Long before she yearned to turn back time, Cher was moving to the beat of a very different generation.
In the 1960s, a 16-year-old raven-haired, brown-eyed beauty, with a voice that could shake the rafters of an arena to the core, first appeared on the folk/rock music scene. She was accompanied by her singing partner, a mop-topped hippie named Sonny Bono with a penchant for writing catchy hit tunes and wearing fur vests.
‘The Cher Show’
When: Through July 15
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
The 30 years that followed were light years away on every level from the setting of Cher’s iconic 1989 music video “If I Could Turn Back Time,” filmed aboard the USS Missouri battleship. Rolling Stone listed the video among its 30 Sexiest Videos of All Time. If you’ve never watched it, take a YouTube look. Her “surprise” costume was deemed too inappropriate at the time even by MTV, which at first banned the hit and then aired it only after 9 p.m. And as her lifelong costumer Bob Mackie recently mused (emphasizing that he never approved of said costume), “There she is with, you know, 2,000 sailors on this ship and her 12-year-old son [Elijah Blue Allman] playing the guitar in the background, and his mother running around with her whole backside showing.”
But that’s the middle of the story.
Before and after, there were marriages and divorces, TV shows, Las Vegas gigs, endless recording sessions, the birth of a daughter, the birth of a son, movies and a cavalcade of hits for the onetime Cherilyn Sarkisian La Piere from El Centro, California, who transformed herself into a pop culture icon and savvy businesswoman/activist with a singular voice and name as distinct as they come.
Enter “The Cher Show,” the Broadway-bound musical getting its world premiere in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre. With a book by Tony Award winner Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”), orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters (“Memphis”), choreography by Tony winner Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”) and direction by Jason Moore (Tony winner for “Avenue Q”), the stage musical takes a look at the life and times (and costumes) of Cher, pulling together the chameleonlike facets that comprise the Grammy and Oscar winner’s life.
While Cher’s marriage to Bono in 1964 (they originally met when she was 16 and he was the 27-year-old assistant to legendary record producer/career maker Phil Spector) probably started out good, it quickly turned sour and would end in divorce after 11 years. But their impact on pop culture would touch generations of fans. Their primetime variety series, “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” was a massive hit with television audiences, who came to love the couple who seemed blissfully in love. She made fun of his height, he poked fun at her nose. The laughs were endless.
“Sonny and Cher were like members of our family. They made our family life more fun,” said “The Cher Show” producer Jeffrey Seller, who is also the producer of “Hamilton” (playing a few blocks away at the CIBC Theatre), which tells the tale of, well, another iconic American.
“Who ever thought you could put Hamilton and Cher in the same sentence,” Seller said amid hearty laughter. “America would not be the same were it not for Alexander Hamilton and Cher. And that is inarguably true. … People who are tenacious often are people who change the world. Alexander Hamilton unquestionably changed the world, and I think Cher, over the past 50-plus years, has absolutely changed the world.”
Behind the scenes, the marriage and the Bonos’ professional relationship were destructively volatile.
While Sonny would ultimately leave show biz for politics — he was mayor of Palm Springs and later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Cher followed her heart, hosting an eponymous variety show at one point (later replaced with a “reunion series” featuring Cher and Bono once again), and continuing to make music. At the age of 72, she’s still touring and rocking those Bob Mackie costumes.
The beat really does go on.
In the stage musical, Cher is portrayed by three actresses at three distinct stages of her life: Newcomer Micaela Diamond stars as “Babe,” Broadway veteran Teal Wicks stars as “Lady” and Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block (familiar to Chicago audiences for her portrayal of Elphaba in “Wicked”) portrays “Star.” Elice conceived the notion of having the three “Chers” on stage throughout the show, so that the trio could “converse and perform” with each other as needed, to create a singular but multifaceted character.
“The idea of presenting Cher as a girl group was fascinating to me as a writer,” Elice said. “You could have one of them argue with the other two, take sides against someone else, show how the three of them could support each other and evolve together over the course of the show. So, it’s not the cinema’s solution of here’s the young one, here’s the middle one, here’s the old one. They’re on all the time together so that we see sort of a refracted image of a personality onstage, which struck me as being a great way into a life that is so varied.”
“[The young ‘Babe’ Cher] is fearless but yet vulnerable and optimistic,” Block said of Elice’s unique character concept. “[Midlife ‘Star’ Cher] is confidence and poise. And I’m [as Lady] the wisdom of it all. I think the audience will really be taken aback that it’s not the young one who passes the torch to Lady who passes the torch to Star. We kind of liken it to a Russian nesting doll: There is the one doll, and then you open up and there’s the second and then the third. But yet when you put them all together it makes a complete Cher. And we’re hoping the audience really grasps and takes a hold of that because it’s not only theatrical but it’s very special and moving. … It’s this gorgeous, theatrical Cher therapy session.”
The three-actress approach allows for distinct Cher perspectives to surface.
“I didn’t realize how funny she was,” said Teal. “Her sense of comedy, even before it was refined, the silliness in the skits that [she and Sonny] would do [on their TV series], the dynamic between her and Sonny, I LOVE that. … Going back and listening to the songs and just falling in love with them: The more I listened to them the more I adore that voice. It’s so rich and has so many nuances. Starting out so young she didn’t know what she was doing, but the rock star/pop star was just innate in her. Her musicality and those nuances are so specific. It’s what made the songs hits.”
Fear not, the show is filled with the hits (nearly 30 of them) — everything from Sonny & Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go” to Cher’s biggest solo turns. Most are presented on familiar terms, while others have been re-orchestrated out of necessity.
“I always try and start to make sure I’m respecting the material to make sure we maintain the essence of the material,” Waters said of the musical’s score. “From there it’s a matter of finding a way to theatricalize and dramatize the material better, in terms of just underscoring emotion. Sometimes we come very close to the original recordings, such as ‘I’ve Got You Babe,’ and sometimes we’re straying pretty far away, like on ‘Strong Enough.’”
What did Waters discover about Sonny Bono the songwriter? “He obviously had his pulse on something,” Waters said of the Detroit-born Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, who died in 1998 from injuries suffered during a skiing accident in Nevada. “A lot of times it’s the simpler material that rings true because it’s not a lot of fancy bells and whistles going on behind it. Something like ‘Baby Don’t Go’ is a really simple tune, but by the time we get finished using it in the show it’s almost a heartbreaker.”
And what did he discover about Cher’s instantly recognizable vocals?
“The thing most interesting was the fact that she was such a rocker. I knew the pop stuff, the club stuff, but I didn’t know she had this huge rock background. She had a period where she was doing albums that were pure rock.”
Ironically, most of the show’s team and cast has either not met Cher or met her only briefly, though she has been extremely hands-on throughout the production process. (There is no word about her even attending opening night June 28.)
“Most of what I’ve heard about what she wants has come through Rick [Elice] and Jason [Moore],” Waters said. “And she trusts those guys; she’s worked with them a lot. So, it’s basically from God’s ears — me getting [Cher’s input] from them.”