Love letter

Embattled Yoko Ono pays tribute to late husband with musical 'Lennon'

? It was not long after she met John Lennon that Yoko Ono realized she had become one of the most hated women on the planet.

Sitting in her apartment in the Dakota, just a stone’s throw from where Lennon was gunned down nearly 25 years ago, Ono takes herself back four decades to an art party in London where one of her sculptures was on display.

“We opened the door, came in, and they all looked at us, and they all turned their backs,” she says. When Lennon went to get coffee, the woman at the counter said, “‘Get it yourself, it’s there.'”

He did, and guided Ono to a narrow staircase away from the crowd, where they sat and watched revelers nearly step on her sculpture.

“I never forget that day because that’s when I realized, ‘What is going on?'” she says. “It didn’t dawn on me, really, that ‘Oh, people are against us.'”

Today, Ono’s name can still cause Beatles fans to scowl. But here she is, a widow in black, carefully tending Lennon’s legacy. Now 72, her age barely softening the sharp angles of her face, she takes solace from her husband’s words that day in London.

“John said, ‘When the going gets bad, we just keep our chins up,'” she says. “I never forget that John said that, and I always keep my chin up.”

Will Chase, left, and Julie Danao-Salkin portray John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the new Broadway musical Lennon, slated to open Aug. 14 at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York.

Lennon would have been 64 now, and Ono is still sending him a valentine, this time as the Broadway musical “Lennon,” the story of his life told through his words and his music.

Seeing Lennon’s life on stage brings back raw emotions for Ono.

“It’s a very strange thing,” she says. “I go to see this play – I have seen it before, several times already, but each time I still cry. … It’s very hard for me, and I think, ‘Well 25 years passed,’ you know. I didn’t think it would last that long.”

Promoting Lennon’s work helps her feel connected to him, as does staying in the landmark apartment building near Central Park, just an elevator ride away from where he was gunned down Dec. 8, 1980. The piano he used to play “Imagine” sits in the corner of the famous white room, topped with family photographs.

“In a way, John’s spirit flew away from this building … and so it’s a very important place,” Ono says.

Back in the 1970s, Lennon was working here on his own musical, which he hoped would land on Broadway. It included much of the ground covered in “Lennon” – his meeting with Ono, bed-ins and family life – but it “would have been a very avant-garde affair,” Ono says.

When director and writer Don Scardino approached Ono with the idea for “Lennon,” she was skeptical.

“I said, ‘Musical? Isn’t that a little bit cheesy?'” she says with a laugh.

But she was intrigued by a twist: Each of the nine cast members dons round spectacles to portray Lennon – young and old, male and female, black and white. It was an idea she thinks Lennon would have loved.

“John is not a white hero,” she says. “John was international. And there’s no reason why a black person can’t sing his songs as John.”

She gave the show her blessing and two previously unpublished songs: “India, India” and “I Don’t Want to Lose You.”

“Lennon” opens Aug. 14 at the Broadhurst Theatre.

Even as she continues releasing her husband’s work, Ono has experienced a renaissance of her own, with recent performances in London, Paris and New York, and several museum shows in Europe. Her solo music – ridiculed by Beatles fans when it was released – has been remixed into dance music and hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts.

Ono met Lennon in 1966 at Indica Gallery in London, an event re-enacted in “Lennon.” He climbed the ladder under her “Ceiling Painting” and peered through a magnifying glass to see one tiny word: Yes. Ono was soon ripped from relative obscurity into the klieg lights of Beatlemania. The spotlight’s glare was not kind.

“Imagine always being called ugly, being called a Japanese witch,” says Julie Danao-Salkin, who plays Ono in “Lennon.”

“That still carries with her today. That kind of effect on a human being is tremendous.”

Ono can rattle off the reasons for the hostility: She was Asian, produced art that was difficult to appreciate and didn’t look like the kind of “cute girl” people expected a rock icon to date. Then the Beatles broke up.

“They could not blame anybody, so they said, ‘Oh, Yoko,'” she says. “It always seems to be like I’m a convenient scapegoat.”