March 28, 1994 12:00 PM

Backstage at the WPA Theatre in New York City, Yoko Ono looks pretty nearly happy. “Isn’t this great?” she says, pointing to a floral mug with her name scribbled on it. Then, with the wide-eyed excitement of a small child, she grabs a slice of pepperoni pizza from a table scattered with Coke cans and bowls of peanut M&M’s. “Isn’t it amazing?” she adds. “I like all of this junk food. No Russian Tea Room for me.”

But beneath the surface there is a lingering sadness that all her apparent good cheer—and even her ubiquitous shades—can’t hide. When the actors mount the stage, she takes a seat in the fourth row of the small, dimly lit theater and watches a run-through of her new musical, New York Rock, which opens March 30. The cast is doing “It Happened,” a song she wrote after seeing her husband, John Lennon, shot to death outside the Dakota, the Manhattan apartment building where they lived, in December 1980. As the music rises, Yoko begins to mouth the words. Suddenly tears roll down her cheeks.

Some unreconstructed Yoko-phobes may still think of her as the gnomic schemer who spirited John Lennon away from his wife and the Beatles, breaking up the world’s most beloved rock band. But the cast of New York Rock is getting to see another Yoko: the warm, vulnerable, intensely romantic artist groping to make sense of the senseless act of violence that lore her life apart.

The play, which Yoko insists is not autobiographical, is about a woman who falls passionately in love with a man, only to see him gunned down in the street. Yoko calls it a tale of “loss, love and hope.” “The other day a journalist said, ‘Oh, it’s an old-fashioned story,’ ” she says. “And I said, ‘I hope men and women are still going crazy for each other.’ ” She fondles the antique diamond necklace John gave her just before he died. “It’s funny,” she adds. “Six years ago a man and woman coming together wasn’t a revolution. Now it almost is. There’s a gender war going on as well as a war within the city.”

The word most of the actors use to describe Yoko is the one John used—”motherly.” Every night she has food delivered to the theater, and during a recent snowstorm she invited two young cast members to stay for a week at the Dakota. Afterward they entertained the others with stories of sleeping in John’s bed and playing the white piano on which he wrote “Imagine.” Yoko’s son Sean isn’t surprised. “She is the antithesis of evil,” he says. “How she got the reputation for being a dragon lady is beyond me. If you spend two moments with her, you realize that she is like a child who can look at a cloud and see a line of monkeys dancing there. My mother has the ability to make the familiar strange.”

At 9:30 p.m., a bus pulls up to the theater. It is Yoko’s 61st birthday, and she is taking everyone to Mr. Chow’s, a favorite Chinese restaurant. When she boards the bus, the actors break into a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” A young actor gives her a hug. She blushes.

At the restaurant, the dark glasses disappear, the mask softens. Many of Yoko’s friends are here, including Sam Havadtoy, the 42-year-old Hungarian-born art dealer she calls her companion, and singer Cyndi Lauper. Yoko spends much of the party talking with Lauper, pausing only briefly to blow out the candles and cut the cake.

Sean, an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia, is doing his impression of Yoko teaching Japanese. He lives in the apartment next door to hers, and lately she has been tutoring him after rehearsal, sometimes until 4 a.m. “No, the pronunciation is wrong. Say it again!” he says, mimicking her accent. “I will have to say it five or six times. She’s like, “Good. Next.’ Without her, I wouldn’t understand any of it.”

Sean rejects the idea that Yoko is lost in the past. “She is a realistic person, and she knows [John] is gone,” he says. “But his presence is very strong in the apartment and in our lives. It is overwhelming—everywhere we go we are looked at in terms of him. He is everything. We haven’t said goodbye to him on that level.”

Around 2 a.m. the party breaks up, and Yoko returns to the Dakota in a limo. After slipping off her shoes at the door—a house rule—she settles down on the kitchen couch with a cup of tea. Behind her the wall is filled with photos of John and Sean.

After John’s death, Yoko was surprised by the bond between her and Sean. “I looked at him, and he looked at me, and there was a strong connection,” she recalls. “Before it was always John and Sean. Now, Sean was an individual. Just standing there. Tiny. So courageous. I fell I had to be strong—that he would be like an orphan if I wasn’t there.”

In the years that followed, Yoko amassed a vast fortune overseeing Lennon’s estate, but Sean was always her first priority. Four years ago, when he decided to attend Le Rosey school in Switzerland, Yoko moved there as well to give him a home for the weekends. Last year she was touched when Sean asked to spend the Christmas holidays with her at the Dakota. As they decorated the tree, she opened up: “I said, ‘Look, after your dad died, your mommy could have gone crazy and become an alcoholic or gone through every Tom, Dick and Harry. You might be one of those hip kids saying, “Mommy is now going out with so-and-so this month.” But that was not your life. For you, I wanted to carry on the tradition that our family had created.’ ”

Sean was moved. “When he said, ‘Thank you, that means a lot,’ this wasn’t something coming from a little lost boy,” Yoko says proudly. “He was an 18-year-old who had gotten into an Ivy League university.”

How different this encounter was from her own experience growing up in Japan. Yoko’s dream was to become a composer, but her father, Yeisuke, an accomplished pianist before his father forced him into banking, was determined to turn her into a performer. He sent her to a music school in Tokyo at age 4. “I remember running offstage and throwing up after one concert,” she recalls. Her father would yank her fingers trying to make them stretch. “I know my fingers literally shrunk because of that,” she says. “Even now I have trouble reaching an octave.”

Similarly Yoko’s mother, Isoko, a frustrated artist, would often finish Yoke’s childhood drawings for her. “Both my father and my mother were in so much pain because they had to live the sort of life they didn’t want to,” says Yoko. “You can choose to live a dead life or an alive life, and I had to go against a lot in order to survive. I had to get out of that incredible, intimidating confinement.”

During World War II, Yoko and her younger brother and sister were sent to live in the country with servants, who later abandoned them. Food was scarce, so Yoko made up a game that involved visualizing sumptuous feasts to keep her siblings’ minds off their empty bellies. Later she came down with pleurisy. To remain sane, she studied the sky for hours. The sky made her feel secure, she says, because it was the one thing that was always there.

Yoko’s struggle for survival continued long after she became rich and famous. First she had to endure the ridicule of Beatles fans, who considered her evil incarnate, and critics who panned her music as fervently as they praised her husband’s. Then came John’s death and the prolonged anguish of living without him.

That theme turns up repeatedly in her work. In Act II of New York Rock, the lead female character receives a paper bag filled with her dead lover’s clothes, just like the one Yoko was given. “John didn’t come back,” she says, “but his bloody clothes did. John returned to me as a paper bag. That was a very strange experience.”

Yoko says she was “flattered and shocked” when the Whitney Museum did a show of her conceptual art in 1989, and she is pleased that Ono-box, a CD collection of her music, has been released. But what gives her the most fulfillment, she says, is “that Sean has grown up the way he has. There’s satisfaction in thinking your judgment was right.”

As for her own happiness, Yoko admits she is open to that possibility. “I relate to happiness as an ecstatic moment—something you don’t create, you encounter,” she says obliquely. “And there’s a certain insecurity in that.” But now she’s ready to risk it. “My feeling is I would like to try everything. What I’ve found out at 61 is that there is still so much I don’t know.”

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