As a concept, “if” may be mere conjecture in real life. In fact, though, if Stuart Sutcliffe hadn’t taken his best friend John Lennon’s advice back in 1960 and left art school to play bass guitar in his band, the music world would now be quite different.
That’s because Sutcliffe joining Lennon, fellow guitarists Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and drummer Pete Best, allowed his Liverpool group — the Beatles — to take up an offer of work playing seedy clubs in Hamburg, West Germany … and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, almost 60 years on, audiences in Japan can recapture the flavor of those heady days through “Backbeat,” a chronicle play, mainly set in Hamburg, that was adapted for the stage in 2010 by the English duo of Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys and based on Softley’s 1994 film of the same name.
For the current production, running at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre ahead of a national tour, dramatist Sachiko Ishimaru translated the English text and directs this show featuring 20 of the Beatles’ songs performed live on stage.
Yet for Sutcliffe (played by Shota Totsuka), that Hamburg venture was to be short-lived, as within weeks he met a German photographer named Astrid Kirchherr (the single-named Natsuko) and the pair got engaged. So as Lennon (Kazuki Kato) and McCartney (the single-named Juon) were entertaining visions of stardom, Sutcliffe left the Beatles and set his sights on being an art teacher after getting married.
Then, in April 1962, while he was living in the Kirchherr family house in Hamburg, Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage, at the age of 21. That October, the Beatles had their first Top 20 hit with “Love Me Do.”
Ishimaru, 57, says in a spirited way that there was no “if” in her life regarding theater. In fact, she said, her moment of destiny came when she was still a young schoolgirl.
“When I was 9, my teacher told me to read from a book titled ‘Two Years Holiday’ in front of my classmates in a Japanese-language lesson. Once I started, I drew all their attention to me and that was my first experience as a performer. It was wonderful,” she says.
After that, Ishimaru joined various drama circles in her hometown of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture before moving to Tokyo in the mid-1980s. There, she did the rounds unsuccessfully from cutting-edge dance troupes to underground drama companies before finally getting her break with an experimental theater company run by the late Yukio Ninagawa.
“I joined as an actress, but then I contracted a rare disease that deformed my face,” Ishimaru says. “As I lay in hospital, I thought I’d better leave my dream to other actors and support them as a director instead. Fortunately I was cured, but I switched to directing anyhow — and Ninagawa actually said that suited me better.”
Sitting next to her, it wasn’t hard to guess from his slightly surly expression that 34-year-old Kazuki Kato was behaving in character for his role as the charismatic John Lennon.
“Though I am a musician and I’ve done solo concert tours and performed in musicals, this boy-band work is entirely new for me,” the actor and singer says.
Kato has enjoyed exposure on the stage, TV, in movies and as a musician since he debuted at the age of 20 as a high school tennis player in the 2005 production, “Musical: The Prince of Tennis,” Because of this, he says he missed out on growing up like most other children.
“Although I became comfortable playing in this band thanks to our rehearsals with the superb music director Daisuke Mori, because of my lack of experience I bumped into a second wall, which was how to blend that naturally into the story,” he says.
“It didn’t work at all if we treated the music and acting as separate things, so we had to integrate our performance scenes into the flow of the story. To do that, I needed to become a teenage John from those days.
“I was thinking all the time about who John was and how to be him, but then Ishimaru told me to create my own John — and that was great advice for me,” he says.
Ishimaru smiles at this and says, “First, John and Paul are both larger than life, so we created our own ‘Backbeat’ and I asked the actors to be themselves on stage with their legendary characters in mind.”
To help capture that spirit, Ishimaru, Kato and Kohei Ueguchi — who plays Best, the band’s original drummer who Ringo Starr replaced in 1962 — visited Liverpool before rehearsals began. And, as Ishimaru and Kato recall, they had some magical moments there.
“I wanted to hear the local people’s way of talking for my translation and to experience Liverpool directly,” Ishimaru says. “Of course, we visited places connected with the Beatles, like the Cavern Club, and I could sense them around the city and picture John and Stu making jokes on their way to school together. That all helped me a lot to create my translation and direct this play.”
Kato said that although he wasn’t alive when the Beatles were stars, the trip brought them much closer to him.
“I only knew a handful of their songs, but I still felt a kind of nostalgic feeling when I was there,” he says. “In particular, at Stu’s grave I felt I heard his voice saying, ‘Welcome to Liverpool.’ Surprisingly, too, we had beautiful weather even though the forecast was for rain.”
Ishimaru, meanwhile, says she hopes her production allows the cast and audiences alike to really connect with those fleeting times when a handful of people really did shape life and history for so many.
“In ‘Backbeat,’ as they play the music and sing in English, audiences can get a vivid insight into the early Beatles every night,” she says. “On stage anything might happen, so the five guys have to sort out any accidents and also feel when everything’s in the groove for the audiences, which is exactly the same as for that green English boys’ band in Liverpool and Hamburg. It’s so exciting.”
“Backbeat” runs until June 9 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. It then goes on tour to Hyogo, Aichi and Kanagawa prefectures until June 23. For more information, visit www.backbeatstage.jp.