INTERVIEW: Six Questions with RAIN Creator Mark Lewis
It isn’t the first time that the wildly popular touring Beatles tribute show RAIN is playing in Philly, and it won’t be the last. The concert, which features band members who look and eerily sound like the real Fab Four, has origins in the ’70s when Mark Lewis, a trained pianist and musician, helped transform the group formerly known as Reign into one of the most authentic Beatles cover bands in the world. I sat down with Lewis before his iconic show returns to Philadelphia at the Merriam Theatre this February to discuss his early inspiration, the new features of the concert, and why seeing RAIN might be better than an actual Beatles concert.
I’ve read multiple times that you claim you owe a lot of your inspiration to the original Ed Sullivan broadcast when the Beatles were introduced to America. It really was one of the most iconic pop culture moments in American history. What about that moment on the Sullivan show do you remember the most?
I was really into music, and I was only 12 years old when The Beatles performed on the Sullivan show. I was into the Four Seasons and I had an older sister who was into the early rock ’n’ roll. The Beatles came out on Sullivan, and I wasn’t even watching it at that moment. My mother was watching in the other room, and she came in and said, “You have to come in and watch this group!” I thought it was going to be some sort of Liberace-type thing. I went right out and bought the Meet the Beatles! album in stereophonic! I remember being blown away with these multiple guys who sang, who played their own instruments, and the way they looked and talked. After I got the album, I remember figuring out that they were writing their own music. It was so different. It was so far from anything I’d ever seen, plus there were all of these girls going nuts in the audience. You really hadn’t seen anything like this since Elvis Presley. Every song was great. Usually when you buy an album, there’s a hit record, and a bunch of stuff that sounds like the hit record, but every song on that Beatles album was great. It was a life altering moment for me.
RAIN started as a small band in the ’70s, right? Can you walk me through what happened?
In the early days, Reign was an original band trying to put out their own music. I joined the band with a bunch of guys who were Beatles fans. We put together a few sets of early Beatles songs and then some later Beatles. We got a manager who also represented one of the first Elvis impersonators; He played Vegas the same time as the real Elvis did, and this guy’s manager came looking for a Beatles tribute act. We met him at a Beatles festival and he was blown away with how close we sounded to the real thing. We booked a gig at a little bar and we played and had no guarantee. We put table tents on each table and did our own promotion. It was promoted as a “Beatles Night,” and we had no costumes. We all went to JC Penney and bought black turtle necks! There was this emotional connection from the audience: It was 1975 and the Beatles had barely broken up. I remember saying that theoretically, someone could do this kind of set forever because there’s going to be people who love this music, if you do it right. I didn’t realize where the show was heading, but I did feel something because I was on the stage playing and you could look at the audience and they were all teary-eyed during the songs. We did side two of Abbey Road intact, and people went nuts. The reception from the audience was incredible. It was almost like doing a service because the Beatles had stopped doing a lot of this music.
What about your Broadway engagement a number of years back? That must have been thrilling.
It was unbelievable! I remember looking at the signage at the Neil Simon Theatre and listening to the music and seeing all the people outside waiting to get in the theater. I felt like I was in a dream.
How did your experience as a pianist assist in your own development of this show?
I come from a musical family, and my mom came from a musical family. I started lessons when I was very young, but it was never like, “You’re taking lessons because you’re going to be a professional and do it for a living.” We were taught that music was a wonderful thing and that you should enjoy it.
The show has been to Philly a countless number of times, but I know for the current tour there are some new elements in the production. Can you talk a little bit about those?
We’ve added a lot of new video content and LED content. There’s a new opening. We’ve changed some of the music within the sets and changed the acoustics and added some new songs . There’s so much great material to choose from that the question becomes what songs are we not going to do.
What about RAIN do you think has people coming back again and again?
It’s great music, number one, and number two, the way the show is constructed just draws you in. Every band member is at the top of their game. When you leave, the reality hits that you didn’t see the Beatles live. It’s a great venue with great music. You’ve got great sound and the new LED visuals and video content is so entertaining. I used to be on that stage, so I never viewed it from an audience perspective. Now, I watch it from the audience. It’s so much fun, and when you leave, you just feel good. You go home and watch Beatles movies and listen to the records. The music is so relevant today. It really is. It doesn’t feel like, as with some acts, like it is nostalgia. With The Beatles, it’s still relevant. It’s still great music. For Baby Boomers, I guess it is nostalgic, but so far as the quality and the song writing and arrangements, it’s contemporary, and that’s what makes The Beatles so special.
“RAIN” plays Philadelphia’s Merriam Theatre from February 11 through the 14. For tickets and more information, click here.