Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"The Fifth Beatle" author speaks at C2E2 about Brian Epstein's influence


"The Fifth Beatle" goes a long way in ensuring that Brian Epstein's contributions to the success of The Beatles will not be forgotten.

The New York Times best-selling graphic novel is based on the life on the life of the Beatles' manager and was written by Vivek Tiwary, an award-winning producer of Broadway shows. I had the chance to interview him during his recent appearance at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo.

Q - How were you inspired to do a graphic novel on Brian Epstein?

I discovered the Brian Epstein story 21 years ago, when I was at business school. I'm a life-long Beatles fan, and I was dreaming about working in the entertainment industry.

Believing that The Beatles and Brian Epstein were the team that wrote the rules of the pop music business, I thought I should study the life of Brian Epstein.

And so I was looking for The Beatles' business stories. I wanted to know how did he get them a record deal, when every label had passed on them? 

How did he come up with the suits and the haircuts? How did he convince Ed Sullivan to book the band, when a British band had never made an impact in the United States?

These were the stories that I was chasing. And I uncovered them and they're great stories and they're in the book. And if you are a Beatles fan, they are a particular treat.

But what really inspired me about the Brian Epstein story and the reason I stuck with it all these years is the human side of the story that I uncovered. In brief, he was gay and Jewish and from Liverpool.

And in the 1960s, those were pretty significant obstacles. It was against the law to be gay. It was literally a felony.

There was pervasive anti-Semitism, far more than there is today. And Liverpool was a town that had no cultural influence.

So you've got this gay Jewish man running around Liverpool saying, "I've found a local band, and they're going to be bigger than Elvis. They're going to elevate pop music into an art form."

And that's what I found so inspiring. As a young person of Indian origin, making my way in graphic novels and Broadway producing, I could really relate to that sense of being an outsider.

Q - What kind of research did you do?

As I said, I discovered the story 21 years ago. I like saying for two reasons. One is that I turned 40 last year, so I can literally say that I've been working on this book for more than half my life.

But also, putting it in perspective, 21 years ago, there was no YouTube, there's no Google, there are none of these online resources we so take for granted these days. And "The Fifth Beatle," www.thefifthbeatle.com, is the only book in print about Brian Epstein.

So I didn't really have a choice but to do interviews. So what I did was I got my hands on every respected Beatles book that I could find, and I'd read these 300-page books about the Beatles, and I would get 10 good pages about Brian.

But then I slowly put a portrait together about who were the people who knew him the best. And literally, I just called those folks. I tracked them down. 

After they realized I was legitimate and that my heart was in the right place, they were willing to talk to me. These folks slowly opened up to me over the years, and I got The Beatles stories I was after, but eventually they started telling me about Brian's personal life.

But that's how I researched this book, was through endless amount of interviews. Anytime I could track down anyone who had some memory of Brian, or worked with him or was a client, that's how this book came together.

Andrew Loog Oldham, the original manager of the Rolling Stones, who got his first job working for Brian; Billy J. Kramer, who was one of Brian Epstein's other clients and was a hit artist in the 1960s in the UK in his own right; Sid Bernstein, the legendary concert promoter who brought The Beatles over to the United States; Nat Weiss, who was The Beatles' American attorney and probably Brian's best friend and closest confidant, these are all people who were incredibly supportive of this book and who were incredibly impactful in my research.

Q - Probably getting a hold of Paul or Ringo was a little more difficult. Did you get anything from them?

Absolutely. McCartney in particular is a huge fan of the book. He wrote us a really lovely letter saying that he liked the book and that he was happy with the way we portrayed Brian. 
As a huge Beatles fan, what an amazing thing to get a letter from Paul McCartney.

Q - Was that the icing on the cake?

There have been so many icings on this cake, I gotta tell you. The past few months have been like a dream come true. Last week, we were just nominated for two Eisner awards, which are the comic industry's highest awards.

So that was a huge honor. A few months before that, we were also nominated Lambda Literary Award, which is for best LGBT graphic novel. It's the first year they even had a graphic novel category, so that was amazing.

Q - Peyton Reed, who directed such movies as "Yes Man," "Bring It On," "Down with Love" and "The Break-Up," is directing the film version of "The Fifth Beatle," and it will be produced by Bruce Cohen, known for his work on "American Beauty" and "Silver Linings Playbook." How did you connect with them?

Peyton Reed came to us. He's a huge comic fan. He heard about the graphic novel and heard that we were making a film.

He had worked with Bruce Cohen before on "Down with Love." I met with Peyton and he's incredible. We share the same vision for this.

Bruce Cohen also produced one of my favorite films, "Big Fish," and he adopted "Big Fish" for Broadway. We met when he was in New York producing "Big Fish."

He was sort of a very established film producer making inroads on Broadway, and I was kind of the opposite. I was a very Broadway producer making inroads into film, so we had mutual interests.

I felt that the Brian Epstein story would probably appeal to him given the other movies he's produced. The DNA of "The Fifth Beatle" is in all of those films that he produced.

Q - Your Broadway productions have won 25 Tony awards. Why do you think they have been so well-received? Is there anything in particular you are trying to do with each production?

Music is my first love, and you will see that all of my projects have some sort of music core.
All my Broadway shows have been musicals, with one exception, and that was "A Raisin In The Sun." And with "A Raisin In The Sun," I cast Sean Combs, otherwise known as P. Diddy.

And we marketed that production like you would market a hip-hop record. We hired street teams, we did radio promotion, we did things that you never do for Broadway shows.

So I would say that the one common thread in all of my work is music. Music is in everything that I do.

I guess I'm also very passionate about outsider stories, about folks who are least likely to succeed going the distance in whatever they are passionate about. And I think that is a common thread in all of my projects. 

"American Idiot" is about that, young people trying to make their way in a confused world.

Right now, I'm working with Alanis Morissette to adopt "Jagged Little Pill" to the stage. And in some ways, that's also going to be about an outsider story.

Music and inspirational human stories, those are the two things that I love.

I think that it is a story worth telling on stage, and I also believe that Broadway doesn't have enough musicals with strong female voices. I also feel that Alanis' songs are kind of tailor made for the stage.

Q - Do you think Brian Epstein would approve of "The Fifth Beatle?"

I think so. You'll never know, but I think he would have been very happy with this project, and certainly people who knew him have been very enthusiastic.

People who knew Brian have told me that they think he would be very proud of it.