"Rock 'n Roll! The First 5,000 Years," opens with a recording of Frank Sinatra singing "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" during what is obviously a school prom in the '50s, with girls in long dresses dancing cheek to cheek with boys in tuxedos. That's the last reference to any music other than rock that is heard during the entire show. And it is also, according to an announcement, the only part of the evening's entertainment that is recorded - the rest is all performed live.
The announcement is also the last spoken word heard all evening. All the rest is music, music, music, starting with a re-creation of Bill Haley and the Comets playing "Rock Around the Clock" and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" to disco ("Stayin' Alive" and "I Will Survive") and punk. It's almost as if Bob Gill and Robert Rabinowitz, who are given credit for conceiving this production, have put together a new format of that old TV show, "Your Hit Parade," by taking the hit songs from over several years and stringing them together, with performers made up to look like the original artists, re-creating the songs note for note, phrase for phrase, inflection for inflection.
No attempt at a story line is made, and the music is performed in front of (or behind) huge screens on which are shown various photographs - stills and film - of people, events, places, relics, paintings, statuary, ruins, historical drawings, maps, a little of this, a lot of that. Some of these images have some relation to the songs being played, sung or performed onstage, some have not. As a matter of fact, it's difficult to determine if the music is meant to illustrate the photos or vice versa.
The graphics zip through the first 4,970 years of the title fairly quickly, then spend most of the rest of the time concentrating on the last three decades, the time when the accompanying music was being heard, while on the screens are the pictures of what was happening, mostly in America, in the '50s, '60s and '70s.
Watching those pictures, it would seem as if the last 30 years were years of grim confrontations. Marchers battling police in Alabama; Robert Kennedy lying on the kitchen floor of that California hotel; Vietnam protestors; Kent State; the fatal drive through Dallas; the women's movement marches; Martin Luther King's funeral; President Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon; the anti-nuke marches and rally in Central Park; the flower children; the march on Washington, all shown to the accompaniment of the music of the time - "White Rabbit," "Blowin' in the Wind," "You've Got a Friend" and Jimi Hendrix's version of the "Star Spangled Banner." After a bit, you begin to feel you're watching your own personal "This Is Your Life."
The numbers are played and sung by a talented group of singer-dancers who also manage to look and sound remarkably like the artists who either wrote or performed the numbers originally - there's a lot of quick changes of costumes, wigs and props in view of the audience. This is such an ensemble production, with the actors all participating in each segment, that it is difficult to single many out. However, Patrick Weathers is creditable as both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan; Joyce Leigh Bowden switches from a Carole King to a Bette Midler and does both well and Carl E. Weaver could be used as a stand-in anytime for either Chuck Berry or Fats Domino.
Franne Lee's costumes are quite inventive, and Jules Fisher's lighting design is excellent. Director-choreographer Joe Layton keeps everything and everyone moving faster than the speed of sound. Or light.
Even so, he cannot disguise the fact that what is being presented onstage is more fluff than substance. More to the point, it has no point at all.
Popular music is history's counterpoint. It is the way we were. Just as in a private moment a song can recall a person, so the music of a generation summons up that generation's heartbeat.
That is presumably part of the idea behind the new show Rock 'n Roll! The First 5000 Years at the St. James Theater. There is a dramatic intention here to place all our musical yesterdays into a historic context.
First, what is the show - it is obviously a curious kind of musical. Equally it is obviously an equally curious kind of rock concert. Clearly it is a Broadway musical that has finally disposed of the book.
We have talked about bookless musicals in the past, but their lack was comparative. This is absolute. The show is basically nothing more than a succession of rock hits sung live by imitators of the original song.
How interesting this is musically I have no idea. Some imitations are obviously good - ranging from those of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin to Little Richard. Others, such as the Beatles, are passable; a few, such as that of Mick Jagger, struck me as feeble.
And of course, even at their best these performances are only imitations. They lack the spontaneity of the original, or even the satirical comment that can be suggested by a professional impersonator.
What appeal this will have for rock fans I leave to others to offer an opinion, and for the rock fans themselves to determine. Certainly opera lovers would scarcely flock to hear a concert that consisted of unknown singers offering impressions of, say, Caruso and Sembrich up through Pavarotti and Sutherland. But rockers may march to a different drum.
Theatrically the show has interest - even though its full potential in terms of light and drama is scarcely explored, let alone exploited.
It has been conceived by Bob Gill and Robert Rabinowitz - who are called "the authors" in the Playbill, and are also credited with "media." It has been directed and choreographed by Joe Layton, the scenery is by Mark Ravitz, the costumes by Franne Lee, lighting by Jules Fisher, sound by Brian Ferren.
These technical credits are vital - indeed they are the show. Messrs. Gill and Rabinowitz earlier co-steered Beatlemania to its Broadway success - a show the critics were never invited to see, incidentally, and which I carelessly missed - and now they are hoping that multi-media can strike twice in more or less the same place.
The show makes a fair stab at social history, but now with unerring aim. From the opening with Frank Sinatra crooning - is that still a word? - Love is a Many Splendored Thing, it speeds through, pretty comprehensively, that last quarter-century show of rock, from its origins in rhythm 'n' blues right through to the undercurrents of the new wave.
Multi-screens are used - a scrim at the front, two joined by separate screens at the back. On these are projected visuals - chiefly films - which are either illustrations or comment on the ongoing tapestry of music.
The idea is terrific. Its execution varies in taste and appropriateness. The juxtaposition of image and music - which is theatrically the show's crux rather than the simulated music which is its crutch - is sometimes brilliant, sometimes pointless, sometimes silly.
Social history is a vital ingredient to the show - but to compare, through film clips, the Watergate investigation with the Nuremburg Tribunal is cheap overkill.
Yet visually I found the show thrilling. The David Bowie sequence - Space Oddity - proved even more theatrical than the original.
This could be the beginning of a new kind of multi-media theater. It owes a lot to such forerunners as Josef Swoboda's Czech show, The Magic Lantern, probably even something to the pioneer work of Alwin Nikolais.
The ideas of photo-juxtaposition were pioneered years ago by such journalists as Stefan Lorant in magazines. The light-show concept comes straight from rock itself.
But the package is a potent one. Forget how good or how bad the kids are in their imitation flattery - listen to the past, and watch the theatrical fireworks of the future.
There was something sleazy about the basic idea of ''Beatlemania'' - four ersatz moptops reducing the Beatles legacy to a plastic simulacrum. But the multiple-screen projections and other special effects that were created for the show by its authors, Bob Gill and Robert Rabinowitz, were genuinely fresh and appealing. It was only a matter of time until someone put them to more worthwhile uses, and ''Rock 'n Roll! The First 5,000 Years,'' which opened last night at the St. James Theater, does just that.
Special effects are this show's real stars, and it should come as no surprise that the effects, and the show itself, were created by the perpetrators of ''Beatlemania,'' Mr. Gill and Mr. Rabinowitz. They are still working on a fine line between simulation and parody, but this time they have taken the entire history of rock-and-roll as their subject and selectively plundered the history of Western civilization for their multimedia images.
''Rock 'n Roll! The First 5,000 Years'' begins when a Little Richard look-alike, Carl E. Weaver, rudely interrupts a Frank Sinatra recording with an energetic performance of ''Tutti Frutti.'' Over the two huge screens behind him flicker a succession of images, following two different time lines - a 1950's Studebaker and patriotic parade on the right, a Roman chariot and Colosseum spectacle on the left. Before long, a semitransparent scrim drops down in front of the stage, and moving film images are projected on it. The show's performers change wigs, costumes and musical styles almost as rapidly as the film and slide images shift and dissolve.
All this could have been preposterously pretentious, but it isn't. The show's creators, the director and choreographer Joe Layton, and the musical director and arranger John Simon have paid careful attention to the minutest details, and as a result the musical numbers and image juxtapositions are witty and caustic and moving by turns.
When a make-believe Rolling Stones band plays ''Satisfaction,'' each of the musicians gets his model's tics and stance and facial grimaces just right. And the group's macho posturing keeps getting interrupted by a crowd of Equal Rights Amendment advocates, who also make fun of an equally accurate Who parody.
Not all the numbers are played for laughs. Lillias White is gritty and convincing as Aretha Franklin (''Respect'') and Gloria Gaynor (''I Will Survive'') and Tom Teeley's John Lennon (''Imagine'') is a show-stopper. The elaborate production number built around David Bowie's ''Space Oddity'' is an appropriate tribute to Mr. Bowie's innovative stagecraft, and toward the end of the show a trio representing the group the Police sing that they are ''sending out an S.O.S.'' while the screens behind them are filled with images of a recent antinuclear rally.
''Rock 'n Roll! The First 5,000 Years'' does a surprisingly good job of summarizing rock's contributions to our musical, cultural and even political life over the last 25 or more years. It's Broadway, so it can't be too loud or too wild, but it manages remarkable fidelity to its sources anyway, from the perfect reproduction of details like the differing guitar styles of Cream's Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to the rhythmic shifts that underlie the music's changing styles - 1950's rock-and-roll to soul to acid rock to disco. One suspects that John Simon (not the critic), who produced albums by the Band and Janis Joplin in the 1960's, had a lot to do with this musical verisimilitude. And one probably shouldn't forget the show's ''special consultant,'' Dick Clark, although what he contributed is not exactly clear.
Some musical numbers fall flat, but that's usually because the cast members simply aren't up to reproducing the styles of singers as powerfully original as Tina Turner or Elvis Presley. Even these failures underline rock's accomplishments, if only by default. This is one rock musical rock fans will actually enjoy, and for theatergoers who haven't yet made peace with the electronic monster in their midst, its the best introduction this side of the real thing.