Once upon a time there were five Beatles. If you thought that was a typo, then you should go see Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles. Set in a crucial period right on the cusp of the band’s career, Backbeat tells the story of five lads who leave their hometown of Liverpool to go to Hamburg to try and make it as musicians. Along the way love, tragedy and fate lead to consequences that impact the future of what will go on to become the biggest band in the world.
There’s an old MTV filler ad that shows an elderly Indian man in front of an old elevator, complaining about the music of the youth. In it he goes, grumpily, “Eagles, Beatles, Monkees – this is not a music channel, it’s a zoo!”
Trust me, it’s funnier when he does it.
(I couldn’t find it on YouTube.)
When I used to hear that ad, I’d never heard of the Eagles. I knew the Monkees only as this campy TV show band (it was years before I realized they were an actual, legit band) but the Beatles I knew were one of the biggest bands in the world. I hadn’t (to my knowledge) heard anything by them, but like the Rolling Stones they were ubiquitous to my pop culture landscape and were a great band, presumably. Now, I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and in various parts of Nigeria. Not North America, not Europe. (And yes, we’ve had MTV there for years.)
So the fact that I took it for granted that the Beatles were a great band, sight unseen, when at the time my musical diet consisted of an alphabet soup of 90s grunge rock, Afrobeat, Marilyn Manson, boy bands (Backstreet Boys, woop!), Eminem, and gangster rap, says something about the far-reaching impact of the Fab Four. In fact, I didn’t realize it at the time, but from New Edition to Backstreet Boys to most recently, One Direction, the music industry has been trying feverishly for decades to replicate the magic that was the Beatles – fresh-faced young men with style, singing talent, and a bit of mischief to balance out their squeaky clean images.
This month, Mirvish Productions is giving Beatles fans a glimpse of what they were like before Beatle-mania, before the original “British invasion” (a term coined for them and now bludgeoned to death any time a British pop act skips a stone across the ol’ pond.) In Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles, playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre till September 2, the musical stage drama captures a moment in the history of the band when they were young, unsure, and only just coming to a sense of what they were capable of. There were also five members, not the Fab Four the world became enamoured with, and this is a key point to note, because that fifth member, Stuart Sutcliffe, is pivotal to the story behind Backbeat.
I had the chance to interview Daniel Healy, who plays a young Paul McCartney, and Dan Westwick, channelling a youthful George Harrison. Just as young and fresh-faced as the original lads, they nevertheless give the impression of grounded maturity that their characters are only just beginning to grasp in Backbeat. It might help that they are a bit older than their characters – Healy is 26, and Westwick is 24 – but the story also isn’t too far from their own experiences as young actor/musicians looking to make it in the world. It helps of course that the story isn’t just a story, but is based on actual true events. That being said, though, they made a conscious effort, in their character portrayal, not to simply mimic the personalities they were bringing to life on the stage.
“It’s very easy to make a character a caricature, rather than actual sort of representation of this person,” says Dan Westwick. “It’s really easy to do that, to almost do it too much.“ So rather than play the characters as they’ve become known to millions around the world. Westwick says they went back to the fact that this was just a group of young guys trying to make it as musicians.
“These guys are still young, they’re still kind of finding their feet, finding who they are. So we get to play in a time when they were kind of playing – if that makes sense. We’re trying to put things together in the earlier stage, so you can see little bits and pieces as to what they become later on, which is how everyone knows them best, really.”
Healy, chiming in, notes that the danger in that lies also in presenting what could essentially be a false representation of them.
“I think nobody knows what they were really like either,” he says. “Especially then before the cameras. You know yourself, like, when you’re in front of a camera or you’re being interviewed or something you’re not always yourself…you speak a bit more politely.”
So rather than go by what they knew of the real Paul McCartney and George Harrison, Healy and Westwick approached it like any other characters in a play.
“I just approached it like, I’m just going to play this. I’m going to get the accent, I’m going to put in a couple of movements that people recognize, and the rest of it I’m going to throw out the window and just play the story, play it like you would any character in any theatre show, any piece, you know?” Healy says.
“And I think that’s why Backbeat stands out from any other Beatles musical or anything that’s come before it, it’s because it’s not a tribute act. It really is a great story with real characters that people can connect with as well, not just, ‘Oh, Paul’s doing his little head movement there and George is doing his little skip and John’s standing with his legs wide apart’, and all that stuff, and those things are all in there, but they’re not the driving force behind what’s going on.”
The driving plot is in fact not so much about the music as it is about love. Specifically, the relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, and Astrid Kirchherr, a young photography student who falls in love with Sutcliffe, and whose presence acts as a catalyst for the dramatic turns of events to follow.
Based on the heavily researched 1994 movie of the same title by Ian Softley (who also wrote the stage play, with Stephen Jeffreys), Backbeat transcends its subject matter – the birth of a band – to take on subjects as grandiose as love, courage, tragedy and the decisions that form our fate.
“It’s quite Shakespearian, a lot of the themes in the play,” says Healy. “I think it’ll appeal to young people, it’ll appeal to everybody, it’ll appeal to people who love good theatre, and who love big themes and tragedy and death and love and deceit and jealousy, everything is there.”
This is the reason Westwick thinks that people will love the story, regardless of whether they’re fans of the Beatles or not.
“The thing is, I think this show would work, whether the Beatles had happened or not. As a standalone show it works, because it’s got a great story, it’s got a love triangle, and it really tries, doesn’t it, not to ride the coattails of the Beatle-mania thing because it’s something on its own.”
Long time Beatles fans themselves, (Healy’s dad was in a Beatles tribute band and Westwick’s older brother was obsessed with Yellow Submarine) they both jumped at the chance to take part in Backbeat. While Westwick only joined the production for the Toronto run, Healy has been on board from the play’s first run in his native Glasgow, at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, right through its stint on London’s West End.
“Funny enough, [Backbeat] was one of my favourite films when I was young, when I was a little kid,” says Healy. “And the soundtrack to the film was always on in the car as well, because as I said my dad was in that Beatles band and they would be doing all those songs in his band, so it was always on. So when I got the call for the show, they said “Backbeat” and I went, ‘As in the Beatles…Backbeat?’ And my agent knew. And I was just like, ‘Right, I’m getting this. This is mine!’”
Westwick laughingly recalls feeling the same.
“I went through exactly the same thing – how do I get these guys to realize that I need this job? Like, this has to be me!”
Backbeat plays until Sept 2 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto.