Barbara Dickson has vivid memories about auditioning for Willy Russell’s musical John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre.
It was the early 1970s and she was a little-known folk singer at the time. How would she cope with belting out a string of classic Beatles’ songs accompanied only by her piano?
Writer Willy Russell had no doubts. He didn’t want four men singing the numbers because he thought they’d clash with the four actors playing the Beatles.
Everyman director Alan Dossor wasn’t so sure. Eventually a piano was brought from the bistro downstairs and loaded on to the stage by truck.
The piano was so high, Dickson had to sit on a bar stool to play it!
The audition went well and Dickson was invited to join the brilliant cast. Bernard Hill played John Lennon, Trevor Eve was Paul McCartney, Philip Joseph was George Harrison and Anthony Sher was Ringo Starr.
Robin Hooper played the band’s manager Brian Epstein.
The musical told the story of the Beatles’ rise to fame through the narrative of fictional character Bert McGhee – who just missed out on making the group.
The show opened to thunderous applause in May 1974. But the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for the off-stage singer in big, gold-rimmed glasses who only appeared in the spotlight as the curtain came down.
Barbara Dickson had well and truly arrived. One reviewer said the best part of the show was her ‘stupendous singing.’
The musical proved a massive hit for the Everyman Theatre, with around 15,000 people attending its eight-week run in Liverpool.
The show then transferred to the Lyric Theatre in London’s West End. It ran for a year and won the Evening Standard and London Critics’ awards for the Best New Musical of 1974.
It then toured extensively in the UK and there was a revival in the USA in November 1985.
As well as the Beatles’ numbers, including Help and We Can Work It Out, the show featured two new songs by Willy Russell – Ooee Boppa and I Will Be Your Love.
One of the backing singers was none other than Gerry Rafferty, who later found fame with the solo hits Baker Street and Night Owl. He also recorded Stuck in the Middle with You with Stealers Wheel.
Russell’s musical got a mixed reception from the Beatles themselves. According to Creem magazine, George Harrison said he didn’t like it and walked out of the London premiere.
He later withdrew permission to use his song Here Comes the Sun, which had to be replaced with Good Day Sunshine.
*Many more unmissable photos feature in Clive Hardy’s brilliant new book Around Liverpool and Merseyside in the 1960s.
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