Mention “Twist And Shout” to a Boomer and you’ll get a shake of the thinning hair or shaved scalp along with recollections of the Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show. The more knowing response may even be the Isley Brothers, who recorded it first, in 1962. Ask who wrote the iconic rock number, however, and you’re more than likely to draw a blank look. Answer: Bert Berns.
Ask who pulled Van Morrison out of the Belfast band Them and produced “Brown-Eyed Girl,” or who wrote “Piece Of My Heart” — first recorded by Erma Franklin and then made timeless by Janis Joplin — and the answer is the same: Bert Berns. A hit-churning songwriter-turned-producer in the Phil Spector vein, Berns died of a heart attack in 1967. He was just 38 and unlike his contemporaries Spector or Gerry Goffin and Carole King, or Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Berns was all but unknown beyond the Brill Building cognoscenti.
That’s about to change, at least if siblings Brett and Cassie Berns have any say in the matter. With a little help from their friend and patron Paul McCartney, Bert Berns’ children are on a mission to vest their father’s name in the pop music pantheon, having him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. San Francisco rock critic Joel Selvin’s comprehensive warts-and-all biography, Here Comes The Night, got this send-off from the New York Times Book Review: The splendid page-turner, subtitled The Dark Soul of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues, “rights a historical injustice,” wrote fellow rock historian Robert Gordon, “shining a light on an overshadowed great man and deepening our understanding of a history we continue to dance to.”
Brett and Cassie Berns have an extraordinary catalogue of songs to make their case, and they’re determined to put their father’s music before the public in a new light. OK, any light. They just spent $3 million on Piece Of My Heart, a bio-musical written by Daniel Goldfarb and cunningly staged by Denis Jones that closed this weekend after a summer-long off-Broadway run and an earlier workshop at Vassar College/New York Stage And Film’s highly regarded Powerhouse Theater development program.
The offering papers on a $9 million move to Broadway are set to go. They’re hoping for more support from Sir Paul who, as of this writing, has not confirmed his participation in the project but his company, MPL Music Publishing, administers the Bert Berns catalogue. A spring 2015 Broadway opening would coincide with a documentary produced by Brett and Cassie that includes extensive interviews with many of the people Berns helped turn into stars.
And here’s the thing: Brett, 49, who lives in Malibu, and Cassie, 47, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are neither Broadway producers nor documentary filmmakers. It’s been a steep learning curve every step of the way, from coming to terms with their father’s complicated history (he hung out with mobsters and was unafraid to give as good as he got in that “dirty business”) to mounting what, after all, is a jukebox musical in a field saturated with them. On Broadway today there are Jersey Boys, Motown The Musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Mamma Mia!, Rock Of Ages and in its own way, Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill; countless more have come and gone; more are in the works. Several Piece Of My Heart reviews reflected critics’ animadversion to this latest venture into the form.
“We admit we’re total novices,” Brett said during an interview in Manhattan with the brother and sister a few days ago. He’s a tough guy with an engaging smile who served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces. “We took a beating for being a jukebox show. We could see the bias the critics had for the genre, but we weren’t prepared for the attacks on Cassie and me. It seemed personal.” He pointed out that work began on the musical more than a decade ago and in earnest in 2007; they weren’t trying to ride the tails of a trend.
Indeed, they were determined to retain control of their work-in-progress even if it meant turning down offers from nonprofit theaters like Southern California’s La Jolla Playhouse, which had experience developing this type of musical (it’s where Jersey Boys had its world premiere).
“They always wanted too much in terms of re-creating the wheel — replacing our creative team,” Brett said. They were fortunate to have a tough-love champion in CAA’s theatrical superagent George Lane and behind-the-scenes advice from producer Elizabeth Williams (most recently of last season’s Waiting For Godot/No Man’s Land).
“It was George who said, ‘Really, you guys have to stop screwing around,’ ” Brett recalled. “He’s very passionate about the project and he’s brutally honest. George said, ‘OK, you’re the producers, can you raise $3 million for off-Broadway?’ Little did we know how hard that would be for a show with no chance of recouping, to prove it was a jukebox musical that would make people cry, with this ambitious framing device that some would love, some love less. We knew if we could put it on its feet we would find our audience.”
In the end, investors in the off-Broadway production numbered fewer than 10 and most of the capitalization came from the Bernses themselves. “Bert lived with his heart on his sleeve,” says Brett. “No one knew he had these guys for friends who went around smashing bootleggerss’ knees with baseball bats for kicks.”
Cassie, more soft-spoken than her brother, says, “Our mission started 10 years ago. I learned you are the one that you’ve been waiting for.” By which she meant herself. “I have the ability, passion, the drive and the vision to do it. No one else will, if we don’t.
“This has been a journey of discovery,” she added. “Bringing him back to life every night and feeling those things we got across, I feel like I’ve gotten to know him better by seeing him on that stage. People come up and say ‘That’s Bert — that’s Bert up on that stage.” They plied me with a copy of Here Comes The Night and a couple of compilation albums of Bert Berns songs, and then they left.