by MAUREEN LEE LENKER
Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk the Line to The Four Seasons in Jersey Boys, the musical biography is familiar fodder for storytelling. As neither screenplay nor musical, Four Chords and a Gun plumbs familiar ground as a straight play that chronicles the lives of The Ramones during the production and recording of their fifth album, End of the Century.
The play peeks inside the lives of band members Marky (James Pumphrey), Johnny (Johnathan McClain), Dee Dee (Michael Daniel Cassidy), and Joey (Matthew Patrick Davis) while they are suffering under the whims of notoriously demanding and eccentric music producer Phil Spector (Josh Brener). For those who love the music of the Ramones, a play may seem an odd choice, when so many musicals — including American Idiot using the music of Green Day (who were heavily influenced by the Ramones) — have expertly plumbed rock catalogs to craft a story.
Playwright John Ross Bowie felt that the inherently tragic nature of The Ramones’ lives, and their unique relationship to art and work, called for something more nuanced.
“I just felt like there’s something in a jukebox musical, inherently, that is sort of instant camp, and I’m not sure there’s a way around that,” Bowie says. “I just felt like the story of these people, setting aside the fact they are musicians, would best be served by a very simple kitchen sink drama.”
The Ramones’ music is utilized in the production, but simplistically: during scene transitions. The play’s stripped down approach echoes the tenets of punk rock, taking place in an expansive warehouse and using simple set decoration to convey a sense of place amidst the trappings of a raw music venue. Rather than the usual cradle-to-grave approach to biographical narrative, the play presents a more delicately paced snapshot of two years in the life of this band — a microcosm through which to examine the values and hang-ups that shaped their twenty-two year career together (one of the longest ever for a punk band).
This desire to go beyond biographical bullet points or sensationalism is what drew producer Brian Nitzkin to the project. “It didn’t really rely on the hard stereotypes of rock’n’roll — the hard partying, the resistance to all societal norms,” he explains. “This is a group that really took a job, capital J, very seriously, and struggled with it and struggled to achieve a certain amount of success that I think anybody wants to achieve in their life.”
For those who aren’t familiar with their music, The Ramones still evoke a recognizable iconic look with their long, black haircuts, leather jackets, and sense of attitude that seeps from their stance. “There was something very cartoonish about The Ramones in the way they presented themselves,” Bowie says. “But they were real, conflicted, ambiguous characters underneath the haircuts and leather jackets, and I wanted to try and capture that… and [cut] through the iconography and [get] to the people underneath the jackets.”
The production took this goal seriously, treating the wigs, for example, as an essential part of The Ramones’ identity and working with them weeks before tech. As producer Nitzkin explains, “if you’re doing a Restoration comedy, you need everybody in their hoop skirts as quickly as possible, so that they’re not bumping into furniture and they’re used to having this extra weight around. We gave it the same amount of import.” The creative team used these wigs almost as a version of mask-work, allowing the actors to immediately take on the iconic shape of The Ramones, but forcing them to work even harder to move the audience beyond that punk veneer.
If you’re not a Ramones fan (or even a fan of punk in general), the play’s appeal lies directly under that veneer: the production addresses the age-old question of whether talent or hard work is the key to creative success through the lens of this particular band’s experience. The Ramones’ success is largely attributed to the musicians’ ability to treat the music — as Nitzkin explains — as their job. However, music producer Phil Spector was an infamous control freak, demanding from the band upwards of fifty takes on single chords, and elongating record production by months at a time. This clashed with The Ramones DIY approach that enabled them to record their first album in merely a week, and clashed further with the idea that these musicians were, in fact, creative beings. Indeed, at one point Johnny declares: “Art comes out of you; it’s real; it’s spontaneous.”
So at what point do artistry and hard work intersect for success? “I’m drawn to that question of inspiration versus perspiration,” says Bowie of his own artistic leanings. “There’s something I love about punk rock and the way it’s so scrappy and self-taught, but there’s something I love about theatre in the way that it has to be meticulous and careful and specific in order to work and to make sure nobody gets hurt while doing it.”
Director Hanna says she finds the answer somewhere in between the two extremes. “You do have to be so specific in theater, more so than just about any other medium,” she says. “But at the same time, you have to enter into that process… to just have art roll out of you, and then you have to look at it and actually work with it, and shape it.”
While The Ramones may have never found the answer, their experiences making End of the Century, chronicled in this play, forced them to consider the enigma of artistic creation in new ways, pushing them to treat their music and careers with a work ethic perhaps lacking in other, more short-lived, punk rock bands. Four Chords and a Gun offers the chance to take this journey with them, making it much more than a run-of-the-mill musical biography.
NOW PLAYING: FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN, through July 31 at Bootleg Theater.
Four Chords and a Gun tells the crazy, funny, sad and true story of the Ramones. In 1978 the pioneering punk band, desperate for a hit, enlisted legendary (and legendarily … eccentric) producer Phil Spector to produce their 5th album.