TORONTO – Portraying some of the most iconic musicians in rock ‘n’ roll history hasn’t been too daunting a task for the stars of the Beatles-themed play “Backbeat” that’s making its North American debut in Toronto.
Sure, the British actors have felt the pressure of having to come together and gel as a band onstage, but director David Leveaux has told them to avoid becoming a caricature-type tribute group.
With that, they’ve been able to keep most of their focus on telling the gritty, little-known story of how the boys from Liverpool went to Germany in search of fame and returned home with broken hearts and Beatlemania buzz.
“It’s when the Beatles were really deep, down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll,” Andrew Knott, who plays John Lennon, said in a recent interview. “They played for six hours a night, seven nights a week, high on speed, dressed all in leather, and it was real rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Hopefully people come to the show because of the Beatles and they think it’s some sort of Beatles musical — to get them there under false pretences — and then we blow their minds with a hard-hitting play and some really hard-hitting music,” Oliver Bennett, who plays Pete Best, added with a laugh.
Mirvish Productions has brought “Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles” direct from London to run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre through Sept. 2. Previews began July 21 and opening night is Sunday.
Based on the 1994 film of the same name, the play details how Lennon, Best, Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), George Harrison (Dan Westwick), and Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) went to Hamburg to play in grungy underground clubs in the early ’60s. While there, they met German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe), who helped shape their image by snapping shots of them and introducing them to a new hairstyle: the mop-topped look that became imitated by fans worldwide.
Kirchherr and Sutcliffe fell in love and he left the group to be with her and pursue his art, much to the dismay of Lennon, his former schoolmate with whom he had a deep bond. In April 1962, Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage at age 21.
“I think Stuart, he brought cool to the band, there’s no doubt about it, and also by virtue of (leaving the group), I think he also brought courage to the band,” said Leveaux.
“He was not afraid to follow his heart and I think that ended up being a challenge thrown down to John Lennon, who is in our show as somebody who is incredibly gifted at concealing his heart and just driving through life and pretending that none of it affected him.”
“Courage” was the key word Leveaux honed in on when he took over the role of the play’s director from Iain Softley, who also helmed the film and co-wrote both the feature and the stage show.
That’s because he saw many brave elements in the Beatles’ path from a working-class neighbourhood in Liverpool to the seedy parts of Hamburg, where they faced animosity, made up their music on the fly and came “through the other side as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” he said.
“That’s wholly an act of courage, and … as delusional as this probably sounds, and it is delusional to a degree, I thought, ‘I’d like us to make a show where the audience isn’t even asked to think about them becoming the Beatles for most of the night.’ Every now and again there’s a little flash of something where you think, ‘Oh, I see where this is headed.’
“But they didn’t know they were becoming the Beatles as we now know them, and I wanted to hold off until the last 15 seconds of the show the moment when you go, ‘Oh my God, these boys we’ve just spend two hours with, they are the Beatles.’”
Still, the music is never too far away from the story and the play includes their time-honoured tunes as well as songs from other bands they covered in those early days of long, gruelling rehearsals and gigs.
“Everyone kind of has this image of rock ‘n’ roll as just mucking about and getting drunk and stuff, and it is that, but it’s also proper hard work,” said Bennett, 27. “This is about people giving their lives, giving every part of their emotional lives to music and to playing rock ‘n’ roll.”
“It was in Hamburg for two years, living in a cinema, sleeping behind the screen, really really crafting, that’s why they became so good and so tight and the band that we know,” added Knott, 32.
“People are drawing comparisons between One Direction and the Beatles and I say, ‘How dare you? … How dare you draw comparisons between a band that worked two solid years to craft their art and some kids who’ve got long fringes?’”
“Backbeat” debuted in Glasgow, Scotland in February 2010 and moved to London’s West End in September 2011.
Westwick, 24, just recently joined the cast and has had to quickly catch up.
“The music has been so much to learn,” he said. “But it’s been really, really great, and it’s great getting up there, and essentially you go through a similar kind of thing as the Beatles did in the first place, where the more you play together you get better, you get tighter.”
And if they make mistakes, that’s part of the show’s charm, noted Healy, 25.
“That’s what makes ‘Backbeat,’ I think, better than any show at the moment, and that’s a bold statement,” he said. “Because there’s a danger about it, you know. There’s always stuff going on onstage, there’s always stuff going wrong, and as an audience member, unless you have no soul, you don’t want to see this perfect slick production like certain other shows.
“And the thing about ‘Backbeat’ is it’s just rough, it’s really rough, and I think that’s cool. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s really rock ‘n’ roll.”