Piece of My Heart Finally Is a Piece of Music History

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Twist and Shout

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


Can you name nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Tougher still, can you tell us who Bert Berns was?

Berns was the composer of one of rock music’s blockbuster hits, Twist and Shout, recorded by the Isley Brothers and then the Beatles, along with Tell Him, Piece of My Heart, I Want Candy, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love and Hang On Sloopy, yet few know anything about him.

All that changed last week when a new musical about the composer, Piece of My Heart, opened at the Signature Theater in New York. The musical is a rousing tribute to Berns and all the rockers of his generation, the 1960s.

The story begins with a frantic phone call from Bert’s old friend, Wazzel, to his daughter Jessie, who has just turned thirty. She was born only a few days after Berns died (at 38) and did not know anything about him. Now, after the call, she rushes to New York and gets into his old office, where she meets Wazzel. He tells her that her mother, Ilene, is trying to sell all of her dad’s songs to a big music conglomerate.

Here, the story jumps back in time to Bert’s teenaged years, as he begins his battle to defeat a heart problem that he had since he was a kid. Doctors told him that he would never reach the age of thirty. Driven by the fast-ticking clock, Berns then sets out to write all the music he can and get it played everywhere and anywhere. The result is a garage full of hits and enough songs that if the music sheets were placed together, would probably stretch from the Brill building in New York to the home of Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

In the story, Berns loses friends as he works his way to the top. He falls in love with a dancer who at their first meeting accused him of stealing the melody from La Bamba for Twist and Shout. That story is one half of the play. The other half is the growing relationship between Wazzel and Bert’s daughter. He sees his old buddy Bert in the girl and works with her to get the song rights back. She sees a new role for herself – protector of her father’s music and a chance to make him famous after fifty years.

Zach Resnick is a lovable Bert. He is a laid back, casual and utterly charming man who cannot believe the good luck with his music and the bad luck with his health. His daughter Jessie is played well by Leslie Kritzer, a skilled Janis Joplin type singer herself. She is endearing. Best buddy Wazzel, Bert’s personal enforcer all those years ago, is portrayed wonderfully by Joseph Stravo as an old man and Bryan Fenkart as a young one. Linda Hart is good his wife in her 50s, Teal Wicks is just as good as the young Ilene. Derek Bakin is best friend and singer Hoagy. There is a large cast of singers and dancers, who make the show sizzle.

The choreography in the play is magnificent. Choreographer/director Denis Jones has created a storm of people on stage, moving in sync from number to another, bounding about the stage and up and down large circular stages.

The musical, with a book by Daniel Goldfarb, has its troubles, though. The first half hour is plain dreadful. It is a slow and meandering story about Berns’ early years through the time he went to Cuba to re-discover himself. It does build a foundation for the rest of the story but you should bring an alarm clock to wake yourself up. The acting in the first half hour is dull, the music forgettable and the storyline hard to follow. The show also attempts, and this is done badly, to shoehorn just about all of Berns hundreds of songs into the script. The problem with that is while you get to hear the big hits, such as Twist and Shout, you have to sit through some really forgettable tunes.

Even so, music history lovers will enjoy this rarely told story of a hard-working, gifted composer from the sixties who, with Twist and Shout, set the world on fire. It is a story of perseverance, love and dedication. You have to sit through a colossally boring first half hour, but after that this musical twists and shouts its way to the heavens.

It is also a story that tells you a lot about the history of the country and the music industry in the fifties and sixties. There is the Castro revolution in Cuba, the mob influence in the record business, the British invasion in the early 1960s and, of course, different styles of hair and dress.

Why does nobody know Bert Berns? Well, who knew any of the songwriters of the 1950s and ‘60s, who made singers famous with their work? And, too, he died of heart failure when he was just 38 – gone too soon.

He left a legacy of music though, and it still wails on the radio all night long.

PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by Merged Work Productions. Sets: Alexander Dodge, Costumes: David C. Wooland, Lighting: Ben Stanton, Sound: Carl Casella. The play is choreographed and directed by Denis Jones. Runs through August 31. 

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