People love biopics and bioplays. Recently, you could go to the theater in New York to see shows about real people like Carole King, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Bruce Lee, and Lyndon Johnson. Now you can see one about Bert Berns. Who is Bert Berns, you might ask? Well, I had never heard of him. But there is a musical about his life: Piece of My Heart. Now I know that he is the writer of 51 hit songs in the 1960’s, including Twist and Shout, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, Cry Baby and Hang on Sloopy. His songs were made into hits by groups like The Isley Brothers, The Drifters, Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin and Neil Diamond. They’ve been covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Faith Hill, Cee-Lo Green, Salt N Pepa and many more.
Berns was one of the most successful songwriters and producers of the 1960’s, but, suffering from a bad heart since a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of 14, he died in 1967 at the age of 38 and has faded into obscurity.
Piece of My Heart starts out in recent years when Berns’ grown daughter, Jessie, gets a call from one of her father’s old friends. The story of Berns life is told in flashbacks as the old friend tells her about her father. We learn a little about Berns love life, influences on his music (such as the time he spent in Cuba), and his years of success. There are references to his partnership and subsequent dispute with music moguls Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. There is also some modern-day conflict: It turns out that Jessie’s mother, Ilene, has been lying to the children all these years about some of the details of their father’s life. In addition, she has been selling off his song rights, even though she promised that she wouldn’t. A couple of the characters are portrayed both in flashbacks and in the current time. For instance, we see Berns wife, Ilene when they meet and marry (played by Teal Wick) and as the older widow (played by Linda Hart).
But the heart of the show is the music. The songs are terrific. The band is terrific. And the singers are terrific.
The 26 songs in the show are weaved into the story surprisingly well. The transitions from story to song were perfect—it was sometimes hard to believe the songs weren’t written for the musical. Often a character or two would start a song, but then they would be joined by a full chorus of the 15-person cast. Other times, the wall at the back of the stage would open to reveal a set of 60’s style back-up singers.
I loved the moments when the whole cast was singing, but one of the highlights of the show was a solo by Linda Hart, as the mother. She sings one of the lesser-known songs called “I’m a Liar,” explaining that she is going to keep lying to her family. She really belts it out.
Piece of My Heart playing off Broadway at the Signature Theater on 42nd Street. Not part of the Signature Theater’s season, it is being produced by a separate group that has rented the space. Two of Bern’s three children are part of the production team. They were too young when their father died to know him (Brett was 3 years old and Cassandra was 10 months old). According to the show, Berns wanted to be famous. This musical is part of Brett and Cassandra’s efforts to help him achieve that goal–almost 50 years after his death. I was a little confused that the daughter in the show is named Jessie, while the actual daughter is Cassie–I read that the Jessie is supposed to be a composite of the two siblings.
The show is still in previews. It opens July 21st and runs until August 31. Broadway bound? I think so.
Get tickets to the show here.
Here is a list of the 26 songs in the show:
Are you lonely for me baby
Baby let me take you home
I’d go back and watch that little girl dance
Show Me Your Monkey
I Want Candy
If I didn’t have a dime to play the jukebox
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love
Up in the Streets of Havana
Twist and Shout
Hang on Sloopy
I’ll Be a Liar
Cry to me
Here comes the night
I’ll Take Good Car of You
I’m Gonna Run Away from You
I say Love
Just Like Mine
Piece of My Heart
The World is Mine
Heart Be Still
Let the Water Run Down
CAST AND CREDITS:
Sydney James Harcourt
Denis Jones (Direction & Choreography)
Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design)
David C. Woolard (Costume Design)
Ben Stanton (Lighting Design)
Music by: Bert Berns
Book by: Daniel Goldfarb