STRAWBERRY FIELDS, BACK IN BLOOM

It's a little-known fact--and, frankly, a little hard to imagine--but back in 1979, John Lennon and Yoko Ono started writing a Broadway musical. It was an oddly frivolous genre for the "angry" Beatle and a woman who once recorded her own orgasms, but love often led Mr. and Mrs. Lennon down unusual paths (see primal screams, bed-ins, etc.). Like much of their music, the show was a journey through their lives. "Predictably, we even had a title for it: 'The Ballad of John and Yoko'," says Ono, sitting at the kitchen table in her apartment in the Dakota building in Manhattan, drinking from an IMAGINE coffee mug. They wrote some songs, including "Real Love" for the scene where the couple met at an art gallery, and John sketched the sets. "The kind of story we were thinking of was pretty experimental and avant-garde, but at the same time it was a happy story because there was no unhappy ending," says Ono. "We didn't know the ending then, did we?"

John and Yoko's musical died on a tragic day in 1980, of course. But last week, a $7 million bio-musical called "Lennon" opened in San Francisco, with hopes to debut on Broadway in July. It's not the show John and Yoko envisioned, but a new and relatively simple production: nine actors, a white grand piano and 28 songs ("Give Peace a Chance," "Mother," "Beautiful Boy") culled from the Lennon songbook to tell his story from birth to death. Even Beatlemaniacs will be surprised by "Lennon." For one thing, very little is heard from Paul, George and Ringo, though there's lots and lots of John. His dialogue is taken verbatim from his interviews and writings. There are also two unreleased Lennon songs--"India, India" and "I Don't Want to Lose You"--that Ono gave to Don Scardino, the show's writer-director. What's more, at various points, all nine actors put on the owlish glasses to play Lennon himself, including the four women and two black men. It's a theatrical trick Lennon would have loved. He didn't sing "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together" for nothing.

It was the Lennon-as-everyman conceit that won Ono over. "I was sort of hesitant to say yes to the usual proposal, but this one was very special," she says. "It's very significant that we are saying anyone can play John, not one race or one special kind of people." Yoko-phobes will be surprised to hear that besides giving a few suggestions during rehearsals and after last week's opening in San Francisco, she has maintained a hands-off policy. "I had heard stories about how difficult Yoko can be, but we've never had a problem," says producer Edgar Lansbury. "Most of her opinions are very positive."

Ono was concerned that "Lennon" not be too polite. She suggested that Scardino add scenes with Cynthia, Lennon's first wife, whom he left for her. Ono even told them a story about a party at Jerry Rubin's house in 1972 where Lennon had sex--loudly--with another woman in the next room. That scene is now in the show (although John and Cynthia's son, Julian, is not). "John himself was very forward, he was very open," says Ono. "He wanted to make a point that he was not an angel. This has to be a project that really is fair to John's character, John's spirit."

That's not to say that everyone will love "Lennon." The reviews in San Francisco were weak, though shows always go on the road to work out their pre-Broadway kinks. The best number is actually the decidedly un-P.C. "Woman Is the N----- of the World." Besides "The Ballad of John and Yoko," no Beatles songs made the cut--not because Paul McCartney wouldn't grant permission, apparently, but because the creators didn't want them. "If we put 'Yesterday' in, it's not really fair to the Beatles because we're leaning on their power," Ono says. "We're talking about John now, thank you." Frankly, the show could use more John--more probing into his psyche and less straightforward narrative. Ono knows people will find something to complain about. "With anything you do, 50 percent of the people will love it and 50 percent will have something to say," she says. "If you're scared of that, you can't do anything." Besides, after waiting 25 years to see their lives onstage, it was time to give this piece a chance.