Although it is usually referred to as an “Off-Broadway” production—when it is referred to at all—the 1974 musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, in fact, ran for 66 performances at the Beacon Theatre, which as any Westsider can tell you, is smack-dab on Broadway itself, even if it’s a cab ride away from “the Great White Way” theater district.
Likewise, I suppose it’s a bit disingenuous to say that this show was “John Lennon’s flop,” but Lennon was involved and aside from co-writing the music (duh) he attended several rehearsals and performances and helped promote the play. Paul McCartney on the other hand, may have never even seen it.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road was conceived by Tom O’Horgan, the “Busby Berkeley of the acid set” as the New York Times described him in his 2009 obituary. O’Horgan was a proponent of experimental “total theater” and had directed Jean Genet’s The Maids at La MaMa in the East Village before moving uptown to the Broadway successes of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Lenny.
From the surviving evidence of the show, it looked like it was totally insane. TIME magazine hated it, their review was titled “Contagious Vulgarity” and it went out of its way to excoriate O’Horgan’s style of musical theater. Other reviewers were much kinder and even enthusiastic, but the show which opened on November 17, 1974 was still closed by late January.
Ted Neeley, the actor long synonymous with the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar here played the Candide-like “Billy Shears.” The sexy siren “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was played by Alaina Reed (“Olivia” from Sesame Street), while the role of “Sgt. Pepper” went to David Patrick Kelly an actor best known for uttering the immortal line “Warriors…come out to play-ee-ay!!”
And then there were the dancers whose hair don’ts and dresses are a direct rip-off of Divine’s look in Female Trouble!
Apparently there’s very little documentation of the production. Opening night attendees included Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Lennon who went with May Pang, “Papa” John Phillips (whose own flop Broadway musical, Man on the Moon, produced by Andy Warhol would open two months later) and Yoko Ono who gamely supported her estranged husband.
While researching this post, I discovered that John Lennon at one point was offered the, er… Ted Neeley role in Jesus Christ Superstar but when he insisted that Yoko play Mary Magdalene, the offer was withdrawn. The jokes about her breaking up the twelve disciples would have written themselves…
One of the associate producers, Howard Dando, put together a slideshow plus some footage of opening night taken from John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” promo film. Although the producer was Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood, who also produced the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film, there was apparently not much of the O’Horgan’s musical play that made its way into the derided movie.
Thank you kindly Chris Campion of Palm Springs, CA! Mr. Campion is presently engaged writing the authorized biography of “Papa” John Phillips.