Interview: “The Fifth Beatle” tells story of Beatles gay manager

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Brian Epstein, the man who brought the Beatles to the world, was gay when it was a felony to be so in the U.K., Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, and from Liverpool when it was just a dingy port town. The Fifth Beatle (Vivek J. Tiwary, writer, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, artists) is a critically acclaimed, #1 best selling New York Times graphic novel and forthcoming feature film recounting the untold true story of Epstein, the brilliant visionary who discovered the Beatles in a cellar in Liverpool, nurtured, protected, and guided them to international stardom, and died extremely successful and painfully lonely at the age of 32. I chatted with Tiwary recently about the queerer elements of Brian’s life and The Fifth Beatle

I hear The Fifth Beatle is associated with a particular charitable cause.

The Fifth Beatle is associated with Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org). I’ve been researching the Brian Epstein story for 21 years, literally more than half my life, but I’ve been working on the Fifth Beatle for about seven years. My wife and I got married nine years ago, and during our engagement, we decide to align ourselves with Freedom to Marry. We were very excited to have found each other and be getting married – surprisingly so, since we’re both fairly nontraditional people. We never thought that marriage would mean that much to us, but we were surprised to find out it meant a great deal to us.

But it was also difficult, because we have a lot of gay and lesbian friends who were being told they couldn’t be married. Many of them were people who had been together longer than my wife and I had. So it was important for us to get involved in that fight. In lieu of wedding presents we made a large donation to Freedom to Marry, we highlighted them in our first toast as a couple. We made sure that the organization was an important part of our married lives together. So my history with Freedom to Marry goes back before I even started working on the Fifth Beatle. It’s an organization I have a deep and emotional connection to, and that feels very right for the Fifth Beatle.

There’s a line in the book, during a television interview where Brian’s being asked about the Beatles’ romantic lives, and Brian said “I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will be one day and someday I might too.” It was viewed as a throwaway joke at the time, but really it was a pretty heavy thing that he said – people who knew him well realized he was saying something quite dangerous for that time. Because forget about getting married, he was worried about staying out of jail, should his sexuality be discovered – that’s the way things were in 1960s England. If there had been marriage equality in the 1960s, it would clearly have made a huge difference in Brian’s life, it might have even saved his life.

Was it well know to people close to Brian that he was gay, and when did it become generally known?

It was really only known to people in his inner circle – the Beatles, other clients, his family, his closest friends (some of whom were gay themselves). Brian didn’t have a lot of friends, Nat Weiss (who became the Beatles U.S. legal representative) was certainly his closest friend and confidant. So it was a very small inner circle. People who worked with him day in and day out at his family’s Liverpool record store NEMS, didn’t know, for example.

It really was that dangerous at the time, I think today it’s hard to imagine what it was like. A junior person at NEMS could have reported him to the police and he would have gone to jail! The matador analogy that runs through the book, represents that dance with danger and even death. By pursuing a career that pushed him so far into the public eye, he was really playing a dangerous game.

He died in 1967, there were major steps toward repealing England’s anti-homosexuality laws in that very same year. But it was only many years later that it became widely know than he was gay, close to decade after his death before it became common knowledge.

How important a source was Nat Weiss for that side of Brian’s life?

Without question he was the number one source, he knew the gay side of Brian’s life best. Nat passed away just a few months ago. He was very aware of the book, and the screenplay for the film, but didn’t live to actually see it on newsstands. He was a huge source to me, as well as a great friend. He was a New Yorker, and so I had the good fortune of meeting Nat some 10-15 years ago, he was at my wedding, we spent a lot of social time together. I really miss him.

Brian’s lover Dizz, is he representative of a real person or is he a composite?

No, he’s definitely a real person, his name was John Gillespie, and his friends called him Dizz as a play on the similar name of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Yeah he was a real personal, a real hustler, a real blackmailer – everything Dizz does in the novel, he does in real life. I show the blackmail as happening during a television interview, when really it happened at a party. Other than that, though, he’s a very real character, I’m sorry to say.

One of my favorite lines in the book, comes when Brian is having the Beatles try on their collarless Edwardian suits and he says “The Beatles are in trouble if queers have no place in rock and roll”. Is that truly from the mouth of Brian Epstein?

John Lennon remembered Brian saying that, according to my research – though obviously at this point neither of them are around to verify it.

Many of the captions in the graphic novel illustrate scenes with lyric by the Beatles, but many others use lyrics from the American Songbook. And British Songbook for that matter – I was particularly moved by the use of Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All”, which alludes to similar life experiences between Coward (who was also gay) and Brian. For you, what’s behind the use of those Songbook songs?

Well the Coward song serves, among other functions, as a counterpoint to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” providing a very contrasting view on the same subject. Above all, those Songbook songs were songs that Brian loved. Ironically Brian was not a huge fan of contemporary pop music – he liked showtunes and classical music. So those songs were really more in line with his personal taste. The truth is, he viewed the Beatles as great composers, on a par with the music he loved: Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Irving Berlin.

What’s in the future for The Fifth Beatle?

We’re working on a film version, I’ve written the screenplay, we announced at the end of last year that Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On, Down with Love) and Bruce Cohen is co-producing (Milk, Big Fish, Silver Linings Playbook, Oscar winner for American Beauty). The most exciting thing is that Apple Corp. on behalf of the Beatles have signed off on the project and allowed us to do a deal with Sony TV who control Beatles music. We are literally the first and only film about the band in history to be granted full access to their music catalog, and we are very proud of that.

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Review: A Raisin in the Sun

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This play is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of the American theatre, and director Kenny Leon has given a solid, understated account of it. Set on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun follows the conflicting dreams among three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee (Denzel Washington), his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo), his sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) and matriarch Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). When Lena’s deceased husband’s life insurance money comes through, everybody has different plans for it, which makes for much of the show’s dramatic conflict.

As I said above, this is a very strong production, and would make a great introduction to this important play. To my personal taste, it’s a little too understated. Sometimes this is a good thing, as with the manner in which Denzel plays Walter’s defeated retreat into alcohol. More often, though, it’s just playing something quietly instead of with the percolating energy so evident in this play.

Denzel, while being the biggest underplayer in the bunch, does deliver a remarkably nuanced reading of Walter Lee, finding his hurt and frustration where other actors have just found braggadocio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Lena follows a laudable modern trend of playing Lena as something of a dynamic force of nature, rather than the “mama on the couch” that became a stereotype of early productions of Raisin.

Anika Noni Rose is perhaps a bit too resentful as the intelligent and rebellious Beneatha, but when the script calls for her to explode in Afro-centric celebration, she does so with great panache. Sophie Okonedo gives perhaps the most remarkable performance of the evening as Walter’s stoic wife, Ruth, showing layers of desire and compassion that make her character the most dimensional one on stage. A masterpiece, masterfully done, if a bit too quietly. Recommended.

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Review: Mothers and Sons

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In Terrence McNally’s often funny, always thoughtful new play Mothers and Sons, mother Katherine (Tyne Daly) pays an unexpected visit to the New York apartment of her late son’s ex-partner Cal (Frederick Weller), who is now married to another man, Will (Bobby Steggart) and has a young son. She has something of her son’s to give Cal, but things get more complicated the longer she stays.

This is one of those plays where the characters are all well-educated and well-spoken, and the terrific ensemble – rounded out by Grayson Taylor as the couple’s son Bud – deliver what could easily come across as stiff with great nuance and fluidity. Daly above all is impressive as the highly complicated Katherine, who seems to aspire to misanthropy, but is just too decent at the core to truly hate people that much.

As many McNally plays are, this is a think piece. There are many thing about gay life in general, and her late son Andre in particular, that Katherine will never get (perhaps she’s willfully trying not to). Cal tries to get through to her what life with Andre was like, both the good and the bad (when Andre was dying with AIDS). AIDS does hover over this play, but I wouldn’t call it a full-on AIDS play, compared to, say, The Normal Heart.

All this makes Mothers and Sons sound much heavier than it actually is – McNally writes with an extraordinarily light touch, and all the characters are witty, which makes for a great deal of humor. And, in spite of its darker insights and emotional moments, the play is essentially quite sentimental as it imagines new configurations of family. This is a really good, smart gay-themed play. Recommended.

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Review: Rocky

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This is easily the most spectacular musical to come out of Broadway this season. Director Alex Timbers has long been one of the American theatre’s most inventive stagers, and here he has truly outdone himself, with a stunning, climactic ending that will be hard for him to top going forward.

Based on the 1976 film that made Sylvester Stallone a star, Rocky follows struggling small time Philly boxer Rocky Balboa (Andy Karl), who gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to prove himself in the ring fighting heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.

Christopher Barreco’s ever evolving set is very evocative of ’70s Philly, as well as being increasingly eye-filling – just astounding. He is definitely aided and abetted by video designers Don Scully and Pablo N. Molina, whose large-scale projections of Rocky training add to the epic feel of the show. One small video problem – all the televised fight sequences have a very 21st Century ESPN look to them, rather than the lo-fi look of ’70s sports broadcasting. It’s not hi-res that I object to, that’s fine, it’s a visual aesthetic that is completely foreign to 1976. A small quibble, but annoying.

Thankfully, all this spectacle actually has a beating heart behind it. Andy Karl leans into Rocky’s sensitive side, soft-peddling the macho, “Italian Stallion” side of his personality – I think it’s a great choice. Margo Seibert is great as Balboa’s love interest, the painfully shy Adrian – her voice is truly lush and does great things for songs like “Raining”. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) have provided a lovely score, running over with melody and feeling. It’s the kind of score that opens up upon repeated listening – which isn’t quite the right choice for a show as punchy as this. Very nice, but not quite right.

Rocky the Musical has never a dull moment, and truly is a thrill-ride. Highly recommended.

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Review: All The Way

All The Way

Playing President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bryan Cranston brilliantly captures that president’s tireless energy and ruthless political gamesmanship in this drama about the events between LBJ’s swearing-in as President following Kennedy’s assassination, and his actual election as president around a year later, with a very strong focus on Johnson’s commitment to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, including a contentious ongoing dialogue with Martin Luther King.

All the Way has the heft of a Shakespeare history play, which is unsurprising given the play’s origin as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cranston’s towering performance as LBJ is the real heart of this production, an electrifying portrait of an immensely complex man. Cranston completely disappears into the role, successfully portraying the many, many different sides of LBJ. The ever-estimable Michael McKean also makes a considerable impression as J. Edgar Hoover, and Chistopher Liam Moore is surprisingly affecting as LBJ’s closeted aide Walter Jenkins.

Director Bill Rauch deftly arranges the frequent shifts in locale and mood with deceptive simplicity. That deceptive simplicity is shared by Christopher Acebo’s set: we first see a straightforward representation of a Congressional hearing room, that subtly transforms into dozens of locales. It also helps that Playwright Robert Schenkkan successfully conveys a strong sense of time, place and stakes in every line of his jazzy dialogue.

All The Way is an exciting piece of history brought to vibrant life by a subtle and smart creative team. Recommended.

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Review: Aladdin

Aladdin, Toronto 2013

There’s much more to Aladdin than its often shirtless male chorus, although that certainly doesn’t hurt. Not that there’s anything incredibly substantial about it – this is brisk, lively, even jazzy musical comedy. And, as such, one of the more successful Disney screen-to-stage musical transfers.

The setting may be the Middle East, but this version of the tale of a poor street boy wooing a princess with the help of a genie is pure screwball romantic comedy, like the original. Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings a little of that to every show he directs, and he lays it on thick here, to deliriously over the top effect.

Of course, one of the most exciting things about the film was Robin Williams’ hyperkinetic, hilarious voicing of the Genie. You can’t do a version of Disney’s Aladdin,and not have a Genie that, one way or another, rises to that level of comic hysteria. Happily, James Monroe Iglehart has just the twinkle, crazy energy and deliciously shameless hamminess that the role calls for, especially for his biggest number “Freind Like Me”, which truly pulls out every stop in sight.

Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) and Jasmine (Courtney Reed) are, as in the movie, pretty and just clueless enough to each have their coming of age moments. This ain’t Ibsen, and Jacobs and Reed play their parts with just the right light touch. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the evil vizier Jafar in the film, reprises his role here with the same basso oily malevolence. His beard, however, is a touch too cartoony compared to the other hair work in the show.

Plus, this version has several songs with lyrics by the film’s original conceiver and lyricist Howard Ashman that were cut from the film. Most of them are for a trio of “street rat” pals of Aladdin’s – who were replaced by the monkey Abu in the film – and are quite fun. Nicholaw has wisely cut all “talking animals” from the story, making Jafar’s lackey Iago human rather than a parrot – and Don Darryl Rivera really goes to town with the re-conceived part.

Aladdin ain’t Oklahoma, it ain’t even The Lion King. It’s just great fun. I think Nicholaw and company set out to make light yet spectacular family entertainment, and they have succeeded marvelously. Recommended.

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Cabaret Review: John Pizzarelli (featuring Daniel Jobim)

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The duo of John Pizzarelli and Daniel Jobim playing and singing bossa nova are the ultimate in cool. Pizzarelli represents the very height of cabaret’s jazzier side, with profound musical intelligence at work. Jobim is part of a legendary Brazilian musical dynasty: his grandfather was Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of Brazil’s all-time greatest songwriters and composers, and one of the original architect’s of bossa nova.

This act, entitled “Strictly Bossa Nova” is supremely laid back, in true bossa nova spirit. Laid back, yes, but also full of panache and musical elegance. Even the patter isn’t really patter, just a couple of very witty friends sharing stories and jokes.

They apply bossa nova style, not only to songs originally written in that style, but to great North American songs like the Gershwins’ “Fascinating Rhythm” and Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”, both of which respond beautifully to the bossa nova treatment. They even apply it to Paul McCartney’s marvelous American Songbook tribute “My Valentine”, together with choice stories about Pizzarelli working with Sir Paul.

Still, the most sparkling parts of the evening are songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, most of all his bristlingly poetic “Waters of March”. The only bossa nova evening I like nearly as much as this was another Pizzarelli act, and I think this is even better than that one. Highly recommended.

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