About the author:
He doesn’t just play a musician on stage: Rain star Steve Landes is the real thing. Three years after teaching himself the guitar, a 13-year-old Landes was fronting a Top 40 cover band in his hometown of Philadelphia; at 17, he began touring the world with the cast of Beatlemania; and in 1998, he joined the company of Rain as John Lennon. His talent for channeling a member of the Beatles has taken Landes all the way to the stage of Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where Rain opened in October 2010. Along the way, the singer/songwriter has also performed as a backup musician for various artists and appeared in films like Wedding Bell Blues, For Which He Stands and Mars Attacks! Below, Landes lets Broadway.com in on the secret to channeling a music legend.
Performing in Rain is like coming full circle for me. I grew up a second generation, lifelong Beatles fan, and that influence inspired me very early on to become a musician and singer, and later an actor. Portraying John Lennon and having the opportunity to play his music as authentically as possible on the Broadway stage is a true labor of love for me.
Musically, it’s definitely a challenge—not only to pick apart the old recordings and see which Beatle is playing and singing what part, then put it all together in a live band situation, but also to recreate that sight and sound exactly the same way, every single night, without any variation. For example, with a song like “Twist and Shout,” John sang it in the recording studio full-out to the point where his throat bled. I have to recreate that vocal performance on stage, note-for-note, and then continue on with the rest of the show. Needless to say, I make sure not to scream to the point of bleeding! But it is definitely a lesson in concentration, and in pacing yourself.
Just like acting on stage night after night, we have to hit those same notes every night with the same intensity. The thousandth performance has to seem like the first. This is not the usual way of a musician, wherein you interpret the song however you like, free to change it from night to night. We don’t have that luxury. Our job is to perform the songs exactly the way the Beatles recorded them and the way people remember them, every time. There is quite a degree of discipline in that for us, but one that I think we’ve benefitted from as performers.
On the acting side, one thing I wanted to keep from doing was falling into an impersonation of John Lennon. Even though our show has no dialogue, save for a few song introductions, audience interaction, and some banter between John and Paul, I always look at it as an acting job, not just your typical "tribute band" imitation. I wanted to personify his character, and embody that onstage, rather than copy by rote whatever it was he did in concert or on film. To that end, I strove to find out as much about who he was, how he felt at any given point in the Beatles’ career, and got some insight into what he was thinking about, so that I can know that when I’m up on stage.
Of course, I’ve studied John's body movements in videos—how he walked and carried himself, onstage and off; that signature legs-apart, rocking-up-and-down-move he does when he sings, the gum chewing he adopted later on and so forth. I feel that if I know as much about him as possible, what was going on in his life during those times, that will help me convey his character and his mood, without having the luxury of dialogue.
The transformation into John Lennon every night has become pretty easy at this point. I’m not a real look-alike, so it does take a little makeup to look the part: I just thicken my eyebrows, square my jaw line, use some shadow to give my nose more of that Roman shape. Since we run through their whole career during the course of the show, we have to change our look as the Beatles did. We have numerous wigs as their hair got longer, until John wound up with that all-one-length, long-haired, parted-in-the-middle, hairstyle he had on the cover of Abbey Road. Also, there are the iconic glasses, those sideburns, and the handlebar mustache from the Sgt. Pepper days. The little things help to convey not only his look, but his changing mood. Likewise, there are the costumes, from the matching black suits of The Ed Sullivan Show days to the satin military-band-style Sgt. Pepper suits, the hippie-era clothes and the iconic white suit, white shirt, white sneakers combination. They help to put me into character, and they’re just fun to wear for a living!
I have to say that besides Elvis Presley, John Lennon may be the most iconic figure in rock 'n' roll history. These are big shoes to fill! But the fact that he is such a large presence helps, not only for me to capture his essence but also for the fans who seem to know him so well. One of the things the fans and I love about John was his willingness to put it all out there, be completely honest in his music and his message. They know him in a way that most fans don’t get to know celebrities nowadays, because of the PR machine that keeps them from getting too close or honest.
John Lennon fans feel a special connection to him—and being a fan and a person who has studied his work so closely, I feel that connection to him, too. The audience and I bond in a larger appreciation for all that John stood for, what he strived towards with his music and how he spoke out for Love and Peace. Our show ends up being a bit of a love-fest, which is great because people come out of the theater incredibly happy. That’s the power of the Beatles and John Lennon’s music, and it’s been a lot of fun for us to get to present it to Broadway audiences!