Eisner Award-Winner Vivek Tiwary Talks The Fifth Beatle- Part One

Graphic novel author talks the Beatles, going from Broadway to writing comics

Interviews Opinion

Vivek Tiwary is a man of many hats. For fifteen years, he has been working as producer of Broadway shows and as the head of Tiwary Entertainment Ltd. His productions have included the adaptation of Mel Brooks’ The ProducersYoung Frankenstein and the Green Day musical American Idiot. He is currently developing a Broadway production based on Alanis Morrisette’s album, Jagged Little Pill. Recently, however, he has authored a graphic novel titled The Fifth Beatle, based on the life of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The story has received acclaim from critics, as well as the Eisner Award for Reality-Based Work. It is also nominated for two Harvey Awards. 

A few months before the Eisner Award win, I had the privilege of interviewing Tiwary by phone to talk about his twenty year journey of creating The Fifth Beatle. He was very gracious and willing to discuss his work in theatre and music. What follows is an engaging conversation about pursuing a project, how much research goes into a story, and adaptating comics for another medium. (Note: the interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

As a child in the 1970s and early 1980s, Tiwary grew up listening to the Beatles’ records, which he credits to his parents. “My parents were huge fans of the Beatles and the arts in general, but I should also probably say that my father was a huge lover of comic books,” he states. “So between their general love of the arts and my father’s love of comics, this project really has the DNA of my childhood. It really goes back to my parents.”

Tiwary discovered Brian Epstein while he was a student at the Wharton School of Business. He was working on finding a case study and learned about the man who discovered the Fab Four. “From having checked out the Beatles, there wasn’t very much to Brian Epstein’s story,” he says. “Twenty-one years ago, I was studying and dreaming about doing many of the things I’m doing now. I thought, ‘If I’m going to work in the entertainment world, I ought to study the lives of the great entertainment visionaries.’ Growing up with the Beatles, they were the band who rewrote the rules of popular music. That was why I chose to study the life of Brian Epstein."

During his research for the story, Tiwary found there was an obvious lack of information on Epstein, who died at the age of 32 in 1967. “There was no Wikipedia, there was no Youtube, no Google, Yahoo was in its infancy, so I had to begin intense research and do one-on-one interviews with people who knew Brian,” he says. “Over the years, I amassed an incredible amount of information about him- both his work with the Beatles and the obstacles he had to overcome in order to make things happen- which I found inspiring.”

In order to gain more information, Tiwary was forced to reach and contact Brian’s surviving family and friends. “I didn’t have a choice but to cold-call many of these people. I was a student at the Wharton School, I wasn’t writing graphic novels or screenplays, so I mostly contacted them by phone and introduced myself. I said, ‘I’m a young person, a student, who’s inspired by the little bit I know about Brian’s life and looking to learn more.’”

Unsurprisingly, they were wary of Tiwary’s intentions, at first. “They wanted to make sure I was indeed who I said I was,” he says, laughing. “After realizing I was serious, they were willing to sit down and open up to me on the phone. The first calls and meetings were certainly more like interviews; they were formal and getting information about Brian. But these were people I kept in touch with over the years, and I’m happy to say we became friends.”

By 2004, Tiwary was an established Broadway theater producer. “Having produced A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, I was looking for my next project, and I decided it would be the Brian Epstein story,” he remembers. “So I called all these folks back and said, ‘You know, when I first met you, I was just a student with nothing to my name, but now I want to turn Brian’s life into a graphic novel and a film.’ At that point, many of them had become friends and were supportive of the project. They said, ‘You’re the right person to handle this story. What can we do to help?’”

As he discovered more about Epstein, Tiwary found a great deal of business stories such as the Seltaeb merchandishing debacle, the Northern Songs deal, etc. “However, what really struck a chord with me were none of those business stories, but it was the human side of Brian’s story- the personal demons he faced and the struggle he had to overcome to pursue his dream,” he says. “Quite frankly, those were stories I wasn’t interested in when I began; I didn’t know anything about them, and they weren’t what I was after. But I learned that he was gay, Jewish and from Liverpool- at a time where being gay was literally against the law- it was a felony. Anti-semitism was more prevalent in the United Kingdom than it is today.”

Prior to the Beatles’ existence, the port city of Liverpool was a community that had no cultural influence whatsoever. “So you have this gay Jewish man running around saying, “I found a local band! They’re going to be bigger than Elvis! They’re going to elevate pop music into an art form!” says Tiwary. “You know, it was seen as crazy, because people like Brian didn’t pursue dreams like that. In the Beatles, he saw a message of love which could be shared with the world. He believed he was the guy with the ability to present that message, and it was the dream he pursued with passion. And as a result, we got the Beatles.”

Tiwary felt a great deal of empathy for Epstein, who was forced to keep quiet about his sexuality while managaing the Beatles. “The fact that he was a gay Jewish man from Liverpool who achieved that dream was inspiring,” he says.” However, he is quick to point out that he is not comparing himself with Epstein. “I want to be very clear that I’ve never in my life had the degree of obstacles that Brian faced. I certainly don’t want to suggest my struggles have been the same as Brian’s, but nevertheless I could emotionally feel the things he faced. In my life, I’ve also felt like an outsider or a misfit in my chosen field. I’m a first-generation American of Indian origin making my way in fields like graphic novels, Broadway producing and film. You just don’t see many people of my ethnicity doing these kind of things. Young people of Indian origin tend to be steered towards engineering, medicine or technology, maybe the law.” 

Although he has not experienced the level of prejudice that Brian Epstein dealt with, Tiwary could identify with his feelings of being an outsider. “I could relate emotionally to the struggles Brian deal with, but I do want to be clear I don’t pretend that I’ve had the same challenges he faced. Compared to Brian, I’ve been very lucky and lived a charmed life, but I relate to the emotional beats of his life. That is why the story has stuck with me for all these years.”

For the graphic novel’s artwork, Tiwary sought artists who could capture the 1960s and the spirit of the Beatles. As a board member of the comic book company Valiant Entertainment,  he used his connections to contact Andrew Robinson. “Right of the bat, I knew he would be perfect for The Fifth Beatle,” says Tiwary. “It was when I sat down and met Andrew that I realized we would be very collaborative. We saw eye to eye on the story; he loved the script that I had in place. He is very much a Beatles fan, but he understood that this is Brian’s story and wanted to help with it.”

Known for his work on Plastic Man, Kyle Baker drew the Phillipines sequence, but he has a personal connection to Tiwary. “He’s a New Yorker, and I’m a New Yorker. I’ve known him for years, being involved in the comic world as a fan,” says Tiwary. “Kyle’s roughly my age and grew up with the Beatles in the same way as I did. We’ve always wanted to work together. So when I was putting this together, I just had a feeling that he’d love this project.”

Baker’s artwork has a distinctive vibrant, quirky style, and this was perfect for one particular section of The Fifth Beatle. “The part I was looking for him to do was the cartoon “Brian Epstein facing chaos in the Phillipines” sequence. For a man of such talent, I knew a guy like that would nail it. So I reached out to him, and sure enough, he was a huge fan of the animated Beatles series of the 1960s. He grew up with those. I sent him my script, he read and loved it, then said “Sign me up!” I’ve been very blessed to have connected with two amazing artists- one who I didn’t know at all (that was Andrew) and one who I was friends with (that was Kyle)- getting them to work on The Fifth Beatle. I think their work has been breathtaking, and I couldn’t have asked for better partners.”

Getting approval from the surviving Beatles and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison was not a problem. Of Paul McCartney, Tiwary describes him as being very supportive of The Fifth Beatle. “He wrote us a lovely letter of admiration, saying he loved the book and enjoyed Andrew’s art,” says Tiwary. As for Olivia Harrison, Yoko Ono and Ringo Starr, they approved of the graphic novel. “The others, to be totally honest, have signed off on the project and screenplay in order for me to get the music rights for the film. I know they were all supportive, but I should probably single McCartney out as being particularly so.”

To be continued: in part two, Tiwary talks about the upcoming film adaptation, acquiring Beatles songs, and how the film will be different from the graphic novel.

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