Almost half a century after his death, Bronx-born songwriter and record producer Bert Berns, the subject of the new Off-Broadway musical “Piece of My Heart,” is getting the kind of buzz he never got during his lifetime:
“Bert deserves to be elevated to his rightful place in the music industry,” Paul McCartney is shown saying in a trailer to a forthcoming documentary about Berns, who co-wrote the song “Twist and Shout,” which the Beatles recorded.
“His name may be lost, but his music is everywhere,” writes Joel Selvin in his new biography, “Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues,” the first-ever book about Berns.
“The best songwriter you’ve never heard of,” Time Magazine recently declared.
All of this advance publicity sets up two expectations about “Piece of My Heart,” the musical that has now opened at Signature Theater. First, we’re promised a kind of solo “Jersey Boys” – a previously obscure and fascinating real-life tale of a regular guy revealed as a musical genius. Second, we anticipate a jukebox’s worth of golden oldies to sing and (since it’s Sixties music) to swing along to.
But, as it turns out, “Piece of My Heart” falls short of both implicit promises. The story as dramatized is no “Jersey Boys,” much as it tries to copy the formula. The catalogue of songs is pleasing enough, but given the recent cavalcade of similar musicals from roughly the same era (“Beautiful,” “Motown” “What’s It All About: Bacharach Reimagined” and “A Night With Janis”) it feels like something of an odd rerun.
Click on any photograph to seen it enlarged
Growing up in the Bronx, Bert Berns contracted rheumatic fever and developed such a weak heart that doctors told him that he would probably die young (in the biography probably not past 21; in the musical, not past 30.) Berns’s music career didn’t take off until he was 31, but he wrote some 50 hits in just seven years. He also was a record producer and developed his own label, mentoring Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and Jimmy Page. He died of that weak heart at age 38 in December, 1967, leaving behind a 24-year-old widow and three young children.
Two of those children, Cassandra and Brett, are listed as producers of “Piece of My Heart.” (Son Brett is also the producer and director of the forthcoming documentary.) The family commissioned the book of the musical from Daniel Goldfarb, who wrote the book for “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.”
Goldfarb kicks off the new musical with a character named Jessie (Leslie Kritzer), Berns’ (fictionally named) daughter, just an infant when he died. Jessie gets a call from a mysterious stranger, a man named Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), Bert’s old friend and former manager – who, we discover quickly, is a mobster, albeit a friendly Fonzie-like one. Wazzel wants Jessie to stop her mother, Bert’s widow Ilene, from selling Bert’s song catalogue – a whoa moment for any student of family dynamics. (Ilene Berns is still alive.) Jessie develops a three-fold mission — to fight her mother (although – not much of a spoiler alert – she eventually reconciles with her); to learn more about her father; and (much like the real-life daughter) to work to make her father famous.
Interspersed with the current-day scenes with Jessie and Wazzel and Ilene (Linda Hart) are those showing the evolution of Bert (Zak Resnick) as a songwriter and producer, and lover.
We see him in the Bronx with a guitar, paying the waitress in a diner to announce falsely that Irving Berlin is calling him, in order to impress a girl. (Would a call from Irving Berlin impress a girl from the Bronx in 1957?) We witness the rise and fall of a relationship with an African-American woman, Candace (De’Adre Aziza), whose existence seems to be entirely in order to insert the song “I Want Candy.” We see him travel to Cuba with his mobster pal Wazzel (played as a young man by Bryan Fenkart) and a soul singer friend Hoagy (portrayed by Derrick Baskin, and presumably based on Berns’s actual singer friend Hoagy Land.) There Bert befriends Carlos (Sydney James Harcourt) a man who runs a bordello and is also a Cuban revolutionary on the side. (Would a Cuban revolutionary run a whorehouse?) The dialogue reaches its nadir here (“You have a sadness that feels at one with my country’s sadness. Welcome brother.”) Cuba serves as an eye-opener for Bert musically, helping him find his voice. Having found it, he returns to New York with a stack of newly-written songs for Jerry Wexler (Mark Zeisler), co-owner of Atlantic Records, who decides to take a chance on him. The second act shows his successes in the record industry, and his falling for a go-go dancer (Young Ilene, portrayed by Teal Wicks) and marrying her. But we also witness his trials and frustrations, most of which seem to be that he’s not famous. Wexler, oddly and quite inexplicably, becomes the villain, at one point saying: “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the name Bert Berns is nothing more than a footnote.”
The plot, in short, is nothing to twist and shout about; it feels closer to a vanity project than a serious attempt to dramatize a crossroads moment in American music. Of course, a laughably weak book is in keeping with the tradition of most jukebox musicals, which are generally designed to shoehorn in as many songs as possible.
“Piece of My Heart” presents some two dozen songs. But most theatergoers will probably be familiar with only a handful of them, above all Twist and Shout, Hang on Sloopy (which I always thought was Hang On, Snoopy!) and Piece of My Heart, which Janis Joplin made one of her signature songs – and which we just heard Mary Bridget Davies sing to magnificent effect last year in the Janis Joplin biomusical. (A list of the songs in the show is below, complete with the songwriting credits; Wexler is the only of Berns’ songwriting partners who is a character in the musical.)
Is it possible to do a jukebox musical with mostly unfamiliar songs? Why not? But while these were all to some degree hits in the 1960’s, they don’t sound like hits now. There’s nothing wrong with them – many are soulful and rhythmic. But the times and musical tastes have changed. It’s harder to get that nostalgia enzyme working for a style of music rather than for specific songs you already know.
“Piece of My Heart” director and choreographer Denis Jones attempts to help us overlook these shortcomings in the conception of the musical, mostly by having hired some true pros with amazing voices whose previous performances I’ve admired. I’ll see anything Leslie Kritzer is in, although she doesn’t get to show off her wit here; De’Adre Aziza was phenomenal in Passing Strange and as a “Joplinaire” in A Night With Janis Joplin; I found Teal Wicks memorable as Elphaba in Wicked. Like the rest of the cast, Zak Resnick is an attractive performer and a talented singer. His appeal, though, is in the healthy, non-threatening way of somebody who grew up in Middletown, New York, performed giddily in Mamma Mia, and hasn’t spent five hours in his life in the Bronx – far, in other words, from the sickly, semi-dangerous Bert Berns described by Berns’ biographer as an “amiable hustler” who had a “coiled body” and a “mad Russian heart.”
The script may force Linda Hart as the older Ilene to sing a song entitled “I’ll Be A Liar.” But she gets her revenge; it’s one of the highlights of the show.
Watch the cast sing “Piece of My Heart” at the Broadway at Bryant Park lunchtime concert, July 24, 2014.
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love (B. Berns, G Wexler, S. Burke)
I’ll Take Good Care Of You (B. Berns, J. Ragovoy)
If I Didn’t Have a Dime (B. Berns, P. Medley)
Show Me Your Monkey (B. Berns, M. Leander)
I Want Candy (B. Berns, R. Feldman, R. Goettehrer, J. Goldstein)
Are You Lonely For Me, Baby (B. Berns)
Look Away (B. Berns, J Ragovoy)
Cry To Me (B. Berns)
Up in the Streets of Havana (B. Berns)
The World Is Mine (B. Berns, J. Silverman)
I’m Gonna Run Away from You (B. Berns)
Here Comes The Night (B. Berns)
Twist and Shout (B. Berns, P. Medley)
Twenty Five Miles (B. Berns, J. Bristonl, H. Fuqua, G. Wexler, C Hatcher)
Look Away (reprise)
I Got To Go Back and Watch That Little Girl Dance (B. Berns, J. Barry)
Baby Let Me Take You Home (B. Berns, W. Farrell)
My Block (B. Berns, J. Radcliffe, C. Spencer)
Hang on Sloopy (B. Berns, W Farrell)
Tell Him (B. Berns)
I’ll BE A Liar (B. Berns)
Just Like Mine (B. Berns)
I’ll Take Good Care of You (B. Berns, J. Ragovoy)
Heart Be Still (B. Berns, J. Ragovoy)
Cry Baby (B. Berns, J. Ragovoy)
Piece of My Heart (B. Berns, J. Ragovoy)
Twist and Shout
Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story
at The Pershing Square Signature Center
42nd Street and 10th Avenue
Music by Bert Berns
Book by Daniel Goldfarb
Music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Garry Sherman, music direction and additional vocal arrangements by Lon Hoyt
Directed and choreographed by Denis Jones
Scenic design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by David C. Woolard, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Carl Casella
Cast: Zak Resnick
Sydney James Harcourt
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
Tickets: $31.50 – $99.50