45 Years Ago: The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ Musical Debuts
With little input from the Beatles other than the use of their music, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road: A Rock Spectacle debuted Off-Broadway at New York’s Beacon Theater on Nov. 17, 1974. Produced by Robert Stigwood and directed by Tom O’Horgan, the musical included 29 songs, primarily from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road LPs.
All of the songs were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. George Harrison and Ringo Starr declined to participate. “We put them together like a Tinkertoy set and made sense of it in our own way,” O’Horgan said in The Theater Will Rock. “We made a script of the songs, and we didn’t add additional dialogue or change the lyrics. Maybe we changed genders or something, but basically it was the songs with the original orchestrations. We were just trying to use this music in a different way.”
It was certainly different. The plot centered on Billy Shears (portrayed by Ted Neeley), a musician who becomes a star with the help of Maxwell’s Silver Hammermen, a motorcycle gang that represents the music industry. Shears marries his girlfriend, Strawberry Fields, who is later killed. All is well by the final curtain, as a statue of Sgt. Pepper (David Patrick Kelly) comes to life and orders everyone to "Get Back.”
One of the Hammermen, B.G. Gibson, described the surreal production, created by scenic designer Robin Wagner. “There were the helium-filled weather balloons, which projections bounced off of while the Hammermen rotated them out over the audience in slow motion," he told the Good Day Sunshine fanzine. "There were the hundreds of pink Styrofoam Frisbees which the cast hurled into the audience at the end of Act I. There was a 30-foot Lucille Ball look-alike Statue of Liberty which was moved onto center stage to reveal ‘Polythene Pam’ ... There were the giant grandma and grandpa puppets who danced to 'When I’m Sixty-Four.’ There were the super life-sized busts of Mick Jagger and David Cassidy, the huge wristwatch and hand, the smiling lips and teeth, and the larger-than-life octopus. There was also a Mylar confetti shower to be timed with ‘The End.’”
Celebrities flocked to the Beacon on opening night. John Lennon, who had watched several rehearsals, arrived with companion May Pang. Yoko Ono also attended along with Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and “Papa” John Phillips.
“The opening chords of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ rang out into the darkened theater and an immediate roar went up from the crowd,” recalled Gibson. “As the curtains parted and the Hammermen high-stepped out onto the open stage, the audience gave us a standing ovation! Front row center were Johnny and Edgar Winter. A few rows behind them Carol Channing could be seen. Farther back in the orchestra section to the right was Alice Cooper. And of course, John Lennon was out there somewhere, too! Every new Beatle song prompted a standing ovation from the wildly enthusiastic opening night fans. It seemed as if we were playing to a mob of adoring Beatlemaniacs!"
The euphoria didn’t last long, as the critics were brutal. Martin Gottfried of the New York Post called the show “a cheapskate circus, a clumsy concert with dance movement and Thanksgiving parade props.” Robert Christgau wrote, “Artistically as well as commercially ... Sgt. Pepper is a flop.”
T.E. Kalem of Time wrote, “Exploitation is at the core of this show. The idea was to cash in on the popularity of the Beatles. Their songs are probably as original and innocently evocative of the flower-child world of the ‘60s as they ever were, but here they are trampled under the dreck of Tom O’Horgan’s grimagination.”
Many in the audience were disturbed that O’Horgan reordered the songs of the original Sgt. Pepper’s, an album that flowed seamlessly from one tune to the next. “I think that what we did offended Beatles fans,” O’Horgan recalled. “because we didn’t follow the record. Whatever the record was about -- we took some songs out and put others in, and -- ‘How dare you!’ It was like messing with Bach or something.”
Paul and Linda McCartney attended a Sunday matinee in December and met the cast. But audiences dwindled, and on New Year’s Eve, the closing notice was posted on the call-board backstage. The show was done in January 1975 after 66 performances.
Stigwood produced a film version of Sgt. Pepper’s in 1978 that was loosely based on the musical. Like the musical, the film’s songs were largely from Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road and again, critical reaction was mostly negative.
A list of the show’s songs per B.G. Gibson:
"Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band"
"With a Little Help From My Friends"
"With a Little Help from My Friends" (reprise)
"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"
"I Want You (She’s So Heavy)"
"Nowhere Man" (reprise)
"She Came In Through the Bathroom Window"
"You Never Give Me Your Money"
"Lovely Rita" (reprise)
"A Day in the Life"
"She’s Leaving Home"
"Strawberry Fields Forever"
"When I’m Sixty-Four"
"Good Morning Good Morning"
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"
"Fixing a Hole"
"Oh! Darling" (reprise)
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"’ (reprise)
"Mean Mr. Mustard"
"Maxwell’s Silver Hammer"
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (reprise)
"Carry That Weight"
"Carry That Weight" (reprise)
"The Long and Winding Road"
"Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" (reprise)