If there’s anyone alive who is working the job of his dreams — and that of many others — it’s Steve Landes. For the past eight years, Landes has been a member of the Beatles tribute band Rain. He plays/portrays/channels John Lennon. “For a hardcore Beatles fan like me, this is truly a dream come true,” he says.
Rain -The Beatles Experience, a quartet whose goal has always been to reproduce the Beatles’ live performances to as precise a degree as possible, appears on Saturday, February 3, at the State Theater in New Brunswick. Tickets are already selling furiously, according to information provided by the theater. The group’s repertoire includes more than 200 Beatles songs, representing every period of Beatles’ history.
“We bring this music to life,” Landes says. “It is more than just about the music. Us performing the music is only half the story. The Beatles were four distinct personalities. John, Paul, Ringo, and George all had different ways of reacting to one another, and you really have to be an actor to be up there performing, to portray these characters accurately, to tell the story accurately.”
In addition to Landes the actor/musicians of Rain are Joe Bithorn (George Harrison), Joey Curatolo (Paul McCartney) and Ralph Castelli (Ringo Starr). All are veterans of the Broadway or off-Broadway productions of Beatlemania, which ran in the late 1970s and 1980s and has had sporadic revivals dating until 1985. Mark Lewis, who founded Rain and is the only remaining founding member, is musical director, playing keyboards and conducting the pit band.
According to published reports and the impressions of the musicians themselves, the Rain show has been very well received across the country during this year’s tour. In Philadelphia earlier this month, the Academy of Music added four performances, and all were sold out.
Two newspaper reviews of the Philadelphia shows both pointed out that Landes’ performance was the most authentic to the original member that each of the four Rain singers portrayed. “Landes presents the most accurate physical portrayal” of John Lennon, wrote entertainment columnist Chuck Darrow of the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, one of the area’s most knowledgeable experts on the Beatles.
“We all strive to really embody the originals as much as we can,” says Landes in a telephone interview from a hotel in Toronto, where the group performed last week.
Landes grew up in Lansdale, PA, in Montgomery County, a relatively prosperous suburb and Philadelphia bedroom community. There, Landes says, he grew up listening to many different kinds of music — and developed his passion for the Beatles. “My parents (Marvin and Janice) and sisters got me into the Beatles,” says Landes. “From being a Beatles fan as a kid, I always knew I wanted to be a musician.”
Landes credits his father with introducing him to the music. “He was a country musician. He played the guitar, but never did anything professionally with it. He played for the fun of it, and he knew enough chords to really get me started.”
After graduating from North Penn High, Landes immediately began his Broadway quest. He had no connections or experience, just a few friends in New York, but his goal was to appear in the Broadway production of Beatlemania.
In 1979, when Landes was 17, he says, he took out a newspaper ad in a trade paper to advertise his availability. “I just happened to walk into the (Beatlemania) office at the right time,” he says. “A lot of the guys who had been doing the show for years wanted to leave it. They were looking for the next thing.”
Landes started as a understudy for Lennon’s role but he got a chance to do the real thing in the waning days of the production. It was easy for Landes to “become” John Lennon, because he had been wanting to portray Lennon since his childhood. He says for the past 25 years he had read everything out there on the market on Lennon and the Beatles. “Like I said, I am a hardcore Beatles fan. I’d like to think I am smart enough to decipher what is good and what is not. I can never say I knew these guys, but I’d like to think that I know something about them.”
Landes learned early on that his voice and appearance made John Lennon the person he could most easily portray. But Lennon’s personality and legacy appealed to him as well. “John is to me the perfect kind of hero, in that he was a real person,” Landes says. “I sort of relate him to superheroes — Superman had all of these superpowers, while Batman was just a guy, a guy who could be hurt, just a human being. That’s what John Lennon was, a flawed character. He had many setbacks in his life, and he had a lot to overcome in his early childhood. Through his music he was able to really learn a lot. That was his lasting statement. He was just a guy like everyone else, but he took his creativity and made great statements that said, ‘Let’s make this world a better place.’”
Landes has had the opportunity to meet Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and their son, Sean Lennon, on several occasions. He says the family approves of Rain’s and his work in perpetuating the legacy of the Beatles. “I have been to a couple of Yoko’s (art) exhibitions,” he says. “I really like her art. I think she is really misunderstood. She has the same kind of simple dry humor that John had. I can see why they were soulmates.”
Ono has been controversial through and after her relationship with Lennon and the Beatles; she and McCartney have had some minor but quite public spats over the years. “That is so overblown,” Landes says. “They fight and then they make up. At the end of the day, she is just another person who is trying to use her words to bring people together, which I think is great.”
More than 30 years after the breakup of the Beatles, and subsequent to the deaths of Lennon and George Harrison, says Landes, Rain continues to pay tribute to the Fab Four. “It’s the whole reason we do what we do. There are still millions of Beatle fans out there, and in the age of MP3, iPod, and Web concerts, people still want to hear live music. There’s something about that connection between musicians and the audience, and, unfortunately, they’ll never get that again with the Beatles. They are gone. So this is what we do. We bring their music to life.”
Rain: The Beatles Experience, Saturday, February 3, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Multi-media theatrical production featuring three sets and costume changes bringing the Beatles through the days of Ed Sullivan, Sergeant Pepper, and Abbey Road, with video footage and live camera projection. $35 to $75. www.StateTheatreNJ.org or 732-246-7469.