BACKBEAT

When: Through March 1. Currently in previews. Opening at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

Tickets: $25-$110.

Information: 213-628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.

By the time you finish watching "Backbeat" you may want to "Twist & Shout."

How you "Twist & Shout" may depend on your answer to a question Yoko Ono once asked David Leveaux, who directs the musical that is making its American debut at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday.

What do the Beatles mean to you?

For some people, the band that revolutionized rock 'n' roll is a sacred cow, and anything you do or say about them is going to be scrutinized.

"Backbeat" faced that the first time around back in 1994 when it was a movie by Iain Softley. Even Paul McCartney complained that the film didn't give him his proper due.

To be fair, it wasn't really about him. "Backbeat" chronicles the early days of the Beatles before they were the Beatles, when they were learning their craft in Hamburg, Germany, strip clubs, and when there were five not-so-fab guys in the band and none of them named Ringo.

The story focuses on the relationship between John Lennon and the "fifth" Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Sutcliffe's German girlfriend, ice-cool blond photographer Astrid Kirchherr. (Yoko wasn't the first woman to cause friction between bandmates.) Kirchherr is also known for giving the Beatles their famous haircuts.

An art-school pal of Lennon, Sutcliffe - who was never much of a musician - would eventually leave the band to pursue his studies. He would die of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962 before the band achieved success.


Advertisement

His departure, among other things, forced McCartney to switch from guitar and become the band's bass player.

A few years ago, Softley decided to turn his film into a musical, and in 2010 he and co-writer Stephen Jeffreys did a version of it at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. When it was time to take it to London's West End, Leveaux was brought on to shape it.

At first, the five-time Tony-nominated director says he wasn't attracted to the project and turned it down. Finally, he was convinced to see the group who was the original band in the Glasgow production.

"There was this group of kids playing with these little amps. The raw energy was amazing," he says. "And in our digital age, it was quite a shock. That's theater - putting out rock 'n' roll passionately. And that you can only do live."

What no one wanted to do with "Backbeat" was make it seem like a tribute show. There were already enough of those, notes Leveaux. The plan was to find people who could act and were happy around music instead of finding musicians and then try to teach them to act.

Two from the original cast - Andrew Knott as Lennon and Daniel Healy as McCartney - are still with the production at the Ahmanson.

(L to R) Oliver Bennett (as Pete Best), Leanne Best (Astrid Kirchherr) and Nick Blood (Stuart Sutcliffe) in  Backbeat  by Iain Softley and Stephen
(L to R) Oliver Bennett (as Pete Best), Leanne Best (Astrid Kirchherr) and Nick Blood (Stuart Sutcliffe) in Backbeat by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, directed by David Leveaux. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

"Most of them weren't absolute musicians by any stretch of imagination, although Daniel is a fantastic guitar player," says Leveaux.

Another thing that they didn't necessarily want were Beatle look-alikes, but Leveaux says "Every one of these boys have something about them that is a suggestion of their famous counterparts." While Healy "can do an absolute impression of Paul McCartney, we were going for things like tiny little movements of the head that were McCartney."

Healy, as fans may notice, doesn't even play left-handed, and there was never a serious thought about having him try to switch. But during the curtain call when "Backbeat" debuted in London, Leveaux told the actor to hold the guitar left-handed "just to acknowledge it to the crowd."

As for McCartney's importance in the show, it's been increased.

"We thoroughly had license to go back and explore different aspects," says Leveaux, "and even though there is a central love story between Astrid and Stu and his friendship with John, the fact of the matter is there's also tension in this key relationship between Lennon and McCartney. They had only begun to scratch the surface of the writing partnership in Hamburg."

So now "Backbeat" gradually explores how the Lennon-McCartney partnership was being formed, with the highlight of the two collaborating on "Love Me Do," which would become the Beatles' first single in late 1962.

One of the reasons Leveaux ultimately found "Backbeat" attractive was that as a young man he, too, was exposed to the nightlife of German clubs.

Nick Blood (as Stuart Sutcliffe) and Josie Dunn (as a fan) in  Backbeat,  co-written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys and directed by David Leveaux.
Nick Blood (as Stuart Sutcliffe) and Josie Dunn (as a fan) in Backbeat, co-written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys and directed by David Leveaux. (Photo by Nobby Clark)
 

"I think I know what it's like for Germany to happen to you," says Leveaux.

"I got the education of a lifetime. ... It is that fantastic combination of sex, art, music - the things that Germany does so well and doesn't distinguish between."

Leveaux was in Berlin for theater, but the boys from Liverpool were in Hamburg at various times from 1960 to 1962, playing grueling six-hour gigs seven nights a week in the area of the city known for its sex trade. They were young men being exposed to a new world, and stories of the band's adventures are legion.

"They were a fair to middling band and then went to Germany and came back a great band," notes Leveaux, "and that was an interesting trajectory." So he made the band's performances front and center with everything revolving around them. "Every scene is rock 'n' roll - in the most urgent and compressed way we can make it."

This may remind some of another musical set in a German club, "Cabaret," and the director says there are nods to the famed musical. "Who wouldn't steal from it?" he laughs.

Leveaux, 55, remembers the Beatles as a young boy. His first memories of the band were from 1963 - them singing "She Loves You" muddled up in his head with a man shot in Dallas. It took him some time, though, to learn to "appreciate the sheer range and the beauty of their music." The first album he bought was a Black Sabbath record, but at about 15 or 16 he started to raid his older brother's Beatles collection and became a fan.

Leveaux, who has worked with Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard during his career, says he used the idea of another theater great, Jerome Robbins, when approaching "Backbeat." The idea was to describe the musical in a word, and the word he came up with for "Backbeat" was "courage."

"The idea that these kids from postwar working-class Liverpool would uproot themselves and go to this thoroughly alien environment of Germany took guts."

The director also thought a lot about the advice he once got from Joseph Chaikin, founder of the avant-garde Open Theater: "There is no excuse for an audience to leave the theater with less energy than they came into it with."

"So I set myself with the aim, which may seem amazingly delusional to you," Leveaux says, "that maybe it would be great that in the last 15 seconds of the show the audience would actually go, `Oh my God, they are the Beatles."'

Rob Lowman

818-713-3687

robert.lowman@dailynews.com

twitter.com/RobLowman1