On the Phone With John R. Waters

On the Phone With John R. Waters

John Russell Waters, in coming to New York, is a fearless actor/musician. First, there is his name. Known in Australia, where he lives and works steadily in theater and on film and TV, as John Waters, he has had to add his middle initial to avoid confusion with that other John Waters—our John Waters, meaning the iconoclastic American film director and performer. John R. Waters is fearless, too, because he’s appearing in New York, thru Jan. 11, as another beloved John, John Lennon in the Off-Broadway show, Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, which he co-conceived and appears onstage with singer/pianist Stewart D’Arrietta. This past Dec. 8 marked the 34th anniversary of Lennon’s assassination as he was entering The Dakota on the Upper West Side. The former Beatle had adopted New York as his home, and New Yorkers had adopted him as one of their own. The reason New York audiences have come to embrace John R. Waters as John Lennon may have much to do with Waters’ down-to-earth approach to the icon. In performance, he may look somewhat like Lennon, and certainly he can sound like him. But John R. Waters is definitely his own man. Just like Lennon.

You’ve been doing and working on this show since 1992, even though it’s only now being seen in New York. That’s 22 years. Are you obsessed with Lennon?

I’m a singer and an actor. I like John Lennon very much, but I’m just a guy doing a show really. I think that gives me a good perspective. I don’t have an attachment. I just have a real interest, and what I want to do is share that interest with people. This is a great catalog of songs, and [the show] gives me the legitimacy to do these songs. It’s an honor, a privilege really.

How would you describe the show?

It’s a small, two-man performance piece. It’s a not a big Broadway musical. It involves what Lennon wrote for the Beatles, but also a lot of what he wrote in his solo career. He wrote autobiographically, which makes him such a good study for something like this. What we do is not a hagiography. It’s more an examination of the kind of man he was and how that affected his songwriting.

What is the universal appeal of John Lennon that you tap into?

He laid himself bare to the public. He said, in effect, ‘this is me. These are my faults. I wasn’t very good as a young man. I didn’t treat my girlfriends very well. I was a bit of a punch-up, rough guy.’ Lennon wanted to fix himself. He didn’t just preach peace as a philosophy; he really went to work on himself in full view of the public and was, I think, searingly honest about himself. I think if anything is going to win people’s respect, it’s going to be honesty. That endeared him to people who didn’t even like his music. They had to admit that there was something brutally frank and honest about John Lennon. And that’s a good quality. He sought out the good side of himself, and he tried to rethink the bad. I think that’s probably a task that faces us all. Can I do better than yesterday? Lennon did that on a big scale and in front of everybody else.

So this is just another role for you, another gig on a pretty extensive résumé?

I wanted this to be a performance piece: John Lennon filtered though me. It’s not the real John Lennon. We’ll never see him again. So, it’s John R. Waters’ version of John Lennon. Thoughts that I think he may have had and have expressed in a certain way. This isn’t necessarily the real John Lennon. It’s a piece of theater. And that’s important to me. I certainly do not want to be the John Lennon version of an Elvis impersonator.

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

Just before the finale, I sing the song “How,” from the Imagine album [released in 1971]. It’s a song that talks about the human condition in a very clear, precise way. The song says, here we are planted on this rock and we don’t have any user’s manual. How do we do this thing called life? And it leads into a song called “God” [from Lennon’s first solo album, released in 1970]. “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” he wrote. That’s a piece that holds the audience’s attention.

What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

I’d like my show to be entertaining to somebody who has just landed from Mars and never heard of John Lennon.

Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St., at Park Ave. So., 800.982.2787, www.lennononstage.com. Performances thru Jan. 11.

All photos ©Joan Marcus, 2014