By Gillian G. Gaar
Even by Las Vegas standards, July 14, 2016 was a glittering evening at the Mirage hotel and casino. “The Beatles LOVE” show was celebrating its 10-year anniversary, and most of The Beatles family was in attendance: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono, as well as Julian Lennon, Sean Lennon, and Dhani Harrison (Olivia Harrison, Dhani’s mother and George Harrison’s widow, was ill and didn’t attend). Not to mention the show’s creators, Dominic Champagne, who conceived, wrote, and directed “LOVE,” and Giles Martin, the show’s musical director, who co-produced the show’s soundtrack along with his father, Beatles producer George Martin (who died this past March at age 90).
And it was more than just an anniversary; it was also a relaunch. The music’s been remixed, and the set list has been rejigged. The choreography’s been revamped. There are new costumes. There are more special effects. Even the theater’s come in for some touch ups; the stage floor has been repainted, the better to project imagery on, and there are new speakers in the theater seats. So even if you have seen the show, you’ll still get something of a new experience if you see it again.
“It needed a refresh,” Giles Martin explained at a press conference on the day of the anniversary performance. “Our word was vibrancy; ‘Let’s make it more vibrant. Our artists are young and energetic. The Beatles were young and energetic. This is a time capsule for that period of time. We never wanted to make a show about The Beatles; it’s about the energy.”
The show’s roots go back 16 years, to the year 2000. That’s when George Harrison, a big fan of the Cirque’s work, suggested to Guy Laliberté, one of the company’s founders, that the Cirque do a Beatles show. “George and Guy shared the same vision,” said Olivia Harrison. “They planned to utilize the extraordinary creativity of The Beatles and Cirque du Soleil to produce and uplifting moment in time.”
At the time, the Cirque shows used live music, but Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ longtime friend who was then the head of Apple Corps., wanted The Beatles’ own music to be used, and didn’t want any third parties working with it. So who better to bring in than the Beatles’ original producer, George Martin?
Which was fine — except that George’s hearing was failing, one reason he’d announced that the 1998 “In My Life” compilation would be the last record that he’d produce. Enter his son, Giles Martin. Giles was born in 1969, as The Beatles era was coming to a close. He had little interest in the band as he was growing up. “The last thing I wanted to do was be interested in The Beatles, really,” he says. “It wasn’t cool in the ’80s to like The Beatles.”
That changed when his father was working on the “Anthology” albums and Giles was invited to listen to the material. “I suddenly admired how naturally talented they were,” he says. “The funny thing about The Beatles, if you’re not from The Beatles era you take them for granted because they’re ubiquitous. They’re everywhere, and everyone knows all The Beatles songs. But when you hear them in their raw natural form, you realize there’s not actually much smoke and mirrors going on. That’s their natural ability. And it was that that made me become interested in them more than anything.”
Giles agreed with his father that the idea of working with the Cirque was interesting. And they were given the freedom to try anything: “The whole thought process, was ‘We can do whatever we like as long as everything that is played is a Beatle playing it,’” Giles said.
Giles was given an audition of sorts. “They locked me in a small room at Abbey Road,” he recalled, “And I could do whatever I wanted, no one would ever hear it; that was the deal. And my dad came in. I did the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’/‘Within You Without You’ combination. And even he was thinking, ‘Well, this probably isn’t a very good idea, you know, they’re not going to like this.’ And then, it was funny, Paul and Ringo came in, and Olivia and Yoko, and they heard it, and that’s what they liked, they liked that edgier thing. And then the rule book was thrown out the window.”
Giles had passed the audition. The next step was to listen to all of the original Beatles tapes, “all of the multi-tracks, all of the individual tracks of all of the released material.”
Listening to the individual tracks for each song gave Giles a new appreciation for The Beatles’ creativity. “Take something like ‘Lady Madonna,’” he said. “There’s piano and brushes on the first track; Paul played piano, and Ringo played brushes, and they did the whole song, just like that. And they’re both tight, and the feel of it is fantastic, because the piano’s such a driving force.
“And then they went in and played bass, drums, and a guitar riff on top of the piano part. So it was the other way around to how it should be; normally you put the drums down first. And you hear them all play together and it’s just a cool sound. You’ve heard ‘Lady Madonna’ so many times, you don’t really think about it. But if you had the bare elements, and you hear the performances, you really appreciate how they played as a band, and how well they played together.
“And the ideas they come up with. One game I play with myself, I can mute something and go, now, what would I be doing here? And you realize what they do is so much cooler than what you could think of. Ringo, his drum parts are just weird, but they really work. The other thing is, you don’t really think they’re playing what they’re playing. You suddenly think, ‘Wait a second, is that…?’”
Giles had fun isolating such moments for his father and Paul or Ringo. “I’d play something for them and they’d have no idea what it was, and I’ll go, ‘It’s a part of “Fool on the Hill”’ or ‘It’s a part of this.’ And they’d go, ‘We don’t remember doing this because it’s so strange. But it really works.’
“It’s extraordinary what they come up with and you don’t hear that kind of stuff on records now. Their music was brave, and it was brave from start to finish. And they weren’t really worried. They were cocky, and they weren’t really worried about anything when they recorded.”
In preparing the score for the Cirque show, Giles looked for possible connections between the songs. “I just made notes of tempos, keys, what’s on what, who sings what, what tracks are clean, is there a guitar part that can be used that doesn’t have any drums on it, and all that sort of stuff.”
The idea of doing mash-ups of the songs came from imagining how different parts of the songs might work together. “I thought it’d be cool to start with a drum solo,” Giles explains. “And then I thought well, wait a second, before the drum solo we could put in the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ chord; that’s so Beatles, such a good beginning. And then I thought, before that, what would the piano from ‘A Day in the Life’ sound like backwards? Because it was an ending; my stupid logic was that if you can turn a great ending backwards, it may give you a great beginning. So that’s why I started off with the piano chord backwards. And so it really was an organic thing.”
And that’s how “LOVE” begins. Following an introductory sequence, where you hear the isolated vocals from “Because,” comes the reversed “Day in the Life” chord, swelling into the jarring clang of the “Hard Day’s Night” opening chord, which leads to the drum solo from “The End,” which segues into the pulsating beginning of “Get Back” (it’s not until you hear the drum solo matched with “Get Back” that you realize the two pieces are in the same tempo). It’s the show’s most thrilling moment, especially when matched with the energy created as the dancers explode into action.
The score features 26 numbers that draw on 37 songs. It’s a nice mix of material that covers the breadth of band’s music from 1963 to 1969. Giles describes deciding the song selection as a collaborative process. “Dominic had a list of wanted titles of what they wanted, a list of 40 songs or so. And then Yoko and Olivia and Paul and Ringo all had lists of songs they wanted in the show. We tried to incorporate as much as we could from that. There were only two moments in the show that are non-musical, and that’s where ‘A Day in the Life’ finishes, and that’s in the key of E. And ‘Hey Jude’ starts and that’s in F, and that for us was a bit of a jar, and for anyone it’s a bit of a jar. And there’s no link piece. But that’s really the only moment. Apart from that, everything flows from one to the other quite nicely.
“We tried to incorporate hit points,” he continues. “We knew we wanted ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in the show, we knew we wanted ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ in the show; there were certain songs that everyone wanted. Ringo and Paul really wanted ‘Come Together’ in the show; it’s one of those songs they’re really pleased with the way they’re playing on it, just a simple band thing.”
But both Martins also wanted to ensure that less well-known pieces were in the score as well. The “Drive My Car”/“The Word”/“What You’re Doing” sequence is a good example; none of the songs were singles, nor are they the kind of numbers people most readily associate with the Beatles. And opting for “Octopus’s Garden” was another smart choice, less associated with Starr than “Yellow Submarine,” but still giving the show its “Ringo Moment.”
Interestingly, the Martins did what Giles calls “a fair bit of work” before Apple had fully committed to working with the Cirque. “It’s the way Apple works, because they can,” Giles explains. “They weren’t going to sign anything with Cirque, even though they had an agreement kind of thing, until they realized the music would be acceptable and right.”
Once the work agreement had been finalized, Giles found it was terrific fun to work with the Cirque. “They have this great thing, which is so refreshing in artistic life,” he says. “They don’t believe anything is impossible. And we work in a world, especially in music nowadays, where everything is slightly regimented and it’s difficult to break rules. And with Cirque, if you have a mad idea they’ll go for it. And they’re refreshing in that way.”
The show’s narrative arc roughly follows The Beatles career, though there aren’t four characters being “The Beatles.” “I strove for evocation and more than duplication,” said Champagne. “Instead of the telling The Beatles’ story, I tried to touch the main emotions that went through their experience, building the show as a rock ‘n’ roll poem.”
The theater at the Mirage is in-the-round, meaning the action comes at the audience from all angles — and from overhead, as well as on the stage. After the opening number, which has the dancers and acrobats bouncing around the stage while screens displaying each Beatle are flown in, the setting switches to the bombed out landscape of Liverpool, the perfect backdrop for “Eleanor Rigby.” “Twist and Shout” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are used to illustrate the excitement of Beatlemania. All the signposts of 1960s culture are present (the civil rights movement, psychedelia, progressive politics) with the songs to match (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Revolution”).
There’s a human touch too. The dramatic highpoint remains the horror of the death of John Lennon’s mother, which is referenced in “A Day in the Life.” And what better way to take a sad song and make it better then by choosing “Hey Jude” to follow, by way of providing solace? The number becomes as much of a singalong as it does in Paul McCartney’s current concerts. And the show’s brought to a joyful conclusion with “All You Need Is Love.”
“The Beatles LOVE” is an inventive and imaginative production. Apple Corps.’ insistence that the Cirque use The Beatles recordings of their music was a shrewd move, helping to draw in Beatles fans, as well as those with an interest in the Cirque’s productions. If you know the band’s catalogue inside out, it’s terrific fun listening to how the songs have been taken apart and reassembled in unexpected ways (but though the show’s music has been remixed, there are no plans to release a new version of the soundtrack).
Ultimately, the show is a celebration of all things Beatle, and it’s arguably the first endeavor geared toward a general audience since the release of the “1” album in 2000. It was a great way to keep the Beatles’ legacy alive, not simply through album reissues, but through creating a show that brings the songs to vibrant life. It’s not a retro “oldies but goodies” approach. “LOVE” has a freshness that’s invigorating, a reminder of just how timeless the work of the Beatles is.
And you don’t have to be a Beatles fan to enjoy “LOVE.” But it sure helps.
More about The Beatles™ LOVE™ and Cirque du Soleil®
LOVE, a Cirque du Soleil creation and co-production with Apple Corps Ltd., celebrates the musical legacy of The Beatles and is presented exclusively at The Mirage in Las Vegas. LOVE marks the first time that The Beatles’ company, Apple Corps Ltd., agreed to a major theatrical partnership. The project was born out of a personal friendship and mutual admiration between the late George Harrison and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté. The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil opened to rave reviews on June 30, 2006. LOVE is the recipient of three GRAMMY Awards.
From a group of 20 street performers at its beginnings in 1984, Cirque du Soleil is now a major Quebec-based organization providing high-quality artistic entertainment. The company has close to 4,000 employees, including 1,300 performing artists from close to 50 different countries. Cirque duSoleil has brought wonder and delight to more than 160 million spectators in 400 cities in sixty countries on six continents.