The Beatles on Broadway: From John Lennon at 28…… to Paul McCartney at 80?

Paul McCartney’s planned new musical wouldn’t be the first time an actual Beatle created something original for Broadway. But it would be wonderful.

Three years ago, McCartney announced he was 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.

The show seemed likely to wind up on Broadway, considering the credentials of his collaborators: book writer and co-lyricist Lee Hall (Tony winner for “Billy Elliot”; Network); producer Bill Kenwright (Tony-winner for “A Doll’s House” revival; “Passing Strange.”) There was even talk at the time of opening around Christmas, 2020.

That didn’t happen, of course — nothing opened on Broadway then — and I haven’t seen anything about the musical lately. But that doesn’t mean it’s no longer going to happen. McCartney, who turned 80 last month — he’s certainly had a wonderful life — remains prolific, as a musician, a composer, even as an author, including The Lyrics 1956 to the Present and his latest children’s book, Grandad’s Green Submarine.

Interest in anything and everything Beatles even seems to have grown. “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary on Disney+ culled from 130 hours of audio and 57 hours of video taken during the band’s recording sessions in January 1969, has just been nominated for five Emmys, and “McCartney 3,2,1,” the six-part series on Hulu, has been nominated for three.

These series are a welcome contrast to the last big “Beatles movie” — “Yesterday,” a 2019 sci-fi romantic comedy that purports to imagine how the world would react to the Beatles songs if nobody had ever heard them before. The plot has the Beatles wiped from collective memory by an electrical storm, except for a young singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who pretends the songs are his own…and becomes an international celebrity.  The producers of “Yesterday” paid $10 million for 17 songs from the Beatles catalogue.

The movie had its moments:

But it suffered from the same problem as the shows most commonly associated with the Beatles on Broadway — the tribute concerts by musicians with a waxy resemblance to the original Fab Four: “Beatlemania,” which ran on Broadway 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. There was also a show “Lennon,” which lasted for six weeks in 2005.

These shows 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.” Ringo Starr was one of the songwriters credited in “The Cher Show.”
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 entrepreneurs who cater to them – seem to have lost sight of.
Maybe 52 years later,  Paul McCartney will bring to Broadway some of the originality, tunefulness and wit that is the more authentic and satisfying way to associate the Beatles with Broadway.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply