Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, the new jukebox musical now Off-Broadway, tells the tale of Bert Berns, the great songwriter who died in 1967 at age 38, never achieving the fame he craved, the renown that accrued to some of his longer-lived colleagues in R&B, soul, rock and pop music. Berns wrote or co-wrote dozens of hit songs including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Tell Him,” “I Want Candy,” “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” and two of the songs that made Janis Joplin a cultural icon, “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart.” But rheumatic fever had struck him as a teenager and weakened his heart, and he lived the rest of his short life under a sword of Damocles.
Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, a new musical based on Berns’s life now at the Pershing Square Signature Center directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, stresses the pointed awareness of fate and fatality that seemed to drive the ambitious Berns throughout his at-first frustrating, then explosively successful, then abruptly short-cut career. A suave Zak Resnick (Mamma Mia!) makes Berns appealing even as he is swept up in the cutthroat tactics and even violence that marked the music business of the early 1960s.
Resnick sings beautifully too, and brings a shadowy magnetism to his forceful portrayal of the should-be music legend.
Two friends follow Berns through his years of struggle and success, characters signifying the tender and harsh sides of Berns’s own character: his loyal friend Hoagy (the velvet-voiced Derrick Baskin), a singer who in the end lacks the “name” needed to sell Berns’s songs; and Wazzel (played at two different ages by Joseph Siravo and Bryan Fenkart), the gangster-manager who threatens club owners to get bookings for the young talents, and who sticks by Berns until years later his muscle is called upon to get the songwriter the terms he wants when he forms Bang Records with Jerry Wexler (Mark Zeisler), Ahmet Ertegün and Nesuhi Ertegün.
Along the way Berns has an early steamy sexual encounter with Candace (a fine De’Adre Aziza), a handy way to lead into “I Want Candy,” one of several compact, energetic and period-evocative production numbers. Later there’s a real romance leading to a Jewish wedding with the long-suffering Ilene, played at a young age by the excellent Teal Wicks and as a cynical widow by the tiny but impressively-heeled Linda Hart, who sings the show-stopping number “I’ll Be a Liar,” a song I’d never heard, and which could have been custom-written for the show.
The title “I’ll Be a Liar,” not to mention the powerful drama in the song’s music and lyrics, exemplifies the emotional depth of Berns’s writing. Forgoing both the sweetness of bubble-gum pop and the glitter of the classic Motown repertoire, these songs were (and are) aching and rich. There’s a reason cover bands and radio stations have never stopped playing them all over the Western world. As orchestrated and arranged by Garry Sherman and put forth by the consistently solid cast, they make this show a joy.
The script sets Berns’s eventful life within a framing story in which his grown daughter Jessie – a composite character played with brittle strength by Leslie Kritzer – comes to terms with his legacy as her mother angles to sell his catalog. Kritzer has some nice moments, though probably none tops her first, when an early Berns dance number devolves into Jessie’s folk-guitar version played to nobody in an obscure coffeehouse. The theme of Jessie’s growing into both her father’s legacy and her own independent identity persists throughout the show via intermittent scenes, but is never as compelling as the depiction of Berns’s own life.
This disparity contributes to an overall ricketiness in Daniel Goldfarb’s book. Jessie’s bonding with the older Wazzel – a stereotype of a New York City tough – doesn’t ring true. And Hoagy is underdeveloped, especially given the fine voice and gentle charisma with which Baskin invests the role. Too much of the dialogue sounds hackneyed.
Scenes in revolutionary Havana, where Berns and his friends spent some time, have a lot of flair, boosted by sizzling dances featuring ensemble member Gabrielle Ruiz (In the Heights) and briefly bringing Evita to mind; guns and arrests fly by. But overall too much of the dialogue, especially but not only in the framing scenes, is more symbolic than realistic.
But the show’s guts lie in the songs themselves. More than two dozen are performed, some in full, some in snatches, and they lend themselves remarkably well to the drama of the story itself. Some seem almost uncannily well fitted to illustrating a scene based on real life. That’s a testament to how good they are, and to how they sprung from deep reserves of linked talent and emotion in the songwriter. (Though I should note that many were co-written with others, including Jerry Ragovoy, who is better known than Berns for the pair’s contributions to Janis Joplin’s oeuvre. Ragovoy’s widow is one of the producers.) The musical’s resonance and its moments of joy come mostly from the music itself.
Forgotten and under-appreciated cultural figures like Berns are ripe for theatrical re-animation. Mozart’s sister Nannerl is the subject of Sylvia Milo’s superb one-woman show The Other Mozart. Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater staged One Hit Wonders to celebrate the one-hit wonders of pop music. But most jukebox musicals honor legendary stars whose fame and, in many cases, lives have lasted: Carole King, ’70s and ’80s hair bands, Billie Holiday, The Four Seasons, the Motown greats, Abba, Joplin of course, and on and on. One imagines Bert Berns would have been happy and proud to see his name brought into the light along with the work that has never left it. “My children will know me through my music,” he wrote. We’re all Bert Berns’s children in that sense.
For tickets and more information visit the Signature Theatre website.