The Beatles are a well-known band; indeed, they are almost certainly the best-known band in the world. Nearly everyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the last 50 years can even name each member: John, Paul, George and Ringo. (Think for a moment… can you name each member of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, or any other of rock and roll’s great bands? Unless you’re a serious rock aficionado, probably not… and I think that speaks volumes as to their artistic and cultural impact.)
Despite the Beatles’ undeniable fame, most people are unfamiliar with their dramatic backstory. The Fab Four were once the Fab Five: John, Paul, George, Stu (the Beatles’ original bassist), and Pete (their original drummer). The quintet left Liverpool for several extended gigs in Germany that spanned two years. This time completely transformed the band; they began as accomplished imitators, covering early blues standards and sporting the rockabilly leathers and D.A. haircuts of their idols. Two years later they had created their own unique sound, look, and stage persona. These changes did not happen in a vacuum, and they are brought to light on the stage in Karl Sydow’s production of Backbeat.
“Is this play a musical?” my friend Kevin asked, as we piled into my Prius to head up to the Ahmanson Theatre.
“Yes… and no” was the best reply I could think of. Yes… there will be plenty of music, but no, no one will be singing soliloquies while skipping across the stage!
The play takes you back to those legendary days in Hamburg when the early Beatles (who at the time went through several other names such as the Quarrymen and the Silver Beetles) honed their sound by playing six- to eight-hour shifts, seven days a week. The role these gigs had on the Beatles can’t be overstated. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best-seller Outliers specifically mentions this era in the Beatles’ history when he makes his case for the “10,000 hour rule”…the claim that perfection of one’s craft requires roughly this amount of a time investment. Having only a repertoire of two to three hours’ worth of music, the band was suddenly forced to learn and create more. They covered new genres; they rearranged songs with new tempos, harmonies and styles; most importantly, they wrote their own songs. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying the fact– the Beatles paid their dues.
And then there was Stu Sutcliffe, the band’s first bass player. Sutcliffe and Lennon met in art college, and Lennon insisted that Sutcliffe join his band. By nearly all accounts, Sutcliffe was an accomplished artist, but only a mediocre bass player. Nevertheless, he and his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, made important contributions to the band.
In act I of Backbeat, John recruits Stu and introduces him to the rest of the Beatles. It’s obvious John idolizes Stu, and it’s not hard to see why. Stu was devilishly handsome… a near double for the young James Dean, and he knew how to strike the ultra-cool pose, complete with cigarette and Wayfarer sunglasses. Stu is always ambivalent about his participation. He knows he is not a great musician; his talent is for painting. But John’s importunity wins out. He puts his art education on hold and heads to Hamburg, where he meets the gorgeous Astrid, who is a struggling photographer. Here is one of several moments where Backbeat shines: Stu’s impressive artwork and Astrid’s early candids of the Beatles fill the stage in many scenes, superimposed over the early courtship of the star-crossed lovers. In addition to providing early artistic photography for the Beatles, Astrid is often credited with helping create the Beatles early mop-top and nehru-jacketed look.
In early images of the Beatles, they seem squeaky clean, even by the standards of their day. When we see pictures of the band only five years later, with their beards and their hair halfway down their backs, one may naively wonder, “What happened?!” The truth is the suits were the aberration. The squeaky-clean look and image was a creation of their manager and Astrid; it was never more than a veneer that the band soon tired of. Backbeat shows us the “bad boys” the Beatles always were. For those who have heard the bootleg Hamburg tapes, you can detect a raucous energy comparable to the Ramones or Sex Pistols. Rolling Stone magazine called the tapes “raw but extremely powerful.” Backbeat brings that energy back to life. One feels that one has taken a time machine back to those Hamburg days, with the smoke-filled rooms of the back-alley clubs filled with drag queens, prostitutes and their Johns. Today we forget that rock and roll was truly counter-culture back then… it was not your parents’ soundtrack.
In any production involving a well-known vocal icon, one must make a choice: should we cast the role based on looks or voice? It is rare that one will find a Paul McCartney doppelganger who also happens to sing well and play his bass left-handed! Despite these challenges, casting director Julia Horan managed to find several talented performers who seemed to pull off the impossible. Andrew Knott virtually becomes the angry, young Lennon; the voice, the mannerisms, the wit are all there, and in the tragic scenes, underneath it all, there is the vulnerability. Daniel Healy plays Sir Paul McCartney, and is also a good match for vocals and looks. Daniel Westwick and Oliver Bennett do a good job playing the supporting roles of Harrison and Best (the Beatles’ original drummer). Nick Blood and Leanne Best deftly play the lead characters, Stu Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr.
My only complaint about Backbeat is relatively minor. Surprisingly, both my friend Kevin and I were mildly upset that Backbeat’s Paul was right-handed. This may seem exceedingly minor, but the Beatles had a very unique stage presence due to the symmetry of having a leftie (left-handed guitars face the opposite direction). Because of this, the band just didn’t “look right” when playing together. However, having Paul play left-handed most likely would have necessitated having a proxy bass player off-stage and forcing the actor to mime, which itself is a major compromise. I’m happy to say the band played live and sounded damn good! Other than this trivial issue, the play is surprisingly faithful to the actual history of the Beatles. With history this important, tragic and dramatic, there’s no need to embellish.
I’ve been to many plays, but not many of them have ended with a standing ovation. Backbeat did… and deservedly so. If you’re looking for an evening that will literally end with dancing in the aisles, Backbeat is your ticket.
Backbeat will play at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 1. The venue is located at 601 W Temple St. in Los Angeles. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets are $20 to $110. For tickets and more information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit CenterTheatreGroup.org .