Chapter Nine – LENNON – The Musical of the Legend (Australia 1986-87)
The story begins in Liverpool at the Everyman Theatre where director/writer Bob Eaton created a musical play about Lennon’s life, less than a year after his death. At the time Bob Eaton told the Liverpool Echo – “We have worked long and hard putting it together. We weren’t looking for Box-office success, although that is very rewarding, our real intention was to put something together that really paid homage to the man and put his life into a kind of perspective…Really this show is for the people of Liverpool. They seem to have taken it to their hearts.”
The following year, director Clare Venables brought the show to her Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and that production subsequently transferred to the Astoria Theatre in London’s West End where it won the Sunday Times Award for Best Musical and two Olivier Award nominations. It was there and then that Noel Ferrier, in his guise as ‘Executive Producer for Musical Theatre’ for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust happened to take shelter from the British weather. Finding himself unexpectedly cheering along with the rest of the audience, he decided to buy the rights to produce the show in Australia.
The first I knew of any of this, was when a small advert appeared in The Sun newspaper (Sydney) on 5th June 1986, calling for performers/musicians to audition for nine roles in the forthcoming Australian production. During the next few days, several more mentions occured in the media, particularly highlighting the search for a left-handed bassist to play the part of Paul. I had recently jammed with the excellent local cover band Beatnix, with a view to becoming their next ‘John’ or ‘George’ but I didn’t fit the bill. This musical however, sounded like something else, so I decided to throw my hat in to the ring.
At 9 a.m. on Wednesday June 18th, I am the second person to arrive outside the rooms of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Potts Point. Several TV news crews have turned up, expecting huge crowds, not realising that musicians aren’t fond of early mornings. After being interviewed by the press I go inside, fill out the obligatory forms and then proceed to Studio One. At the table sit Chris Monks (Music Director since the original production), Noel Ferrier himself, Kathleen Norris (CEO of the Trust), pianist Spud Murphy and musical consultant Peter Casey. Ushering people in and out and trying to control what has by now become a bedlam of people arriving and practising in the waiting area, is company manager Rodney Rigby.
The first few auditionees have been told that TV cameras will be rolling and if we feel that puts us off, a second tryout will be granted. I give my chart to Spud and sing I Feel Fine, complete with guitar solo. A cameraman knocks over some equipment and I just laugh while I keep on singing. Spud hands me back my chart with nice comments and he remarks, “MAGA stamp and all”, referring to the fact that at the time I belonged to the Music Arrangers Guild of Australia. Chris Monks says, “That’s right along the lines of what we are looking for…”, and I am ushered outside to await further instructions.
I have prepared some dialogue from a scene in the movie A Hard Day’s Night, but instead I am given a part of the script that I recognise as one of Lennon’s last interviews, where he talks about baking bread. Downstairs I meet director Clare Venables who has literally just flown in from England and arrived straight from the airport. After a chat, I read a few lines of the script and Clare says to tell them she wants me back for ‘the jam’ on the weekend. In passing she says I look a bit like a ‘Paul’ so I point out that I can’t play left-handed. I go home and I’m amused to see myself in the news reports on all four major TV stations. Now, armed with a bit more information about the show, I practice Cold Turkey and Sheik of Araby, because I know that those numbers are sung by ‘George’ in the show. I also confirm to myself that I really can’t play bass left-handed!
On Sunday it turns out that about forty of us have been called back for ‘the jam’. The panel calls us up in various combinations of five-to-seven players, to render endless variations of Twist and Shout. I sing one of these efforts, play guitar and bass at other times, but not ironically not drums (see later). Noel Ferrier asks me about the left-handed situation and I reiterate that it’s a no-go. Only seventeen names are called to stay for the afternoon session…”thanks, but no thanks” to the rest. Later on I knock out a guitar solo during Jealous Guy that seems to impress. Trevor White (well-known in Australia as ‘the original Jesus’ from Jesus Christ Superstar) is a fellow-traveller and as an aside, he asks me if I would do some jingle sessions for his company.
The following Friday about thirteen of us remain, but we are joined by another seven who the panel have selected at the Melbourne auditions during the week. Among those there is a young woman with long black hair named Faye who seems a certainty for ‘Yoko’, while amongst our lot, the only left-handed bass player Dave Stratton (from the Midday Show band) would seem a favourite for ‘Paul’. During the day I pull off a flashy solo during How Do You Sleep and Chris Monks good-naturedly calls me a “clever sod”. Abruptly the day is over – “…we would be proud to work with any of you…” and we are asked to tell Rodney our movements for the next 24 hours.
By the time I get home, Kathleen Norris has called and left a message. When I finally reach her she says, “It just goes to show that some good can come from getting up early on a Wednesday morning. How does ‘Paul’ sound?”. “Sounds great!”, I reply. Kathleen tells me that they also want me to be the musical equivalent of a ‘Dance Captain’ after Chris returns to England. In the theatre, a ‘Dance Captain’ is a member of the company responsible for overseeing and maintaining the artistic standards of all choreography and musical staging within a production, once the show opens and the choreographer is no longer on hand. There isn’t really a term for it in a musical sense, so from hereon in I was known as the ‘Dance Captain’, even though the only dance in the show was a bit of a slow shuffle between John & Yoko. Chris came on the phone next and I suggested that they must have decided to have me mime the left-handed bass parts. He replied, “No, you’ll be playing them…” and then indicated I would play guitar when I wasn’t being ‘Paul’. This will be interesting, I thought to myself.
Press calls would begin in August and rehearsals in September, but there was plenty of preparation to do in the meantime, in between my other gigs. During one of the auditions, the sound of a trumpet mimicking a song was heard coming from an adjacent building. Although the unseen trumpeter was just being cheeky and not really trying to attract attention, Rodney shouted that he should come over. His name was Peter Bishop and his precocious talent and ‘cockiness’ won him the part of the young John Lennon! It would become apparent later that many of the cast had personalities that matched their characters…very shrewd work by the panel. Peter had never played guitar before, so the company hired me to teach him. He didn’t have to become an expert, he just had to master the same handful of songs that I needed to play left-handed. The ‘Beatlemania’ section of the show was a only a part of John’s overall life, the rest of the story being illuminated by the use of many other Lennon compositions, sung by the nine cast members, who were:- Faye Bendrups (Yoko), Peter Bishop (Young John), George Butrumlis (Herr Koschmider/The Queen Mother), Bob Howe (Paul), Mark Jones (George), Greg Parke (Older John), Lance Strauss (Brian Epstein/Elton John), Naomi Warne (Cynthia), Trevor White (Ringo). Together we would play over 40 different characters and perform over 50 songs.
Before rehearsals could begin, we needed some authentic instruments. A requisition order had been placed with P.J.’s Soundhouse in Coogee and I was sent to check the purchases. The owner greeted me warmly like a V.I.P. and offered me a seat and cup of tea while they presented seventeen instruments for my approval. They included a Höfner 500/1 ‘violin’ bass guitar for me and a Rickenbacker 325 hollow-body electric guitar for Peter.
Peter was a very quick study and was strumming in no time. On the other-hand, I struggled incredibly trying to play left-handed. I could visualise exactly what I needed to do, but those signals just would not travel from my brain to the ‘opposite’ hands. Eventually I cajoled one finger on each hand to cooperate and I managed to play the required lines. Luckily for me, they were all early Beatles songs and not the more elaborate later tunes, which I was more than happy to play on right-handed guitar.
Rehearsals began in September with Chris Monks sharing his unique experience and shaping us in to a cohesive band. Chris showed us the points in the show where it was important to authentically reproduce the songs and where it was more important that the rendition should relate to the plot line. There was a very early scene where The Beatles didn’t have a regular drummer and Paul sat behind the kit for Twist and Shout. By no means would I call myself a drummer, but that was one beat I could play quite convincingly. Sadly, at this moment in the timeline, Paul probably wasn’t the great drummer that he later became, so I had to play badly on purpose, which was harder than you’d think, particularly from the point of view of my pride as a musician! The real drummer for the show was in fact the aforementioned Trevor White, who had first come to Australia as vocalist and drummer with the band Sounds Inc (who in an earlier line-up had supported The Beatles in Australia).
During the audition process, Chris had selected a good cross section of players and within a week the two acts of the play had started to come together (no pun intended) reasonably cohesively. When Clare returned, she had to try to elicit a dramatic performance from the group, several of whom had no prior acting experience. Her first challenge was to take a bunch of loose, laid back Aussies, used to a warm comfortable existence, and make us appear to be a young, keen gang of Brits, railing against the odds and the weather in order to reach “…the toppermost of the poppermost” (the phrase The Beatles used for their self-pep talk).
A lot was happening all at the same time; there was probably the biggest promotional push for a musical that I had seen (kudos to publicist Wendy Sherman who got us in every publication and on every television show from Sounds with Donnie Sutherland to Simon Townsend’s Wonder World), fittings for costumes and Beatle Boots were in hand, hair was being dyed (no wigs!), and late at night we would be recording a ‘cast’ album at the iconic Paradise Studios owned by Billy Field. On those sessions I would play guitar, harmonica and also sing ‘Paul’ vocals as well as some of the early ‘John’ parts.
Meanwhile across town, due to a shortage of legit theatres in Sydney, the Enmore Theatre was being refurbished. This 1910 art deco-style building had last been used as a cinema for Greek language films, but was now sadly in disrepair. It would be a challenge to restore the venue to a suitable standard for refined theatre goers (sometimes disparagingly referred to as North Shore matrons) and to entice them to a suburb that as yet, had not become the trendy centre of multiculturalism that it is today.
The Trust also ran a series of talks at the Rocks Theatre, under the banner of ‘The Magic of the Theatre’ and the first one of the 1986/87 series featured Clare talking about her stellar career running The Crucible Theatre, plus her involvement in LENNON. I was fascinated to witness Clare not only give a great lecture, but also entertaining that same ‘refined’ audience without using the colourful language that usually peppered the rehearsal room. The theatre life was quite a different experience for me, even though I was used to band camaraderie, this was something else. A cast, and the rest of a company too, really do become a family, as cliched as it sounds. Clare and Chris helped unite us as a group, all the while pushing us beyond our normal comfort zones.
The publicity continued with an official press launch at the Sheraton Hotel in Potts Point where The Beatles had stayed in 1964. We began by recreating their famous balcony wave for the cameras and then moved downstairs to the restaurant for interviews and more photo opportunities. We posed using pots and pans as substitute instruments and did an ‘Abbey Road’ walk across the nearest zebra crossing. As well as Noel Ferrier and rock-historian Glenn A. Baker, other notable personalities in attendance included Lloyd Ravenscroft who had been tour manger for The Beatles in Australia and New Zealand and also (possibly, my memory is a little hazy here) Brian Epstein’s secretary Barbara O’Donnell.
We also made a preemptive publicity trip to Brisbane and rode in a gold Rolls Royce convertible as part of the Warana Parade through the city. Not having our Beatle costumes at this point, four of us appeared in leathers (as the Hamburg-era Beatles) which must have confused the onlookers who lined the streets, because following behind us were the disc jockeys from Radio 104 FM in a Yellow Submarine and full Sgt. Pepper outfits!
Back in Sydney, we finally ‘bumped in’ to the Enmore Theatre to find a fabulous set designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell, brilliant lighting by Peter Neufeld and mighty sound by John Scandett and Colin Ford of ‘System Sound’. In order for the sound mixer to have complete control over the volume levels of the music – necessary so that sometimes the music could be faded to allow for dialogue to be heard – our amplifiers were housed in a sealed annex in one of the lofts backstage. This also gave us more room on the stage, with our guitars just plugged in to small D.I. boxes that connected to the amp room by a lot of hidden wiring. At some point, a ladder was discovered that led to the back doorway of a ‘royal box’. It was decided that when our Lennon would deliver the infamous ‘rattle your jewellery’ line, George Butrumlis would lean out of the box dressed as the Queen Mother and titter at John’s audacity. While George B. must have dreaded the costume change and the climb (‘eight shows a week’) for such a momentary scene, in practice it became one of the biggest laughs in the show, every single night. The script was also altered to emphasise Lennon’s last concert appearance in 1974, onstage with Elton John at Madison Square Garden which also marked Lennon’s reunion with Yoko Ono after his ‘lost weekend’. Cast member Lance Strauss had the looks and ability to recreate the persona of Elton John and that too, became a highlight of our show. In a press interview, Lance remarked that after LENNON, for him a one-man Elton John show could be a possibility!
The pressure for everything to be ready for opening night was now mounting and finally on Thursday 16th October 1986, the game was on! Well, eventually…the temperamental electrics of the old theatre delayed the opening so long, that Clare took to the stage to make an apologetic speech to calm the packed crowd. Then suddenly, as if someone had just found a shilling for the meter, the lights were up and the show began with baby Lennon’s cot centre-stage. We rattled through the performance, more comfortable with the songs than with the dialogue. As the first half closed with All You Need Is Love, we danced up the aisles in our hippy outfits and spilled out on to Enmore Road, startling passers-by, and then dashed down the alley at the side of the theatre to re-enter via the Stage Door. Before we knew it, we were back onstage to the fanfare of Peter’s trumpet and Greg’s saxophone heralding a Magical Mystery Tour to begin Act Two. The Beatles broke up, Lennon went solo, and the story moved towards the inevitable tragic ending and a moving rendition of Imagine.
We had done it! Lots of hugs and back-slapping and off to the party. Amongst my backstage telegrams was one from my Mum (who was in the audience) saying “The loudest cheer will be mine” and Noel sent me a present with a card that read, “Dear Bob, You are far more entertaining than Paul himself. Many Thanks, Noel”. A ridiculous thought, but a lovely sentiment.
Television reports on the opening were largely favourable but the print-media response epitomised the term ‘mixed reviews’. They ranged from glowing to scathing, often praising particular cast members but criticising everything from the writing to the venue and even the subject matter. To add some context, this was in the era before ‘jukebox musicals’ became an accepted form (think Buddy, Mamma Mia) and while the Enmore Theatre may not have seen too many more plays, it has since become a major venue for rock bands and comedy shows.
Undeterred we played on to the delight of all of the audiences, but not to full houses which must have set off alarm bells, particularly at the Trust who had by now reportedly spent half-a-million dollars on the production and another half-a-million on the renovations of the theatre! Promotion of the show also continued; the Daily Mirror’s Mirror Woman section featured a story on Naomi Warne who played John’s first wife Cynthia, and Faye who played Yoko Ono, while gossip columns ran stories on Peter attracting so much female attention he needed a guard.
We posed with an amazing cake of John’s face to celebrate what would have been his 46th birthday, although to actually cut the cake seemed too macabre. A publicity gig was organised on top of the iconic Coca-Cola sign in Kings Cross, a nod to The Beatles last live performance on the rooftop of the Apple building, but bad weather forced a last-minute relocation to the hotel below. In the end, the only similarity between the two gigs was that the police arrived to shut us down as well, due to the lack of a permit. We eventually closed at the Enmore on November 22nd, but alternative venues were being sourced to fill the time leading up to our next season in January.
A week later the The First Earth Run came to Sydney and the ‘Torch of Peace’, which eventually visited through 62 countries, was passed on during a ‘Peace Vigil’ at Martin Place in the Sydney CBD. The Rev. Ted Noffs led an Interfaith Service and after a choir of 50 children and several speakers, we closed the formal part of the show by appropriately leading everyone in a stirring rendition of Give Peace A Chance. It was a remarkable sound to hear all those voices echoing around the city skyscrapers. Later in the evening, we performed a few more numbers, including a song I had written especially, a political protest number called Blues for Bonzo (the title a reference to U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his former movie career). Even later in the evening I walked around the corner to the City Tattersalls Club to play onstage my friend Donna Fisk who was visiting from Melbourne. I ended up playing her next two gigs as well before heading to Newcastle the day afterwards.
We had more Lennon shows to come, but the Enmore Theatre run holds a special place in my memories. It was where our production started and where the cast, crew, wardrobe – everyone came together with a common goal, amid the grungy atmosphere of the partly restored venue. Personally I felt the challenge every performance to sing, act and play instruments (some less familiar to me than others) and it was completely fulfilling. Looking back now, it was also a turning point for me, in some ways peaking as a guitar player but then growing more as a performer. I learned to embrace stillness when I was left alone onstage during the break-up scene, noodling The Long And Winding Road on the grand piano and then singing a poignant You Never Give Me Your Money. Later, I learned to milk a laugh with some facial mugging as ‘John’ had me try the bread he had baked in New York apartment.
I particularly remember one warm-up session at the Enmore. An hour before the show the sound system was always turned on for us, so that we could play our instruments on stage. Understudies Jeremy Cook on drums and Paul Smyth on piano were laying down a funky two-chord vamp, with Mark Jones holding down the bass line. Peter and I started improvising trumpet and guitar over the top, in our minds channelling Miles Davis and John McLaughlin. As we soloed over the groove and moved in to a ‘call and response’ duel, I felt the euphoria of improvising ‘outside’ the music, moving into a mystical realm where the rules don’t apply and the spirit flies free. A rare and elusive moment and one to treasure.
Back to earth and the show was off to Newcastle, 162 km (101 miles) north of Sydney, for an eight show run at the Civic Theatre. The first two days were radio and television publicity including meeting the Mayor, another balcony wave, and being driven around the streets in our Beatle suits, surprising unsuspecting pedestrians. As a cast band, we also played a late spot at the colourful Fanny’s nightclub where we let our ‘musical’ hair down. That season was over in a flash and after one day off (during which I snuck in a gig at Fairfield RSL Club with Anne Kirkpatrick) the ‘Fab Five’ flew to Brisbane for more radio, television and press interviews at the appropriately, but coincidentally named Lennons Hotel. Girls chased us down the city streets, but they were most likely planted by the publicity machine! On our return to Sydney we made an ill-fated move in to Bankstown Sports Club, designed to keep us busy until Christmas. We were all under contract, so it was prudent for the company to keep us working, but this was an unfortunate end to the year. Although the club was, and is an excellent venue, it was a difficult task to fit a show of our size in to a space smaller than we were used to and the audience was less than receptive to the dramatic sections of the show. It was only six shows, but we went in to the Christmas break feeling a bit flat. During the NSW season we had completed 56 performances in front of 23,471 attendees (source: AETT Annual Report).
Arriving in Brisbane on a stormy Sunday, 4th January 1987, I settled in to a flat I had rented in Bowen Terrace, New Farm, beneath the Story Bridge. The next day we all signed in at the magnificent Queensland Performing Arts Centre in South Brisbane. We were shocked to learn that Peter Bishop had decided not to continue with the show. Understudy Jeremy Stanford had flown in from his hometown of Melbourne to take over the role and he did a fabulous job at incredibly short notice. We were playing in the 2,000 seat Lyric Theatre, which was far more luxurious than anything we had experienced to date. The other contrast was the press reaction and attendance numbers that were almost unanimously positive from the start.
Most days I would exercise by leaving my flat and climbing the staircase up on to the Story Bridge and walking across the Brisbane River and back, listening to Paul Young or Eurythmics in my headphones. Later I would catch a bus that would drop me outside the QPAC complex. One night after the show, I was waiting for the bus home as audience members were leaving the car park. Someone waved at me and I waved back. Someone else waved at me and again I responded, thinking how remarkable but nice it was that they recognised me out of costume. The third car seemed to be pointing more than waving and I turned around to find a giant possum practically peering over my shoulder and attracting all the attention. So much for fame.
A week after we began we played a promotional gig in King George Square (where years before I had performed on a Reg Lindsay television show) which was a blast. A couple of days later we were invited to audition individually at QPAC for a forthcoming production of Les Misérables. Having now been bitten by the theatrical bug, I decided to have a go and sang my best rendition of Paul’s Yesterday, for which Peter Casey kindly sat in on the piano. Several of us auditioned, but to my knowledge, Lance was the only successful candidate and later he went on to star in the show. One of our days off happily coincided with a Eurythmics concert in Brisbane and many of us took the train out to the Entertainment Centre to see the show. Listening to their albums every day obviously made me predisposed to enjoying the night, but even so, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart and the band were in full force and it was one of the most memorable concerts I ever attended.
A short while earlier, Frank Ifield had called me to ask what I was doing in the middle of the year, because he wanted me to do an English ‘Summer Season’ with him in Blackpool. I had to decline, explaining that I was contracted to a theatre show that was “moving from Sydney to Brisbane, then to the other capital cities and beyond”. I should have felt Déjà Vu as I spoke those words (‘Elvis – The Musical’ 1981), but I didn’t. Now, only a few weeks later, the company got the sudden news that, despite our current success and the addition of an extra week to the Brisbane run, we would not be going to Melbourne, or anywhere else. The cost of staging the show in Melbourne was not sustainable, particularly after the losses in Sydney.
We soldiered onward to solid finale and on the second last night we had a special concert that would prove a fitting farewell. The staff of the theatre, friends of the company and associates, were invited to a one-off late-night show, after the usual Friday performance. With full technical production by the crew, we performed a selection of cover songs and a few originals and we raised the roof. In darkness, the full company opened with Mark leading Talking Heads Road To Nowhere and the lights erupted when the band begin to play. We all had a chance to shine and I enjoyed singing Norwegian Wood with Greg on flute, and Faye joined me in a rendition of B.B. King’s How Blue Can You Get. Greg kindly let me play one of his saxophones and taught me some basic harmony lines so we could play as a section on a couple of songs and finally, Lance led us out with The Doobie Brothers’ Taking It To The Streets which had the audience out of their seats and rocking.
We all had to front up the next day for the final matinee and the last evening performance on February 7th, but we already felt we’d had our big send-off. At the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane we had completed 32 performances in front of 21,065 attendees (source: AETT Annual Reports). As if to close the book, the cast album we recorded was released on Big Time Records (vinyl and cassette) and sank without a trace. We packed up and headed home, vowing we would see each other again. Much to my surprise, we did…