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Yoko's valentine to John: The musical 'Lennon'
NEW YORK -- It was not long after she met John Lennon that Yoko Ono realized she had become one of the most hated women on the planet.
Sitting in her apartment in the Dakota, just a stone's throw from where Lennon was gunned down nearly 25 years ago, Ono takes herself back four decades to an art party in London where one of her sculptures was on display.
"We opened the door, came in, and they all looked at us, and they all turned their backs," she says. When Lennon went to get coffee, the woman at the counter said, "Get it yourself, it's there."
He did, and guided Ono to a narrow staircase away from the crowd, where they sat and watched revelers nearly step on her sculpture.
"I never forget that day, because that's when I realized, 'What is going on?"' she says. "It didn't dawn on me, really, that 'Oh, people are against us."'
Today, Ono's name can still cause Beatles fans to scowl. But here she is, a widow in black, carefully tending Lennon's legacy. Now 72, her age barely softening the sharp angles of her face, she takes solace from her husband's words that day in London.
"John said, 'When the going gets bad, we just keep our chins up,"' she says. "I never forget that John said that, and I always keep my chin up."
Lennon would have been 64 now, and Ono is still sending him a valentine, this time as the Broadway musical "Lennon," the story of his life told through his words and his music.
Seeing Lennon's life on stage brings back raw emotions for Ono.
"It's a very strange thing," she says. "I go to see this play -- I have seen it before, several times already, but each time I still cry. ... It's very hard for me, and I think, 'Well, 25 years passed,' you know. I didn't think it would last that long."
Promoting Lennon's work helps her feel connected to him, as does staying in the landmark apartment building near Central Park, just an elevator ride away from where he was gunned down on Dec. 8, 1980. The piano he used to play "Imagine" sits in the corner of the famous white room, topped with family photographs.
"In a way, John's spirit flew away from this building ... and so it's a very important place," Ono says.
Back in the 1970s, Lennon was working here on his own musical, which he hoped would land on Broadway. It included much of the ground covered in "Lennon" -- his meeting with Ono, bed-ins and family life -- but it "would have been a very avant-garde affair," Ono says.
When director and writer Don Scardino approached Ono with the idea for "Lennon," she was skeptical.
"I said, 'Musical? Isn't that a little bit cheesy?"' she says with a laugh.
But she was intrigued by a twist: Each of the nine cast members dons round spectacles to portray Lennon -- young and old, male and female, black and white. It was an idea she thinks Lennon would have loved.
"John is not a white hero," she says. "John was international. And there's no reason why a black person can't sing his songs as John."
She gave the show her blessing and two previously unpublished songs: "India, India" and "I Don't Want to Lose You."
"Lennon" opens Aug. 14 at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Even as she continues releasing her husband's work, Ono has experienced a renaissance of her own, with recent performances in London, Paris and New York, and several museum shows in Europe. Her solo music -- ridiculed by Beatles fans when it was released -- has been remixed into dance music and hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts.
But sitting in a yellow director's chair in her kitchen, blue sunglasses perched atop wide cheekbones, she says she has come to terms with the fact that she will never emerge from Lennon's shadow.
"I'm the second act. ... And it's OK -- the B side is there," she says.
Ono was a founding member of the Fluxus movement, a collection of avant-garde artists whose works often consisted of creating public events. In her famous "Cut Piece," audience members cut away her clothes, bit by bit, with shears.
Her art tended toward the instructive, like 1962's "Smoke Painting": "Light canvas or any finished painting with a cigarette at any time for any length of time. See the smoke movement. The painting ends when the whole canvas or painting is gone."
She met Lennon in 1966 at Indica gallery in London, an event re-enacted in "Lennon." He climbed the ladder under her "Ceiling Painting" and peered through a magnifying glass to see one tiny word: Yes. Ono was soon ripped from relative obscurity into the klieg lights of Beatlemania. The spotlight's glare was not kind.
"Imagine always being called ugly, being called a Japanese witch," says Julie Danao-Salkin, who plays Ono in "Lennon."
"That still carries with her today. That kind of effect on a human being is tremendous."
Ono can rattle off the reasons for the hostility: She was Asian, produced art that was difficult to appreciate, and didn't look like the kind of "cute girl" people expected a rock icon to date. Then the Beatles broke up.
"They could not blame anybody, so they said, 'Oh, Yoko,"' she says. "It always seems to be like I'm a convenient scapegoat."
Although she was scorned as a hanger-on, some critics have said Ono might have gotten farther in her own career if she had never met Lennon -- if her celebrity had not obscured her accomplishments.
"Definitely it was a curse, but also it was a blessing. It's both ways, like half full, half empty, you know?" she says. "And I'm always thankful every day that I'm still here and enjoying each day and being able to do all these things."
"Lennon" got tepid reviews in San Francisco and provoked some grumbling about what was left out. It includes only one original Beatles song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko," and two covers performed by the Beatles, portrayed in the musical by an all-girl band with shrieking male fans.
"We didn't really want to do a show about the Beatles. The show really is about John Lennon," says producer Allan McKeown, adding that Lennon's solo work was more autobiographical.
"We thought we would literally tell the story through John's music. All the words in the show are from John's own lips."
The show skipped a Boston engagement to retool for Broadway. McKeown says at least 40 percent is different, and a single actor -- Will Chase -- serves as a "narrator John" connecting the story. Much of "Lennon" is a love story, but it also depicts his infidelity, his breakup with Ono and his drug-fueled "Lost Weekend" when they were apart and he lived in Los Angeles.
When Ono hears criticism of the show, she feels echoes of the same antagonism she faced when Lennon was alive.
"If I had any power, I would erase myself from the musical, just so people wouldn't mind it or something like that, because some people get upset because I'm in there," she says. "But history speaks that I was there, so what are you going to do?"
This is Ono's fate -- to be sneered at for her role in her husband's work and largely ignored for her own. When people look back, she hopes they will remember not Yoko Ono, the woman who broke up the Beatles, but Yoko Ono the artist, wife and mother.
"I think most women are wearing many hats," she says. "We take all sorts of roles, and that's how it goes. I'm just a woman."
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