BWW Interviews: The Beatles, Rock and Roll and More with BACKBEAT's David Leveaux
It's the British invastion part two in Toronto, as Backbeat the Musical invades our city and makes a home for itself in the gorgeous Royal Alexandra Theatre. The show is direct from London's West End, and chronicles the very early days of The Beatles. The show is touted as a 'play with music' and takes a close look at the intricate and often tumultuous relationship that existed between original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon and Astrid Kirchherr (who in many ways, was the 'original' Yoko Ono).
BWW had the chance to chat with direct David Leveaux, who opened up to us about the challenges associated with tackling such popular and well known music and material, as well as why he feels the show is more a 'play with music' and definitely not a 'jukebox musical'. While the show promises to both thrill and inspire, in the end, David says that it's a story about courage. If you've ever felt that drive to live the most creative and passionate life possible - Backbeat is a show for you:
Welcome to Toronto! We’re thrilled to have Backbeat here! Is it your first time in the city?
It is, and it’s a beautiful city. Hard to believe I’ve never been here before, I really like it. I’ve been here for two weeks, I came out with the company and I’m staying through the opening. I’ve been mostly just getting the show up and running but I’ve had the chance to go on long walks and explore the city and the waterfront, and I love it.
How about your new home at The Royal Alex? It’s a beautiful theatre isn’t it?
It’s really a beautifully constructed theatre and I’m glad it was rescued from demolition and that they’ve taken it back to its original beauty. The thing about that theatre is that it is so rare to have a theatre with dual balconies where no matter where you are, you’ve still got a very good relationship with the stage. It works really well for our show. It has all the old fashioned virtues of being acoustically sharp and very well focused because it comes from a time where people were performing things acoustically. And it’s intimate even though it’s a large house – that is some conjuring trick of the original architect!
First and foremost, we’ve heard Backbeat described as more of a ‘play with music’ than an actual musical. Do you agree with this statement?
I think I fundamentally do. It’s a drama that is essentially told through the music that these kids played. What I mean by that is that the music is not in the show as an add-on to a play. Rather, a lot of the drama that these kids were going through comes across through the music. The intensity of this central love story between Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon and Astrid Kirchherr, and the consequences of all the turbulence between them makes its appearance most intensely when you look at the on-stage relationships of each member of the band. Their life experience is actually channeled into the way they’re playing on stage and the music becomes a drama in and of itself.
If Backbeat is more of a ‘play with music’ does that mean there will be less Beatles numbers than one might expect?
It’s interesting because this period is one where they were doing a lot of brilliant covers and it’s not until the latter stages of the show that you really become aware of certain songs that are actually Beatles songs. As we get towards the end you start to hear the music that you might more closely associate with the early Beatles. When they play the finale of the show there are a number of popular Beatles hits – so I don’t think anyone will be disappointed.
It’s a show that is about the process by which this band became a great rock and roll band. And the audience gets to see that moment where they become the Beatles as we know them today. Along the way there are plenty of musical ‘pointers’ that give hints as to what the band is going to become. It’s not an evening thick with Beatles songs per se, but it is an evening full of rock and roll. Simply put, our show shows the emergence of the song-writing duo of Lennon and McCartney and stops at the very moment the band gets global recognition.
This is a uniquely British story, how do you think it will play to a Toronto audience?
This is a universal story because it’s a story about courage. These young people are not just a band but they were a generation of people who were all trying to find a way to live their lives as passionately as possible through the medium of rock and roll, photography and (in Stuart’s case) painting. Everything was up for grabs and they were making it all up as they went along. The courage that it takes to come out of nowhere and be thrust to international celebrity has universal resonance and is a rite of passage tale.
We’ve noticed in the previews in Toronto that the audience is incredibly alert to the nuances of the Beatles story, they know a great deal about it and they have almost a personal relationship with the band. The first appearance of the Beatles jacket, the whole scene where you watch them write ‘Love Me Do’…the Toronto audience has been incredibly receptive. They bring with them an experience and a knowledge of the Beatles and I think that everybody around the world feels that to some extent. We’re finding it a really exciting audience to play to.
In addition, I’ve always said that part of the drama that exists with our story exists within a contract between the actors and the audience. The audience knows more about what’s going to happen then the kids on stage, because the audience knows how the story of the Beatles is going to end. Somewhere in that space in between the knowing and not knowing is where the drama is. And the Toronto audience really holds up their end of the contract.
You’re coming over with the original British cast – did you ever consider casting with Canadians? Do you think this show could be done as effectively with a North American cast?
I do think it could work with a North American cast, and I think further down the line it will have to work with a North American cast. Obviously the company we have here is the company with whom we made the show in the first incarnation, and it took months to form the company and the band at the centre of it. It’s a hard show to cast because you’re asking these people to not only be able to act the story but also to be able to really play on stage as a ‘band’. Just playing rock and roll together and BEING an actual band are two different things. In all of the incarnations of the show that could happen in the future I think we will always face that challenge – putting together a group of actors who can pull off the band first.
Have you had any feedback from anyone who was close to the story and is still alive?
We’ve had lots of feedback but it’s come in various forms. Astrid couldn’t make it over to London when we opened but she’s been very supportive in the background. It’s also clear that we have a great deal of support via Paul McCartney because we have the rights to play the songs, and those haven’t been granted in a long time. The overwhelming response I have received from people who saw the Beatles originally has been that this show gives them the same kind of authentic feel that they got back then. One of the things we did in this show was to use the same original equipment they used – the same VOX amps, the original instruments…it creates an original sound that an English bank of that period would have made. It’s a very different sound from what people are used to now. We’re not a tribute show but we are certainly trying to give people the experience of being near that music of that time sot hey can feel how exciting it was.
I’ve always felt that celebrity isn’t necessarily the most interesting subject matter for the theatre, but courage is. And this story resonates so strongly because it is about courage. One of the reasons we end the show where we do is because that is when they were catapulted to huge global fame. After that there’s nothing to tell that everyone doesn’t already know. This way you can learn the real background and understand how they became the band everyone knows so well.
If Stuart hadn’t died when he did, do you think the course of music history would have been significantly altered?
It could well have done. The problem with that kind of speculation of course is that it opens the door to all kinds of ‘road you didn’t take’ scenarios. If Stuart had stayed with the band and survived…obviously things would have been different. But all these corners they turned are no doubt the reason they became the band they finally did. For example, Stuart leaving is how Paul McCartney ended up playing bass. The tensions that existed between Lennon and McCartney over Stuart likely led to them becoming the duo that they became. It’s impossible to imagine them as a band without them having gone through all of that.
I also think that the influence of Stuart and everything that happened in Hamburg were elements that in the end came through in the way they played their music. The band you hear at the end of the show playing Twist and Shout could never have played it that way at the beginning of the show because everything they went through informs the delivery of the song.
Finally, what would you say to encourage our younger audience to come out and see the show?
I would say that this show is intended to do what rock and roll originally intended to do which is to make you feel alive. That’s what this show is really about. It’s a story about very young kids deciding that they wanted to be more alive and you really should come out of this show with an incredible high from that message. If you want to be near that kind of energy, this is the show for you.
Also, we live in a celebrity culture and that makes our show extra interesting. These kids didn’t live in the ‘American Idol’ days, they had to fight every single day to become what they became and they really had to work at it. It’s interesting to see that dichotomy. And for anyone who has ever been inspired to live the most creative and passionate life possible, this show is definitely for you.
When and Where?
Backbeat the Musical
The Royal Alexandra Theatre
Tues - Sat at 8PM
Wed, Sat and Sun at 2PM
Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at www.mirvish.com.