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Roger Bean remembers 1967 in Summer of Love

April 1, 2011

Race riots in places like Newark and Detroit put 1967 on the historical map as “The Long, Hot Summer.” Two-thousand miles to the west, meanwhile, about 100,000 people stepped into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood that summer to celebrate new ways of expression and to share food, drugs and their bodies.

“The Summer of Love” lies in stark contrast to the violence aimed at African Americans in eastern US cities. Writer and director Roger Bean, born in 1962, mostly missed it. “I wasn’t quite as aware of it as my sister, who was born in ‘59. I think she experienced a little more of the rock music and what was happening in that era. But we grew up in quite a [religiously] conservative household in Seattle and I think I was a little protected from it by my parents.”

Bean, like so many baby boomers, couldn’t get music from that era out of his head. “My mom used to sing Mama Cass songs around the house, so the songs I knew were more of the folk and pop variety, not the rockier variety. So I was familiar with that music, but not where the music was coming from and what it was dealing with at the time.”

A long friendship with Musical Theatre West’s Artistic Director Steven Glaudini gave Bean last year the opportunity to re-explore the music of the mid 1960s and the momentum that spawned the hippie era. Why did so many young men and women leave home and flock to such an open lifestyle? Bean says, “One of the stories I tell in my musical Summer of Love is about the people who come from conservative backgrounds who aren’t part of the ‘tribe’. We get to explore why and how they came to San Francisco to get away from their upbringing.”

Bean, too, woke up one morning and realized it was time to go. “I rebelled from my family in my late teens and had to go out on my own to explore what was my truth, what I wanted to do in the world, what I believed in. And that’s really what draws me in, because that’s what this journey is in this show – searching for your own truth, searching for what you want to do, searching for your own family.”

He lives now in Los Angeles with his partner, Perry, and Bean believes family can be defined two ways. “We’re born with a family. I still love and adore mine, but we also create the family we want to have in our lives. This show is kind of that journey, to create this wonderful family that I have around me. That’s what this musical is.”

Summer of Love uses twelve characters, ten of whom are part of a tribe in Haight-Ashbury, named after the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets. The neighborhood is near the University of San Francisco, a little east of the long and horizontal Golden Gate Park. The ten are introduced as the show opens. Bean says, “Into their midst runs this runaway bride. We don’t know what her story is. We don’t know what she’s running from but she’s in a wedding dress with a suitcase in her hands.”

The group, he says, welcomes her and tries to help by getting her to talk about what she’s looking for. “Can they help her? Does she want to stay with them? Through their eyes, she begins to have her eyes opened and begins to figure out what she’s running from and what she’s looking for. She’s looking for her family, her own freedom. She finds it with them.”

Like so many did in 1967.

The real Summer of Love eschewed commercialism except, perhaps, the sale of tie-dyed shirts and psychedelic drugs, which were rampant. Bean includes an acid trip in Act II, meant to open our eyes to the risks counter-culture hippies took to find personal freedom and exploration. It wasn’t all in the music.  

Bean acknowledges he had a plethora of songs from which to choose. “They kind of choose themselves,” he believes. “I listened to well over a thousand songs, getting myself into the era, over and over and over. Some of them began to bubble up and move to the surface. I would find a song that needs to be written about or find something that someone would sing about. Then I started to formulate who would sing these songs, who would tell the stories. It’s a give and take.”

And sometimes the song would come first, he says; other times, the character. “Sometimes I find someone that needs to sing a particular song and I go back to the bag of songs and I see how it fits in. My goal is to create a show that sounds like it was through-composed by one group of songwriters so that, while it’s a jukebox musical and kind of seamless in its integrations of the story, we don’t feel like it has 500 different voices, but one voice telling the story.”

Bean relied on a full bag of songs, in part because there are so many from which to choose, but also because he could not always secure the rights to first-choice songs. “But the ones I had trouble with aren’t in the show. And that’s the process I go through writing these musicals. When I start getting interested in a song, I find out who the publisher is and the writer. Having done 13 of these shows now, I know which publishers I should steer clear of, which will play nice, which are happy to go to bat for me.”

 A lot of the music publishers may clear songs easily, Bean finds, while some have to go back to the writers. “So before I fell in love with anything, I made sure I could really get the music. I did lose some songs that I thought I was going to get and had to replace them, but I’ve become pretty good at making lemonade out of those lemons. My replacement songs are usually better than what the originals would have been, mostly because the original songs were so iconic it’s hard to imagine them in a different light. People have them stuck in their minds. So I get to create new images for them.”

Bean’s musical doesn’t suffer for a lack of classic songs. Included are Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Make Your Own Kind of Music, John Phillips’ San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), Tommy James’ Crystal Blue Persuasion, Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic rock piece White Rabbit, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s This Guy’s in Love With You and Mama Cass’ Dream a Little Dream, among others.

These are songs, Bean says, that even today’s young adults can enjoy. “They may find songs they’ve heard inside Starbucks or on the radio. They’ll probably be familiar to them.” Artistic Director Glaudini expects a young audience to attend. “I’m counting on younger kids to embrace this music and be inspired to research and learn more music from this generation. Tons of 20-somethings flocked to [Broadway’s] Hair revival.”

The term “jukebox musical” is a pejorative to some. But for Bean, “I think it all depends on who says it and how it’s said. People love comfort food, especially during rough times like we’ve having now with the economy and things going on in the world. People want to feel good.” And we can, he believes, when watching a story and hearing music we may have romanticized.

He contends, however, Summer of Love is not nearly as simple as many jukebox musicals because it deals with very heavy issues such as war and drugs. “It’s certainly a far cry from The Marvelous Wonderettes [for which Bean won a 2007 Ovation Award. He directed it last year for MTW. It includes songs from the 1950s and ‘60s sung by four girls “with hopes and dreams as big as their crinoline skirts” and will be staged again in June at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts]. I do think some people, no matter what, will think a jukebox musical is not proper theatre, but those are the same people who believe musicals are not proper theatre. They don’t believe someone would burst into song.”

 Well, if they don’t believe that, Bean believes, then they shouldn’t bother going to a musical. “Most of America does buy into it. When you’re in a musical, you’re in a world with heightened emotions, and those heightened emotions are what make you break into song because it’s a higher level of understanding. That’s how the music is used. I would say 90% of Americans who go to theatre love musicals because it’s a very American art form and we get to celebrate great American music.”

Bean loves that tradition. His body of work includes the books for musicals Winter Wonderettes, Life Could Be A Dream, Route 66 and Why Do Fools Fall In Love? In 2008, he wrote The Andrews Brothers, a swinging tribute to the music of World War II. “While it’s based around real people, the Andrews Sisters, the ladies don’t appear, so I got to create this entirely new story and I like doing that. And I’m also not beholden to the truth (laughs). I get to make up my own truth based on our perceptions of what reality is or what our memories are. It’s a little easier to shape stories and emotions that way, without getting stuck to real story lines which aren’t always as dramatic as you want them to be.”

In his head, Bean says, are always two or three ideas for musicals. He hesitates to share the one he likes best. “I have a Betty Hutton musical I would like to write, but as soon as I put it out in the universe, someone else wants the idea!”

Bean works quickly. Perhaps he’ll be the first to get to it.

The world premiere of Summer of Love for Musical Theatre West runs April 1-17 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, created, written and directed by Roger Bean and presented through special arrangement by Steele Spring Productions; musical direction by Michael Borth and Michael Paternostro; choreography by Lee Martino. Tickets $30-60. 562-856-1999 x4.

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