The Beatles released their first album Please Please Me half a century ago, triggering the world-wide phenomenon known as Beatlemania. And even though the sensational English rock band disbanded seven years later in 1970, they keep acquiring new fans from generation to generation.
Let It Be, the newly crafted Broadway concert experience which arrives at the St. James Theatre on July 16 (playing through December 29), is the latest celebration of the Fab Four and features some 40 of the band’s greatest hits. “It’s as if The Beatles had given one final gig to say this is what we were,” remarks Tim McQuillen-Wright, set designer for the new production. “Lots of bands have been able to treat their songs like a back catalog, but obviously The Beatles never did. So this show becomes the gig you so wished they had been able to perform.”
Let It Be takes the audience through the seven years of Beatles’ history, recreating their key concerts, enhanced with 21st century technology. “The idea was that it would be a collection of these concerts that we would theatricalize with additional elements of video and sound design,” McQuillen-Wright explains. “The guys we have got in the show are amazing musicians in their own right; when they are playing great music through a great sound system it is already extraordinary. Then if you add a layer on that gives a sense of the chronology and the ability to bring the audience right into the world of the 1960s, I think you begin to see just how staggering this talent that came together in 1963 was.”
The Beatles’ meteoric rise is charted through their early engagements at The Cavern Club in their hometown of Liverpool, the glittering 1963 Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales Theater in the West End, the band’s news-making American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 and the tumultuous concert at Shea Stadium in 1965. To get the right authenticity McQuillen-Wright carefully researched the imagery of the era and artwork that was specifically commissioned for The Beatles. “I tried not to pay too much attention to things that were done after 1970, but only to the people who were responding to their music at the time and not out of a sense of nostalgia,” the designer continues. He refers to two key artists from that period: Peter Blake, who created the psychedelic album cover for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, and Alan Aldridge, who edited and contributed several drawings for the now iconic The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics in 1969. McQuillen-Wright says they were careful not to get too caught up in esoteric references solely for hard-core fans, but Beatle aficionados will still have the thrill of discovering little Easter eggs tucked away, like the image of a flyer from the local church fair where John and Paul first met.
“When we start the visuals are very sparse, simple backdrops, because we wanted to create the intimacy of the Cavern Club,” explains the video designer, Duncan McLean. “For the Ed Sullivan performance there are the cameras and then when we move through to A Hard Day’s Night, which was their first feature film, we bring Beatles-style animation elements. For the Shea Stadium concert we have lots of cameras and we combine actual footage with all these girls screaming, trying to scale the barriers and get on stage.” Aside from the live impromptu performance on the rooftop of the Apple recording studio in 1969, The Beatles gave their last concert in 1966. So Let It Be takes theatrical license to present live performances of songs from the Sgt.Pepper and Abbey Road albums. McQuillen-Wright explains, “The show is designed to be an immersive experience for the audience, so they can get lost in it. You do really feel the excitement of being inside these venues, but the trick is never to be bigger than the music,” he adds.
The Broadway production of Let It Be will be presented in surround sound, an enhancement to the original London version, which has been playing in the West End since last fall. The aim is to recreate the original sound and styles of The Beatles using today’s technology. “A lot of it has to do with fidelity and clarity,” says sound designer Gareth Owen. “An interesting example is the Shea Stadium section; if you wanted it to sound just like it did, you would just turn the screaming sound effect really, really loud because the reality was no one could hear the band—the technology at the time was incapable of competing with tens of thousands of screaming girls. That’s why The Beatles eventually gave up playing large stadium gigs,” he explains. He adds that since the band was always ready to embrace new technology when they went into the recording studio, using surround-sound in this production is very much in keeping with the innovative spirit of the musicians. “If you are fan of The Beatles, this is the closest you can get to watching The Beatles on stage,” Owen continues. “The guys on stage really nail all the nuances. My mum actually saw The Beatles perform live on several occasions. She says, ‘if you close your eyes you could be back there’ – and my mum’s quite a tough critic!”