Paul McCartney has announced that, at the age of 77, he is writing his first musical – a stage adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a holiday evergreen in which Jimmy Stewart plays a man disappointed with his life who gets to see what the world would be like had he never been born.
While McCartney didn’t say where or when the musical would be produced, it’s reasonable to assume that it might wind up on Broadway. This seems especially true since the show’s producer is Bill Kenright and McCartney’s main collaborator is Lee Hall. Kenright is the Tony-winning producer of more than a dozen shows on Broadway, including the innovative original musical “Passing Strange.” Hall, who will write the book and be McCartney’s co-lyricist for “It’s A Wonderful Life” is the Tony-winning book writer and lyricist of “Billy Elliot,” as well as the screenwriter for the original movie. He also wrote the Broadway plays “The Pitmen Painters” in 2010 and “Network,” which finished its run last month (as well as the screenplay for “Rocketman.”)
Meanwhile, “Yesterday,” a current movie, purports to show us what the world would be like if the Beatles had never existed. The premise presents promise: A world-wide 12-minute electrical storm has blacked out memory of the band or their songs for all but a handful of people, including a young singer-songwriter, Singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who pretends the songs are his own. There are a handful of good jokes, most of which were revealed in the trailer
But “Yesterday” quickly turns into a routine romantic comedy with a clichéd, not completely coherent and somewhat hypocritical message about the perils of fame. It becomes clear what this movie is really about when you learn that the producers paid $10 million for 17 songs from the Beatles catalogue. The unalloyed joy that might come from hearing such a lovely and familiar soundtrack in a movie house, even just of covers, soured for me during a late exploitative scene in which Jack visits a still-living John Lennon (portrayed by a Lennon lookalike), residing simply, singly and anonymously in a seaside cottage. After that, “Yesterday” felt insufferable.
The approach of this mediocre movie is analogous to the three shows that are most commonly associated with the Beatles on Broadway. All three were tribute concerts by musicians with a waxy resemblance to the original Fab Four: “Beatlemania,” which ran for more than 1,000 performances starting in 1977; “Rain,” which ran for 300 performances starting in 2010; and “Let It Be,” which ran for 46 performances in 2013. The producers of “Rain” sued “Let It Be,” hilariously, for copyright infringement. “Rain” threatened to return this week as part of the “Residence on Broadway” series at the Lunt-Fontanne, but was canceled. There was also a show “Lennon,” which lasted for six weeks in 2005.
The problem with these tribute shows, as I wrote in my nearly identifical reviews of Rain and Let It Be, is that they lacked all three qualities in which the Beatles’ appeal resided — energy, wit, and originality.
We live in an era on Broadway where bio jukebox musicals about singers and/or songwriters have become a standard genre, and pop composers as varied as Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles and Anais Mitchell have created Broadway hits with original scores. Isn’t it at the very least odd, and disappointing, that the members of the most revered rock n roll band of the 20th century – the authors of such storytelling songs as Eleanor Rigby, Norwegian Wood, Rocky Raccoon, the entire Sergeant Pepper album – have been presented on Broadway like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum with audio?
It didn’t have to be this way. The evidence is in the ways, other than tribute shows, that members of the Beatles have been represented on Broadway.
George Harrison’s songs have appeared in six Broadway shows, starting in 1970 with “Paul Sills Story Theater,” a collection of Grimm fairy tales re-created as folk-rock fables, which featured Harrison’s song “Here Comes The Sun”
At the age of 28 (while he was still a Beatle), John Lennon wrote a brief sketch for Kenneth Tynan’s erotic revue “Oh! Calcutta!” The show was a huge hit. It opened in 1969, ran for three years, and then was revived in 1976 and ran for another 13 years. Lennon’s contribution is entitled “Four in Hand” and it is about – ready for this – four men masturbating together. They use “a telepathic thought transmitter” to project what they’re fantasizing about on the screen. Newcomer George (!) fantasizes about the Lone Ranger, which irritates the other three.
Cheeky and homoerotic, the sketch reveals a characteristic irreverence that some fans – and the entertainment entrepreneur who cater to them – seem to have lost sight of.
Maybe 50 years later, Paul McCartney will bring to Broadway some of the originality, tunefulness and wit that is the right way to associate the Beatles with Broadway.