOU! DESTROY YOU! DESTROY YOU!
Preacher: Hallelujah! Hooray for the Lord...
Congregation: (thoroughly worked up)
Man: Hold it! Now we gonna give you big-headed Limey bastards one hell of an ol' ass-kicking. Ah, yessir!
Woman: Ah said to mah kids, you git them filthy records outa this house n' they said don' worry mama cuz we're gonna burn them...
Congregation: (cheers) Good! Burn 'em!
Woman: ...you would not have life without Jesus, and you'd born the cross my Jesus had to bear!
Congregation: (cheers) Bless you! Bless you, sister!
Younger man: Stupid, goof Beatles! Whaddya have to go n' say something like that for? We still had another 10 million to make out of youse guys!
Liverpool dance hall, ca. 1961
The Silver Beatles play "Twist and Shout" and the power goes out suddenly. The young people people raise a cry. Things calm down. The hall manager comes out and pays the Beatles.
Paul: Hey, Mr. Uggams, there's only 3 quid here.
Manager (very thick English/Irish accent): Ya didn't play a full spot.
John: Only 'cause you switched the power off, mister!
Manager: I should bloody think I did. I've never seen bloody aught like it. Yer a bloody disgrace, the lot o' ya. In all me years in show business I've never seen anything like it. A disgusting bloody exhibition... swearin'! smokin'! eatin' while yer up on stage. Jumpin' n' shoutin'! Incitin' a bloody riot! Bloody 'ell. Where do ya think I would have got if I behaved like that when I was front vocalist in Jimmy Johnstone's Band?
Beatles (laughing): Jimmy Johnstone's band! (laugh)
John: Where'd that get you, then?
Manager: Bloody sight further than your lot'll go.
John (sarcastic): To the bottom?
Manager (smoking): (coughs)
Beatles (mimicking manager): (cough cough cough)
Manager: Wanna bit o' good advice? Will you bloody listen if I tell you something?
John (sarcastic): Oh please give us your pearls of wisdom, Mr. Manager. We're all ears.
Paul: John, shut up and listen to him.
Manager: I've seen some of the biggest in this business. I know real talent when I see it.
John: You're looking at it.
Manager: And I tell you one thing - you 'aven't got wha' it takes.
George: What changes do you suggest?
Manager: Sell your gear and get yourself a proper job. You'll only crucify yerself if you try to make it in this business, cuz you've not got wha' it takes. It might be 'arsh, but it's true.
John (sarcastic): Thanks, mister!
Beatles: (cough, cough, cough)
Paul and George actually start considering the hall manager's advice, but John rips into them. "If you want to go slodging after some potsy job every day, go and do it! But don't expect me to go with you!" Paul and George come around, and before you know it John and his mates are cheering themselves upward and onward "to the toppermost!"
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