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

FIFTHB PG 077crop

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

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap 1431_B

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: Kung Fu

Kung Fu The Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage

Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Bruce Lee – I’m drawn to his charisma, his incredible physical precision, and, oh yeah, that smokin’ hot bod. So it’s not surprising that David Henry Hwang’s bioplay about Lee, Kung Fu, doesn’t really tell me anything about Bruce I didn’t already know. As Hwang usually does, however, he’s managed to find compelling ways to meditate on the sociological and artistic dimensions of Lee’s story.

Originally begun as the book of a projected Bruce Lee musical that never materialized, Kung Fu tells much the same story as the Lee biopic Dragon. More emphasis is placed on Bruce’s relationship with his father Hoi-Chuen, played with rock-solid gravitas by the great Francis Jue. Hoi-Chuen was an actor in Jyut kek, also known as Cantonese opera. Hwang used Cantonese opera’s northern cousin Jīngjù, or Peking opera, in his revision of Flower Drum Song. As he did there, he has incorporated several dance numbers in the traditional Chinese form, to great visual and emotional effect.

In general, Hwang has replaced what would have been musical numbers with fight or Jyut kek numbers, with original instrumental music by Du Yun. Kung Fu is, above all other things, a choreographic spectacle – Emmanuel Brown’s fights, Sonya Tayeh’s dances and Jamie Guan’s Jyut kek are all eye-filling and thoroughly exciting.

Cole Horibe, best known for his appearance in TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”, dazzles with the precision and power of his moves, as anybody who portrays Lee should. He also has Lee’s accent down cold – not some random Chinese accent, but Bruce Lee’s exact accent. And he has the demeanor down too: a confident spiritual seeker, but always with a steely, cocky, even thuggish core.

This isn’t the most definitive telling of Lee’s life story, nor is it Hwang’s most insightful work. It is a mildly thoughtful, visually exciting object lesson on overcoming adversity with grace and determination. On that level, I can recommend it.

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Review: Bronx Bombers

Bronx Bombers Circle in the Square Theatre

Playwright Eric Simonson has a real gift for bringing out the human side of sports stories. With Bronx Bombers he completes what could be thought of as a Major American Sports Trilogy: he covered football with the 2010 Lombardi, basketball with the 2012 Magic/Bird and now finally baseball – in the persons of the New York Yankees – gets its inning with Bombers.

Having seen those other plays, I knew that I wasn’t in for an evening of stats and nonstop machismo. Stats are referred to but never laid out, and macho shit talk is played mostly for laughs – although any play that features Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson as characters would have to have some of that nonsense bullshit, or it just wouldn’t be accurate.

Bombers is much more epic and ambitious than the other two. Completely understandable: baseball has been America’s sport of choice much, much longer than the other two, going back to the 19th Century at least, maybe back to the 18th.

And a play about the Yankees – well, no matter what team you prefer, there’s no denying that the Yankees has the longest list of big personalities of perhaps any sports team, in perpetuity throughout the universe. Most of them make at least a cameo appearance here, which makes for moments that are easily the most moving and insightful in the trilogy. It does not make for consistently gripping storytelling, though; outside of those moments, Bronx Bombers can wander a bit.

This diffuse play comes into it’s clearest focus when dealing with Yogi Berra. Peter Scolari plays Berra, and he all but disappears into his portrayal of the beloved Yankees coach, nailing Berra’s skittish New Yawker demeanor, as well as his sly, surprising wit. A magnificent, award-worthy piece of acting.

While definitely a heartfelt and intelligent tribute to a team clearly near and dear to Simonson’s heart, this is perhaps the weakest of the three plays. Still, I can recommend it, on the basis of a handful of great moments and Scolari’s masterful performance. Undoubtedly, if you love the Yankees, you will love this.

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Review: Outside Mullingar

Outside Mullingar Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Coming from the guy who wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck, it’s not surprising that John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar is a beguiling romantic comedy that has just as much bite as it does heart. Anthony (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Rosemary (Debra Messing) live on two neighboring farms just outside of the Irish country town of Mullingar. He’s painfully shy and she’s hard as tacks – and then there’s the issue of their families’ squabbles over real estate. Still, there’s undoubtedly something going on under the surface between the two, but just what is it?

Shanley’s a savvy enough playwright to make the play about more than just these two. Peter Maloney is terrific as Anthony’s crusty father Tony, who’s perhaps overly cautious about the idea of leaving Anthony the farm (or is he?). The play is almost as much about their relationship as it is about Rosemary, and the father’s last scene with his son is as touching as anything else in the entire play.

Messing, bravely and mostly successfully attempting an Irish accent, displays all kinds of colors and tones, nicely filling out the emotional life of this tough lady. O’Byrne – who unsurprisingly has the accent down cold – beautifully underplays Anthony’s eccentricity throughout. Director Doug Hughes, who also helmed Shanley’s austerely serious Doubt, underlines this play’s comedy without overwhelming its serious themes and gentle flavor.

It’s definitely not the “big idea” play that Doubt is, but Outside Mullingar is charming without being truly fluffy. In true Irish fashion, despair and difficulty are somehow rendered beautiful and even enticing. Recommended.

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Review: Beautiful

Beautiful the Musical

This is going to be some kind of hit – it’s about a week too soon to say whether it’s a “smash” or a “sleeper.” But I predict Beautiful will be at the Stephen Sondheim for a long, long time. And I couldn’t be happier about it!

First of all, Beautiful features an extraordinarily sensitive, Tony-nom-worthy performance from Jesse Meuller as legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. King is most famous for her album Tapestry, one of the best-selling albums of all-time, with over 25 million copies sold worldwide. It still holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number 1 by a female solo artist.

By the time she released Tapestry, however, King had already had a successful decade-long career writing hits for the biggest acts in rock ‘n’ roll, mostly in tandem with her then-husband Gerry Goffin. The story of their troubled marriage forms the heart of Beautiful, giving it a more human-scale feeling than any other jukebox musical I can think of, to terrific effect.

Which isn’t to say that Beautiful lacks spectacle! Several production numbers feature breathlessly energetic “stage” performances of soul groups, such as the Shirelles and the Drifters, of those great 1960s Goffin/King classics. Director Marc Bruni manages the shifts from living rooms to concert halls with great deftness, including skillful use of Derek McLane’s multilevel set. For the production numbers McLane has created gorgeous, massive panels of lights that not only underline the song’s flavor but also open them up to something more abstract and magical. Truly beautiful!

Mueller delivers her songs with nuanced feeling, and gives us an astonishingly three-dimensional portrait of a woman simultaneously living her dream and losing control of her life. The broodingly handsome Jake Epstein makes a great foil for her, showing Goffin slowly sliding into what we would recognize today as bipolar disorder.

Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector are great fun as the troubled couple’s closest friends – and songwriting competitors – Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Jeb Brown makes for a very engaging version of record executive Donny Kirshner – maybe a little too engaging, given Kirshner’s reputation for being stiff and a little wooden.

Beautiful is a jukebox musical with a recognizable human center. As such, I think it’s one of my favorite jukebox musicals of all time. Highly recommended.

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Review: Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot Cort Theatre

This surprisingly sentimental Godot owes its uniqueness to the decades-long friendship of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (which dates back to the 1970s). For the first time I believe that Estragon/Gogo (McKellen) and Vladimir/Didi (Stewart) truly have known each other for the endless lengths of time that playwright Samuel Beckett suggests.

Waiting for Godot revolves around two tramps (Gogo and Didi) waiting on a desolate rural road for someone named Godot who may in some way “save” them. Almost nothing happens while they wait, so they pass the time with wordplay, poetry, slapstick — except when landlord Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) and his slave Lucky (Billy Crudup) turn up, spouting their own slightly different sort of nonsense.

Director Sean Mathias seems more focused on the comic and coolly intellectual sides than many interpreters, to very good effect. And he has his stars’ incredibly easy chemistry to work with, which gives the evening a playful suppleness that leavens play’s air of dark, existentialist despair. Their affection for each other is incredibly palpable – this is the first time I’ve seen an audience respond with a heartfelt “Aww” when Didi and Gogo are kind to each other.

McKellen’s humor tends toward the physical and poignant – his Gogo has already put himself past all hope as a way of coping, and does not hesitate to give into animal impulses. Stewart’s approach to Didi is a more verbal and cerebral one: this Vladimir is a deeply disillusioned humanist and moralist, providing a brilliantly austere contrast to McKellen’s feral clowning. Hensely’s and Crudup’s part are smaller and more one-dimensional, but they execute them with great élan.

Godot is a dangerous play: it can be deadly boring if played too reverently. Mathias and this Sir-lead cast have steered clear of this danger, giving us a Godot that is as full as it should be of humor, intelligence and dread – as well as an unexpected amount of warmth.

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Review: No Man’s Land

No Man's Land Cort Theatre

It’s a Pinter laugh riot! I’m not a big fan of Pinter, but I thoroughly enjoyed No Man’s Land. It’s the most engaging and comic play of his I’ve come across, even the most humane. And the current Broadway production, starring an ideally cast Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, is easily the most lucid rendition of Pinter’s famously not lucid dialogue that I’ve ever encountered.

In No Man’s Land, two writers, the wealthy Hirst (Stewart) and the poor Spooner (McKellen), stumble drunkenly into Hirst’s drawing room, and continue plying on the booze. The two may or may not have a history together – as is usual with Pinter, the moment you think you have an important piece of information about somebody, it is suggested that same information might be a lie.

There is a marvelous unforced ease and interplay that McKellen and Stewart have from decades of friendship and working together – they were in the Royal Shakespeare Company together in the 1970s, long before X-Men. Together with director Sean Mathias, they have somehow transformed the menace that Pinter is known for into something altogether more mysterious, even luminous. Love it.

Billy Crudup is suitably sexy as Hirst’s spiky-tempered secretary Foster, who may or may not be bisexual, but is certainly some kind of perv. Shuler Hensley is oddly affecting as Briggs, the butler, who may or may not be “doing” Foster – at the very least he has a man-crush on him. I recommend this as highly as I could ever recommend Pinter – I’ve never enjoyed him more!

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Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

Jinkx & Major Unwrapped_729x360

‘Tis the season – time for drag queens to work a holiday theme to buy Mama a new pair of shoes! The hottest drag queen of the moment (a major new talent, really) Jinkx Monsoon has just such a show going on at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, featuring her musical counterpart, pianist/composer/raconteur Major Scales, titled Unwrapped.

Their previous show at the Beechman, The Vaudevillians, was a real stunner, a thoroughly thought-out evening of cabaret theatre, which successfully staked their claim to be regarded as major players in the worlds of both high drag and cabaret. As they are the first to admit, Unwrapped isn’t nearly as structured – they present it as a fairly free-form evening of holiday drag. But the great news is that Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition, even when they aren’t doing something as high concept as The Vaudevillians.

They share traumatic Christmas stories, sing a Lana Del Rey song with “exactly as much effort as she herself puts into performing it” and connect the dots between Mariah Carey, Sarah Silverman and The Drowsy Chaperone. They even sing a couple of strong original songs by Mr. Scales, one a hilarious tribute to Addams Family Values villainess Debbie Jellinsky, one a sincere, affecting (and somewhat dark) ode to absent loved ones. See, crazy and smart!

Unwrapped, as loosey goosey as it may be, is certainly much more thoughtful than your typical holiday drag act. It’s somewhat similar to Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s recent holiday shows – very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface – and since Justin isn’t doing more than a couple nights in the city this season, this is undoubtedly the longest-running holiday drag cabaret of any substance this year (now through December 10!). Don’t miss it!

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Review: First Date

Theater-Krysta Rodriguez

At it’s best, this show is as funny and charming as a well written (if not particularly insightful) sitcom episode. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a snob, I actually mean that as a compliment, doing that style really well isn’t easy. At its worst, though, the show is borderline offensive, and not in a focused and edgy Sacha Baron Cohen way, just in a muddled, tacky and unimaginative way.

I’m thankful that charm and wit eventually take the day in First Date – most of the worst stuff is in the first half-hour – and this is mostly due to Austin Winsburg’s engaging book. We follow, in more-or-less real time, a blind date between the ordinary but well intentioned Aaron (Zachary Levi) and the very offbeat and defensive Casey (Krysta Rodriguez).

Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s score is well-crafted but not always well-considered. The best example of this is their portrayal of Casey’s gay friend Reggie (Christopher Kusick). When he’s singing, Reggie’s an unfunny, unlikable cartoon.

When Reggie starts talking Winsburg’s words, though, he becomes an identifiable person. He’s still flamboyant, needy and over-the-top, but in a way that’s more recognizably human. I know this queen, and don’t dislike him. Music and lyrics need to be in the same world as the book, and that doesn’t always happen here.

Director Bill Berry has certainly framed this light-weight show in the best way possible, particularly in the casting. Levi holds the stage like an old pro, charismatic and dynamic. Krysta Rodriguez, fresh from her turn in TV’s “Smash”, is similarly energetic, bringing to her role a surprising warmth under all the deadpan snarkiness.

First Date is a good, but not a great, show, often amusing and, I’m happy to say, quite briskly paced. I look forward to still better things from all involved.

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