'Backbeat' Opens in L.A.: Musical Brings Early Beatles to the Stage

The "Backbeat" Cast
"Backbeat" tells the story of the early Beatles with, from left, Daniel Healy as Paul McCartney, Daniel Westwick as George Harrison, Oliver Bennett as Pete Best, Andrew Knott as John Lennon and Mark Hammersley as manager Brian Epstein

One key difference between the birth of the Beatles film "Backbeat" and the stage musical of the same name is the inclusion of songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. When "Backbeat" was made 20 years ago, Beatles songs went for a pretty penny.

"It's become easier to get the rights and the contact through the film and stage production has helped," says Iain Softley, who wrote the screenplay, secured the theatrical rights and has shepherded the production from Glasgow to London's West End and now Los Angeles. "I always wanted that progression from a band playing covers, and playing them with incredible guts and attitude, to a band creating their own music."

"Backbeat" made its U.S. debut Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown L.A. with "Love Me Do," "P.S. I Love You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There" concluding a show that captures the Beatles shaping their sound with Barrett Strong's "Money," Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally."

Central to the story is the Beatles' original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, played by Nick Blood, and his romance with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Leanne Best) and friendship with John Lennon (Andrew Knott). The true story follows the boys from Liverpool to a club in Hamburg's red light district and back, moving from a quintet to a four piece and beginning to work with producer George Martin while Sutcliffe focuses on his painting.

"Some things have been cut from the film -- we spend less time in Liverpool, concentrating more on the band going to Hamburg," Softley says. "A couple scenes  have been added to bring out more of the relationship between Paul and John. It's still the dramatic choice Stu has to make between his best friend, his country and rock 'n' roll - and possible fame - and following his true vocation."

When Softley shot the film in 1993 with Stephen Dorff at Sutcliffe and Ian Hart as Lennon, he tagged Don Was to assemble a band "with attitude" to approach the covers in the manner of the early Beatles. Dave Grohl was the drummer, Thurston Moore played guitar, Dave Pirner sang and Mike Mills was the bassist. The band was organized two weeks before shooting and had coalesced by the time shooting began.

To get the same feeling onstage, the faux Beatles play their instruments onstage, loudly and with authority. Softley credits Paul Stacey, who also composed incidental music for the stage,  with shaping the band; he taught Knott the guitar from scratch and in Daniel Healy, who portrays Paul McCartney, he had an actor who is also a proficient musician.

During the film's shooting, Softley was keenly aware of the visceral response he was having when the band was playing in the club. "The idea struck me then, the feeling you had  if you were in one of those clubs."

Softley acquired the stage rights from Universal and a script ready in 2003 when the film was screened at Abbey Road Studios to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Cast members from the film did a table reading that Softley found encouraging.

For a second reading, this one in a London club, the Hippodrome, Softley reached out to one of the film's casting directors to bring in some musician-actors. Encouraged, he continued to develop the musical with Stacey in tow and wound up directing a production in early 2010 at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland. Two members of the L.A. cast, Healy and Oliver Bennett, who plays the drummer Pete Best, began their association with the show then.

Stacey's band played at that show and Softley knew it needed to be presented as if the audience is inside a nightclub. His request of Stacey: "get these guys to play at 80-90 percent as well as your band."

"Backbeat" opened in London in September 2011 and ran for five months, moving to Toronto for a seven-week run in the summer. The Los Angeles run is through Feb. 24 and its next destination is yet to be determined.