I was 4 years old when John Lennon was shot dead. I asked my parents—both old and rural enough that they missed the counterculture scene—who he was. My father began explaining that John Lennon was a frivolous hippie, and probably a communist besides, whereupon my mother interrupted: He was a singer and he thought that everybody should love everybody else. This divisiveness inflamed my curiosity, and I quickly and quietly became obsessed with John Lennon. I didn't like the Beatles so much—there's something about McCartney's cloying pop mannerisms that make me want to throttle him to death with my bare hands—but Lennon seemed like the Real Deal: optimistic, painfully honest, and more than a little bit crazy.
Four years ago, Steven Roseta decided that he wanted to write a conversation with John Lennon. For eight months, he worked with different texts, including the encyclopedic Playboy interviews, which, if anything, were too extensive—in all the biographic tangle, he couldn't find the right narrative frame. Salvation was accidentally found, and bought, on eBay: a typewritten transcript up for auction, a $60 lark of a purchase. (Roseta says he can't recall the seller's identity.) On December 8, 1980, the day of Lennon's murder, a reporter from now-defunct RKO Radio interviewed him and Yoko Ono for two and a half hours. It was a promotional interview for their newest album, Double Fantasy, but the discussion traveled everywhere that Lennon's flickering attention wandered, from the usual suspects (peace, gender equality) to non sequiturs (Burt Reynolds, Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera) to out-and-out contradictions (the continual, disrespectful silencing of Yoko by John). The dramatic irony, that it happened on the day of his assassination, provided a framework and a context that was irresistible. The script, developed from the transcript, is Roseta's first full-length play—it has a fly-on-the-wall feel and reads like an extended interview with a candid, opinionated artist. "I didn't want to apply a theatrical model to it," Roseta insisted, citing My Dinner with Andre as an influence.
The question remains: Why would anyone want to watch two hours of a rock interview? Much of the early promotional material for the play claims that the RKO interview was unpublished, which would certainly be a draw, but is not strictly true: 20 minutes of the interview, and some of the meatiest parts of acts two and three, are available on the remastered 2001 release of the mediocre Lennon/Ono album Milk and Honey. (I bought a copy of the excerpted interview for $8.50 at Everyday Music on Broadway, after an extensive, minute-long search of the L section.) Roseta admitted that he didn't know the interview was previously released until "about six months ago," and Michael Barbre, the marketing director for Seattle Public Theater, amended the exclusivity statement to: "...if you went up to the average, everyday fan on the street, they wouldn't necessarily know about the contents of the interview, or even the fact that it was the final interview Lennon gave. Basically, it was a mostly unpublished interview."
Whether (Just Like) Starting Over will be anything more than a curiosity rests on the director, James Veitch. When asked what he did to overcome the necessary talkiness of the play, Veitch responded: "...I see [the dialogue heaviness] as one of the play's major strengths; that it doesn't appear, at first glance, to hide behind an imposed artificial structure." The drama comes from inside Lennon: "John's visions of the future are frantically idealist and wildly inaccurate," and, furthermore: "We are also watching a man who is about to die." "To me, this is high drama," Roseta said. The proximity of Lennon's death overloads the play with rear-view portents; just this bit on Lennon's hopes for the 1980s feels like the Ides of March: "You have to give thanks to God or whatever it is up there, the fact that we all survived... the world is not like the '60s. We're going into an unknown future, but we're still all here... While there's life there's hope." Any number of statements that we make every day—from declarations of love to plans for lunch next week—would read as cosmically ironic if we were violently slain this afternoon.
It was the most interesting time in John Lennon's life—coming out of a five-year self-imposed exile as a househusband, trying to reconcile his cynical working-class background with a utopian idea of a world that he believed eminently possible. He was an artist who was equal parts avid pop consumer—in the play he professes his love for disco music, ELO's "All Over the World," the B-52s, and Olivia Newton-John—and infuriating performance artist. He certainly warrants a theatrical portrait, but not just any rendering will do: A recent John Lennon Broadway musical died an ignominious death after just six weeks, suggesting that, despite his Beatle-sized popularity, the public's tolerance for Lennon-themed bullshit is very low indeed.
Since writing this piece, Paul Constant went to see (Just Like) Starting Over. Read his email@example.com