Searching for his way into the new musical "Backbeat," which examines the Beatles' early days (and nights) in Hamburg, Germany, David Leveaux asked himself what he called "the Jerome Robbins question."
It's a tactic he picked up in 2004 while overseeing a Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof." That show's book writer, Joseph Stein, was recounting his experience on Robbins' original 1964 production and told Leveaux that one day the director asked, 'OK, so what is this musical about? I want one word,'" Leveaux said.
Stein made a list: "parents," "daughters" and, way down at No. 15, "tradition." "Robbins got to that and said, 'That's it — now every scene has to be about tradition,'" Leveaux said. "And the result was this legendary musical."
For "Backbeat," Leveaux might've used "love" or "mop top." Maybe even "ob-la-di." He picked "courage."
"Think about it: You come out of a postwar working-class environment in Liverpool," the English director said, speaking backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, where "Backbeat" will begin a monthlong run Wednesday night after earlier engagements in Glasgow, London and Toronto. "You go to this very strange place in Hamburg, the Reeperbahn," or red-light district. "It's a threatening place — a dangerous place, in many ways. And you're playing rock 'n' roll, which itself is causing all manner of aggression.
"But then you discover, if you're John Lennon, that this man who you love deeply, your best friend, is now falling in love with someone else and is going to leave your band." Leveaux shook his head at the thought. "What are you going to do about that?"
If this part of the Beatles' story doesn't sound familiar, that's more or less the point of "Backbeat," said Iain Softley, who co-wrote the show with Stephen Jeffreys. Based on Softley's 1994 film of the same title, "Backbeat" takes up the gritty pre-history of the band that would go on to change pop music. And it reflects a shift in musical theater — one demonstrated recently by "Fela!" and "Once" — away from the conventional actors-accompanied-by-orchestra setup toward a more integrated, concert-like approach.
Beneath those formal innovations, though, "Backbeat's" heart is the love triangle that connected Lennon (played by Andrew Knott), the Beatles' original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood), and Astrid Kirchherr (Leanne Best), the German photographer with whom Sutcliffe was involved until his death in 1962.
"Stuart had to choose between his best friend and his girlfriend and between touring the world and staying in Germany," said Softley. "That dilemma is what made me feel the story had dramatic potential."
There was also the musical challenge the Beatles faced as the band (with founding drummer Pete Best) honed its chops playing covers of American R&B tunes in rowdy Hamburg clubs. (The show's score features "Long Tall Sally" and "Twist and Shout," among other classics, as well as a few early Lennon-McCartney songs.)
Leveaux said his goal with the show is to "unravel the reflexive expectations of fame," to embody the spirit of George Harrison's assertion that the Beatles didn't want to be famous — they wanted to be successful. "It's a pretty interesting statement," the director pointed out, before adding with a laugh, "I'll probably regret saying this, but in that way I think 'Backbeat' is almost the anti-'American Idol.'"
In his movie Softley got at that edgy intensity in part by assembling an alternative-rock dream team, including Nirvana's Dave Grohl and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, to perform the film's music. (Its out-of-print soundtrack remains a rough-cut gem.) For the theatrical version of "Backbeat" — which England's Guardian newspaper called "intelligent, multilayered and often touching" — Leveaux does it with a nearly club-like staging built around the band's gear.
"Guitars are there and the silhouette of a drum kit is there, even when we find Stuart on the beach," he said. "You never want to take that away, because if you do, then suddenly you think, 'OK, we're in a play now and we'll get back to the rock 'n' roll later.'"
The production also enlisted Paul Stacey, who's toured with Oasis and the Black Crowes, as music supervisor to get the actors to a level of credible musicianship, since they play all of the Beatles' songs.
"One of the reasons you go to the theater is to feel more alive," he said. "It's a transmission of energy. The energy is how you convey feeling and emotion, and that's not descriptive. Often the most powerful forms of theater are not forms that describe the experience — they are the experience."
That mind set is what connects "Backbeat" to "Fela!" and "Once," the latter of which won the Tony Award for best musical last year. In all of these shows — none of which can be described as a "jukebox musical," a term Leveaux backed away from eagerly — songs play out onstage in real time, the action of the music inseparable from the action of the drama.
Some of this can be attributed, of course, to these stories being about musicians: "Fela!" loosely depicts an evening in the life of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, while "Once" charts the relationship between two singer-songwriters. Yet Aaron Johnson, musical director of "Fela!," said the technique also provides excitement at a time when the devaluing of recorded music (thanks to online piracy) has boosted an appreciation of the concert experience.
"In a lot of ways doing 'Fela!' felt like playing a show," said Johnson, who also plays in the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas. "One of the criticisms of 'Fela!' was that there was no arc to the story, that the script wasn't developed. But nobody in the audience cared because there was so much eye candy and such amazing choreography. And the music never got old."
Veteran theater director Des McAnuff, who has helmed Broadway hits such as "Jersey Boys" and "The Who's Tommy," isn't so sure he spots a trend. "To my eyes musical theater is just as anarchic and confused as it has been over the last several decades," he said with a laugh. But he does see an opening up of what constitutes theater music, particularly when it comes to vernacular styles such as gospel, blues and rock 'n' roll.
"It was unfathomable back in the '50s and even well into the '60s to use any of the other genres of American music [beyond traditional Broadway fare] onstage," he said. And on the rare occasion when those other genres were used, as in "Bye Bye Birdie," it was for the purpose of mocking them — in a fashion that was "quite dreadful," McAnuff added.
Now though, the palette has widened to accommodate Green Day's adaptation of its album "American Idiot" for the stage and "Passing Strange," by the musician Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald. McAnuff's latest project at the La Jolla Playhouse, where he's director emeritus: a trippy, neon-soaked adaptation of the Flaming Lips' 2002 psych-pop album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots."
With its good-looking Liverpool lads — and its can't-miss songbook — "Backbeat" doesn't venture as far out as "Yoshimi." But it follows some of the same routes.
"People love hearing music in a great environment, whether it's in a theater or a concert hall or a film with fantastic reproduction," Softley said, mentioning the recent movie version of "Les Misérables," in which the actors sang live. "That public sharing of the power of music was maybe neglected for a little bit. But I think we're remembering that it can be an incredibly thrilling art form."