There are two ways to go about putting on a jukebox musical. You either weave a catalog of songs into an original story that has basically nothing to do with the original artists or songs themselves (see: Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages), or you use a catalog of songs as the basis of a biographical story of the original artists (see: Motown: The Musical, Million Dollar QuartetJersey Boys). Both methods have their weaknesses, of course. Not every song fits perfectly into a new book (see: Movin’ Out), and there’s a good chance audiences won’t give two snaps about the musicians whose story you’re trying to tell (see: Baby It’s You). But ultimately, if you want to use a catalog of popular songs in a musical, there’s a pretty clear roadmap you can follow.
Unless, of course, you want to use the songs of The Beatles. Then, apparently, your only choice is to completely throw out all signs of story and character and put-on a glorified concert performed by second-rate substitutes.
That’s what happened back in the late 70s, when Beatlemania began performances on Broadway. The show featured a combination of stock footage and Fab Four lookalikes, recreating the sound and frenzy of the world’s most popular boy band. Beatlemania would eventually play over 1,000 performances on Broadway, and launch simultaneous tours and productions worldwide (Los Angeles, London, Australia, Asia, Chicago, Europe, Africa, etc). Then, in 2010 the Beatlemania concept made its way back to Broadway for a limited-run, this time styled as Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles. And now again, with Let It Be, which opened last night at the St. James Theatre and runs through December 29.
Oddly, for a show built around the The Beatles, Let it Be only mentions the band by name only once – on the Playbill. (“A celebration of the music of The Beatles,” the Playbill cover reads – in color, for what it’s worth). The rest of the time, our faux-Beatles (“Featles”) are referred to as ‘Let It Be’ – a decision so ridiculous and utterly moronic, it could only have come from a gaggle of lawyers. Heck, the cast (a rotating group featuring Graham Alexander, John Brosnan, Ryan Coath, James Fox, Reuven Gershon, Chris McBurney, Luke Roberts, Ryan Alex Farmery, John Korba and Daniel A. Weiss) aren’t even listed with the name of their Featles counterparts. Instead, they’re identified by the instruments they play (“guitar,” “drums,” etc). Because, you know, we couldn’t possible figure out who they’re supposed to be.
For what it’s worth, the cast I experienced sounded pretty darn great. Ryan Coath (“Fohn Lennon”), Graham Alexander (“Faul McCartney”), John Brosnan (“Feorge Harrison”), and Chris McBurney (“Fingo Starr”) captured the sound of The Beatles so perfectly, my colleague even wondered whether they were lip-syncing at one point. Alexander especially evoked his Featle-persona so spectacularly, it was hard not to be captivated by his talent. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to view the performances as anything but impression, in no small part because Let It Be never allows the audience to delve into who The Featles are (were?) as people. Save for a few lines of stage banter here and there, we’re meant to focus on the music.
And boy is there a lot of music to focus on. The good thing about The Beatles is that most of their songs clocked-in under the 3-minute mark. The bad thing about The Beatles is that they had a million of those songs. And director/musical supervisor John Maher decided to pack almost all of them into Let It Be. All the faves are here: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Yesterday, “In My Life,” “Twist and Shout,” “Hey Jude,” “When I’m 64,” “Come Together,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Blackbird,” and of course, the title song “Let It Be.” Plus, approximately 100 other songs (the show runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, but it feels like strawberry fields forever.)
At first, the songs are performed chronologically, with projections and costumes taking us through historic locations in the Featles career (Liverpool’s Cavern Club, The Ed Sullivan Show, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert, etc). Between numbers, we get classic 60s television commercials. During numbers, the on-stage action is projected in vintage TV monitors, interspersed with clips of screaming teenagers and fainting youths. There are even pre-recorded cheers from audience members and flashing camera lights that really make you feel like you’re part of the frenzy. (Props to Jason Lyons and Gareth Owen for lighting and sound design, and to Duncan McLean’s early video design.)
But then, Let It Be completely abandons that concept. Act II is performed in a nondescript time and location, with song selections stretching over The Beatles later catalog. There are roadies in modern-day clothes setting up mics and clearing water bottles. “Fingo” talks about CDs. The projections behind our Faux Four become more and more outrageous (a few songs are accompanied by what might as well be a lyric video). There’s even a fourth musician (also in contemporary clothes) in the corner playing a bundle of additional instruments. Are these supposed to be the ghosts of the Featles? Or what they might be like if they were alive to play today? Is this heaven? Or purgatory? Hell if I know!
Let It Be was originally envisioned as a West End tribute to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles (the show is still running at the Savoy Theatre in London). And while the songs sound great, the performances lack any sense of spontaneity that one might look for in a true ‘tribute.’ There’s no reinterpretation, no artistry, no chance for a real moment to be had. Everything feels artificial and manufactured. Like it’s simultaneously trying too hard and not trying at all. Sure, there’s probably an audience out there for Let It Be who won’t care. But here? On Broadway? (And not, say, Vegas.) On Broadway there’s so much potential to do something great and perhaps the keepers of The Beatles’ rights will one day allow someone to take their catalog and make it shine. Until then, we’ll all be suffering through interminable impersonations. And singing “Let It Be” (Over).