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Man on the Moon: Exclusive footage of John Phillips musical produced by Andy Warhol (1975)

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The following was written by Chris Campion and is taken from the liner notes of the CD release of Andy Warhol Presents Man on the Moon: The John Phillips Space Musical on Varese Sarabande Records.

The off-Broadway musical Man on the Moon was conceived by John Phillips and his third wife, the South African actress, Genevieve Waite, as a potential film or stage production originally entitled Space. John would spend more time trying to realize this project than anything else he worked on in his career; nearly five years all told, beginning in 1969 during the period he was recording his first solo album, John the Wolfking of L.A.

Space was born the day Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. Like millions of other people, John watched the 1969 moon landing on TV. He was living, at the time, on the Malibu property rented by British film director Michael Sarne, who was under contract at Fox to direct the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, Myra Breckenridge, with Rex Harrison, Raquel Welch and Mae West. Sarne had commissioned John to write songs for the film.

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The Apollo 11 moon landing became an obsession. John would watch a recording of the TV transmission made on an early video tape machine over and over. The idea of exploring this new frontier - and particularly Neil Armstrong’s scripted aside as he stepped onto the lunar surface that it was, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” - fired John’s imagination, and he began to piece together ideas for a mythical space opera set to music. “He loved myths,” says Genevieve, who was first introduced to John by Sarne that summer. “He liked Homer - The Iliad and The Odyssey.”

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John first began performing a small song cycle he had written about “space exploration” as early as the fall of 1970, as part of the short tour he undertook to promote Wolf King. Over the next two years, he and Genevieve formulated ideas for the story, and created a theatrical treatment (later adapted as a screenplay). Seeking a backer, they pitched it to Michael Butler, producer of the stage musical Hair. He provided seed money to realize a book and a score for Space, and brought a young director called Michael Bennett on board.

For several months, the Italianate mansion at 414 St. Pierre road in Bel Air that John and Genevieve were renting became a hive of Space-related activity. Among their collaborators was British costumier Marsia Trinder, who had designed clothes for Elvis Presley and Raquel Welch. “It was a very creative period for about two or three months,” says Trinder, who moved into another wing of the mansion with her then boyfriend to work on costumes for the production. “John was the key person organizing it all and coming up with ideas. But everybody was feeding into it. John felt that with all the secrets in the world, there wouldn’t be wars if people didn’t have secrets. And then they kind of figured out the plot.”

The initial story for Space gradually took shape: When a humanoid bomb left on the moon by the Apollo space mission threatens to blow itself up and destroy the universe, an astronaut on Earth is tasked with leading a delegation of interplanetary dignitaries to travel there and defuse it. Humanity is forced to curb its destructive impulses for the universal good.

 

The role of the astronaut was originally written for Elvis, whom John and Genevieve had befriended in 1971, while living in Palm Springs shortly after the birth of their son Tamerlane. “John was trying to sell him songs,” says Waite. “They would sit around and John would sing him different songs.”  At one point, Ricky Nelson was also approached for the part.

The show was also intended as a vehicle to help launch a musical career for Genevieve; the only problem being that she was not a trained singer. John set about preparing her for the role of her character, Angel, through some informal voice coaching, but he also tweaked the script to take into account Genevieve’s idiosyncratic vocal style. Angel hailed from Canis Minor, a star with a rotational axis that was off-kilter. All the inhabitants sang off-key and had to tap dance in order to maintain their balance. John’s description of Angel fit Genevieve to a tee. She was “wild-looking, child-like, out-of-step and out-of tune - and capable of immaculate conception in space, merely by falling in love.”

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Trinder designed elaborate costumes for the principals. Prototypes were designed at Disney. For the astronaut, she designed a flight suit that could be inflated with helium during the show. For Pluto, the space pimp, a brightly-colored sharkskin suit, diamond-encrusted teeth and black gloves with mirrored palms that reflected beams of light like a disco ball. The original supporting cast also included a troupe of young, black synchronised street dancers called the Lockers, regular guests on Soul Train, whose fluid, machine-like “locking” movements prefigured 80’s “body-popping.” The troupe convened every week in the underground ballroom at John’s mansion for rehearsals. There was also to be a weightless ballet performed on wires above the stage. “This was way before Michael Jackson,” says Trinder. “The whole thing would have been very hip.”

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Unfortunately it was not to be. Michael Butler pulled out just as the final cast was to be approved. “Michael [Bennett] came to me one day and said, “I can’t work with John Phillips anymore’ and quit,’” says Butler. “And that, frankly, knocked me out as well.”

Phillips maintained that Bennett wanted to jazz up the project for Broadway with a slicker staging. He had envisioned a funkier production driven by the energy of rock-n-roll. The problem, Butler says, was nothing to do with the creative aspects of the show, but rather John’s temperament. Cocaine was now an accepted part of his creative process. Bowls of it were laid out on the table during production meetings for anyone to dip into, according to John’s autobiography, Papa John. But the drugs were also starting to cloud his judgment.

“Drugs made him very difficult to work with,” says Butler. “He also had a lot of paranoia. And that was the last thing we needed. He always felt that we were trying to take advantage of him, or fool around with his work, and stuff like that. That’s the last thing on earth that either Bennett or I were interested in doing.”

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Bennett went on to direct the original production of A Chorus Line. At this point Len Holzer, a real estate broker from New York who was among John and Genevieve’s circle of friends in Los Angeles (and was the inspiration for John’s song “Mister Blue”), wanted to turn Space into a film. He envisioned it as a science fiction comedy-musical starring Jack Nicholson and Barbara Streisand. Holzer’s girlfriend at the time, Julia Robinson, had just appeared in Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens alongside Nicholson. According to Holzer, Nicholson was receptive to the idea of working on Space, pending further confirmation of the director and cast. A copy of the script was also passed to George Lucas through John’s then 12-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, who had been cast in Lucas’s American Graffiti. According to Genevieve, John always maintained that Lucas stole the idea for Star Wars from his script!

imageWhen it became obvious that the film was also going nowhere, John and Genevieve moved to New York to seek out funding for their musical, performing songs for potential backers at brunch meetings, again with little success. Genevieve bemoaned the fate of the show to her friend, Andy Warhol, who offered to find a backer, and did. Warhol also agreed to serve as a producer, and provided a director in the form of Paul Morrissey, who had made a series of avant-garde exploitation films under Warhol’s aegis (Flesh, Trash, Heat, Chelsea Girls, etc.). John expressed his bemusement about Warhol’s involvement in the song, “Oh Andy My Assistant”: “Oh Andy, my assistant/your mind is so consistently blank/that I’m banking on you now/so please so don’t try to comprehend/the reason why I have to send/ you up or else, I’m sure that we, shall have a terrible row/It’s either you or I must save the race/ So bye-bye Andy and off you’re goin’ to Space.”
 

 
In the meantime, John began helming sessions for Genevieve’s 1974 solo album, Romance Is On The Rise, at Media Sound studios in New York with members of John Lennon’s Plastic U.F.Ono Band (the group that played on Lennon’s Mind Games album). Some of the songs on Gen’s album - namely, “Love Is Coming Back” and “American Man On The Moon” - had already been written for Space. Another song, “Girls,” ended up as a late addition to the show.

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By this stage, John had written over 30 songs for the project; a suite of songs that were, by turns, touching and witty, like a space-age Cole Porter, and told of a communal quest for love, truth, peace and freedom in the outer realms. But they also reflected his own personal hopes, quests and struggles. On “Yesterday I Left The Earth,” John’s lyrics recall that “beautiful flying creatures stopped me from pushing the button.” The song is both a mythic flight of fantasy and a plea to prevent his own self-destruction. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine John as the human bomb and Genevieve the angel sent to save him.

For John’s space opera, like all his work, was at its heart autobiographical. “Andy’s Talking Blues,” a song written to introduce the astronaut hero of the piece (inspired by Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy character), is drawn literally from John’s own biography, as is “Boys From The South.” He sings about his education at convent, military and boarding schools, and of his drunken ex-Marine father singing with his dogs down in the basement of the family home in Virginia. Despite the camp, comedic tone of the narrative and music he constructed for Space, there was also a serious undercurrent.

“John didn’t believe that anyone could survive life on this planet,” says Genevieve. “And that there must be a planet where you could survive life, where you didn’t die. He believed that there was life on other planets. He thought that the Earth was fatal” I don’t know if he was happy in his own skin. I don’t think he was. I think he felt that the human condition was very sad.”

These contradictory emotions of entrapment and confinement coupled with humor and hope for the future became repeated themes in the musical, from the heartbreaking “There Is A Place” (sung by Genevieve) to “Handcuffs,” “Truth Cannot Be Treason” and “Last Of The Unnatural Acts” - a song written for the musical but which first appeared in Robert Altman’s 1970 film Brewster McCloud.

image“There is a Place” is another real-life lament about John’s longing to escape. The lyrics directly address the difficulties of maintaining a celebrity marriage - “There is a place/ between two stars/ somewhere in space/it’s yours/ it’s ours/we’ll watch the worlds roll by/and never even think of dying/there is a place in space that’s ours”; of raising his children- “There is no room for me here/ no room to raise a family here/ not enough to eat/ the wind doesn’t smell sweet anymore”; substance abuse and dealing with the glare of public scrutiny- “People everywhere/are inclined to stare/I have a need for privacy dear/ feel like a sardine/and I don’t feel very clean/I’d like a star of my own/there is a place in space for stars.”

Space finally debuted at the Little Theatre on Broadway in January 1975 under a new title, Man On The Moon. The cast included sex-bomb Monique van Vooren (star of Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein) as Venus and Papa Denny Doherty in a dual role as the President and King Can. The production had been greatly diminished from John and Genevieve’s original vision. Budgetary constraints necessitated a redesign of Trinder’s costumes and the sets were extremely rudimentary. John and Morrissey were continuously changing the script and music and arguing about each other’s changes. Then Waite contracted laryngitis and lost her voice the first day they were to rehearse with the full orchestra. John became anxious that the play was heading for a calamitous opening.

His worst fears came true when, two weeks before the opening, producer Richard Turley fired Paul Morrissey and installed a more experienced Broadway director who changed all the stage directions, dropped songs, added new ones, made cast members switch roles and ordered a last minute re-write of the script to jazz it up with gauche one-liners. As a result of the constant rewrites, the narrative was now incomprehensible, and bore little resemblance to the original story. “It was a nightmare,” says Waite.

imageAmong the audience on the opening night were Warren Beatty, Andy Warhol, Diane von Furstenberg, Diana Vreeland, Jules Feiffer, Kurt Vonnegut, Geraldo Rivera, Rex Harrison and Yoko Ono. The cast and star guests partied the night away afterwards at Sardi’s, a famed hangout in the theater district. But celebrations came to an abrupt halt when the reviews came in the next morning, all unanimous in their condemnation of the show. Clive Barnes of The New York Times led the charge with a review that seemed more concerned with critiquing Andy Warhol but was, nevertheless, brutally frank about the show’s charm (or lack thereof): “Mr. Warhol’s artistic practice - if I have caught his drift alright - is to produce works of arts so inept that their ineptitude becomes their value”.For connoisseurs of the truly bad, Man on the Moon may be a small milestone.” Barnes was a bit more forgiving of the music: “The score is in a fairly nostalgic and eclectic vein; perhaps Mr. Phillips is hoping to start up a group called the Grandmamas and the Grandpapas - it could well catch on. But the music was almost the best part of the evening. (The best part actually was the half-hour wait before the show started when all the beautiful people were arriving in well-swept hordes.)”

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The show closed within five days. John and Genevieve were devastated. All the passion and years of work they had put into making it happen were wrecked in one night. “I think the failure of the show broke John’s heart,” says Waite. The humiliating collapse of this long-held dream also exacerbated all the demons within John. From this point on, his addiction to drugs would take a much deeper hold on his life.

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When John was commissioned to work on the soundtrack for Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth (on the recommendation of its star, David Bowie), the couple moved to London. By some strange irony, John was now working on a project with a storyline that was the polar opposite of Space. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, a humanoid alien arrives on Earth to try and save his own doomed planet, but is corrupted by humans. Not surprisingly, John utilised some of the songs written for Space - “Boys From The South,” “Love Is Coming Back,” “Black Broadway” (originally about Pluto, the sharkskin pimp, but dropped) - re-working them for the soundtrack with former Rolling Stones guitarist, Mick Taylor. While in London, it was also with Taylor, Jagger and Richards that he would start the sessions for his next solo album (Pussycat, also available).

Written by Chris Campion, from the liner notes of the CD release of Andy Warhol Presents Man on the Moon: The John Phillips Space Musical on Varese Sarabande Records

Man on the Moon Website

Posted by Richard Metzger
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