"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" a West End musical about the tragic final days of Elvis Presley, begins with mourners gathered around Elvis' casket. These friends and family members are so shaken that they literally hold on to each other for support.
But the audience's attention is gradually drawn to what another of the play's characters--the Colonel--is holding: a wooden dummy dressed in a gold lame suit like the one Elvis wore in one of his early album cover photos.
It's an imaginative way to dramatize the image of the manager, Col. Tom Parker, as the cynical, all-powerful force who controlled every aspect of Elvis' career.
While the other mourners are still absorbed with the funeral, the Colonel seems curiously unmoved. He finally steps to the edge of the stage and confides to the audience that he never really understood what everyone saw in Elvis.
But no matter, he shrugs. There's no reason to let a little thing like Elvis' death interfere with business. With a firm grip on the dummy, the Colonel announces, "The show goes on."
And in the real world, the Presley "show" indeed does go on: the tours at Graceland in Memphis . . . the repackaging of Elvis records by RCA . . . the books, including the recent best-seller by Elvis' widow Priscilla.
Even "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is part of the continuing Elvis "show." But where the other projects are designed to comfort Elvis fans, Alan Bleasdale's play sets out to provoke the Elvis fans.
The production, taking its title from one of Elvis' earliest ballads, is a dark look at stardom--a portrait of a lonely, broken man, out of touch with his fans, his art and himself.
Strangely, though, the atmosphere in the Phoenix Theatre wasn't downbeat. A sizeable percentage of fans reacted to the singing of the young Elvis the same way fans did at Elvis' concerts. Several screamed so emotionally that tears came to their eyes and they buried their heads in their arms.
Others danced or clapped along to the music. They seemed oblivious to the tragic elements in the play. They wanted to celebrate Elvis, not deal with the questions of corruption and fame.
"I still love Elvis," a woman sitting in front of me said during intermission. "I don't care what happened to him. He had troubles, but anybody would if they went through what he went through. He gave so much for his fans. He's still the King."
As much as the play itself, the continuing, almost eerie devotion of Elvis fans underscores the degree of the intoxicating pressures that Presley lived with virtually all his adult life.
One might expect to find a similar intensity at a play about another rock legend whose life also had its tragic side. But the atmosphere was far different at the Astoria Theatre, where "Lennon" has been running since late last year.
For one thing, the tone of the play itself is much lighter. First staged in Liverpool in 1981, "Lennon" is just one step above a simulated concert a la "Beatlemania." The cast goes through highlights from Lennon's life--everything from meeting Paul McCartney to the peace "bed-in" with Yoko Ono.
But the scenes are too familiar and too brief to turn the evening into anything more than a sort of walking wax museum. There's no evidence of a playwright's vision, no provocative insight or commentary to make us think of Lennon in a new light. This lack of revelation or provocation leaves the whole thing cold and curiously flat.
The audience, too, seemed far more sedate. Those with whom I spoke at intermission clearly looked upon Lennon with much affection and respect. But they saw him as a talented, socially conscious human being --not a god.
"Lennon," for most of the audience, is merely an evening at the theater. For many people the night I was at the Phoenix, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was akin to a religious experience.
In the program notes for "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Alan Bleasdale, a British novelist and playwright, explains that he wanted to examine the sadness and grotesqueness surrounding a man who discovered too late that his almost unprecedented pop stardom had become a "life (prison) sentence."
The three-level stage design at the Phoenix Theatre points to the forces at work. The top level is a burial ground for old autos, and the three most prominent symbols--the battered fronts of once-proud Cadillacs--represent Elvis' early ambition and fame and his eventual disintegration.
The second level is where the young Elvis (played expertly by Simon Bowman) relives his glory days, singing "Hound Dog" and other hits with a vitality of movement and voice that has the fans shrieking.
At the bottom level is Elvis' Graceland living room on the last night of his life.
"Good morning," Elvis mutters as he enters the room. A sidekick, soured from all the years of being on call, snaps back, "Well, it would be, boss, but it's 9:30 in the evening."
Elvis--played with with great flair and control by Martin Shaw--doesn't hear him. He's too spaced out from declining health, depression and heaven knows what else. When he sits down, there's a woman at his feet and two henchmen at his command.
He spends these long nights thinking back over his life, recalling the happier days--even trying to sing along to the songs, but never quite finishing them.
When the pain is too great, he barks to one of the sidekicks to "play '55." It's the signal to turn on the projector and show a scene from one of the old movies or one of the TV shows--when Elvis was young, handsome and really the King.
But Elvis rarely sits down long enough to watch the old footage. On the surface, he's concerned with two former bodyguards who are threatening to tell his "real" story in a book. They've been calling the house, trying to trick him into confirming certain scandals so that they will have evidence for their wary publishers.
On a deeper level, Elvis senses that the book doesn't really matter. Time is running out. He's concerned this night with how everything fell apart in his life. He looks regularly over to a vacant chair and imagines he has been joined by Jesse, his twin brother who died at birth.
Elvis keeps asking Jesse what he would have done--how Jesse would have avoided the life sentence. Eventually Jesse appears and makes it clear that no one would have gotten the best of him. For one thing, he cuts the strings with the Colonel.
This could strike the audience as a moment of "Rocky"-like victory, but there was no outburst of applause in the theater. Jesse isn't Elvis. He's tougher, less innocent. The viewers want their Elvis.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" looks at Elvis with affection and alarm. It showcases Elvis' music, but also asks us to reflect on the tragedy that Elvis became--and to see what we can learn from it.
Most of these Elvis fans, however, didn't seem to want to deal with that darker side. Ignoring the occasional cruelty of the Elvis character and the sadness of his downfall, they only wanted to think of him as the exciting performer they had known and loved for so long.
In retrospect, that was part of the Elvis tragedy. He never felt free to share himself with the public except on stage. By contrast, Lennon recognized the suffocating aspects of fame and battled against being enshrined by the public. Where Elvis lived in isolation, Lennon put his insecurities and other human failings on the public record--in his music and in interviews.
The question the play doesn't answer is, at what point did Elvis enter his personal prison? Was the emotional intensity he generated in his fans so strong at the beginning that he was afraid of it--or did he cut himself off from the public because he was afraid of losing that affection?
Whichever, Elvis' failure to show that human, private side of himself left his truest believers relating to him only as a pop god. In some ways, Bleasdale suggests, Elvis, too, wondered if his success hadn't just been some crazy fluke. And, maybe, maybe the saddest thing was he eventually realized the "show" would go on forever--with or without him.