Let it be: The Beatles tribute Rain comes to the Orpheum Theatre courtesy of SHN. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Rain producer Mark Lewis.
Mark Lewis never really intended to become the crown prince of Beatles tribute bands. As a young keyboardist/singer/songwriter in Los Angeles, Lewis wanted to perform his own songs, and to that end, he was part of a band called Reign.
“We all wrote songs and wanted to put out hit albums just like a million other bands,” Lewis says on the phone from his home in Reno. “We chose the name Reign because it was basically a cool name – like reign over a kingdom. At one point we came close to a deal with Casablanca records and had put our hearts and souls into the recording process. We thought we were on our way to stardom. But the deal fell through, and it broke our hearts.”
So the band fell back on plan B, which involved the Beatles covers they’d occasionally do in addition to their original material. Audiences at it up, and bookers started to call about doing all-Beatles shows. The band morphed from Reign into Rain not in reference to the Beatles song on the flip side of the “Paperback Writer” 45 but because no one could spell the name correctly. Everyone, from the guys who put up the marquees to the people who wrote the press releases, touted the band as Rain, so that’s what they became.
In the early days of the mid-’70s, Rain would wear black turtlenecks because, as Lewis recalls, “they were cheap.” Pretty soon, each band member had taken over playing John, Paul, George and Ringo, and before long, costumes entered the picture – Sgt. Pepper-type costumes.
“We really went for it and made it more of a show,” Lewis says. “We started getting booked in places like Harrah’s in Tahoe and Reno. We were booked as Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles and we did quite well. We were making a living and paying our bills.”
More than 35 years later, Rain is going gangbusters. A limited run of the show on Broadway has turned into an honest-to-Ringo hit and may run forever (the show had to switch theaters to make room for Catch Me If You Can). The show has toured through Europe and has offers pending in London’s West End and in Singapore. This Friday, April 8, Rain begins a three-day run at the Orpheum Theatre courtesy of SHN.
“I have a sign in my office,” Lewis says, “that a friend made me. It reads: ‘Rain: An Overnight Sensation after 35 Years on the Road.’ It’s absolutely unbelievable how this thing has taken off.”
Lewis is no longer a member of the band. Instead, he devotes his time to producing and managing the burgeoning Rain empire, which is more than a full-time gig. Imagine having to audition musician-performers who have to fill – quite literally – the shoes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
“It’s actually hard to find people with a passion for the Beatles who have the necessary talent,” Lewis explains. “They have to have incredible vocal ability, incredible musicianship to play instruments as virtuosos and to create, note for note, the Beatles’ arrangements. That’s much harder than most people realize. You have not only sound like the Beatles but in your playing have the right tones and positions. The guy playing McCartney has to sing his ass off – Paul had an incredibly high range in his early 20s – and play a great piano and bass. You also have to be able to harmonize and have, to some degree, the look. You front the band and do it night after night, entertaining and engaging the audience.”
In some ways, Lewis adds, being a pretend Beatle may actually be harder than being the real thing. Think about it – if you go to see McCartney in concert, or Elton John or the Eagles for that matter, there’s a certain aura about the performer just being on stage. These are the guys who wrote the songs and made those records you listened to morning and night. You’re happy just to be in the same room with them.
But when you see someone doing someone else’s music, it’s more like: show me.
“You have to be at the top of your game,” Lewis says. “Especially with the Beatles. It’s just insulting to hear the Beatles done poorly. That’s what separates us and made us a Broadway hit. We’ve delivered the goods for a long time. We were this little band that started in bars, and we’ve seen this thing through casinos and amusement parks, food festivals, cruise ships and corporate parties. Now we’re a hit on Broadway.”
Rain did play the Bay Area – in the old Waldorf in San Francisco (where the Punch Line Comedy Club is now), in Burlingame, in Oakland – but the Orpheum gig is the first time the fully produced show, complete with the costumes, set and video screens showing highlights from 1960s culture, has played here.
With the Beatles catalogue finally available online via iTunes, the Fab Four has entered the digital age at last. Cirque du Soleil is still packing them into the Beatles show Love in Las Vegas. And Rain keeps a steady pace.
“Not many bands could hold interest like this for so many years,” Lewis says. “The Beatles stopped touring in their late 20s, and they didn’t perform live much after that. Then they broke up at their peak in 1969. They left this great void. There was all this good music and nobody was doing it. The Beatles are still something special. They changed music, changed history, changed the whole direction of society. That may not have been their intention, but that’s what they did.”
In the 35-year history of Rain, no Beatle has ever, at least to Lewis’ knowledge, seen the show. He wishes Paul or Ringo might stop by the Broadway production.
“They’d appreciate the level of musicianship and the attention to detail we put in the show,” he says. “If they saw the show, they’d enjoy it.”
Here’s a peek at Rain on Broadway.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles runs April 8-10 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit http://shnsf.com/shows/rain for information.