Vivek J. Tiwary is the writer of Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel The Fifth Beatle. He is also an accomplished Broadway producer of plays such as A Raisin in the Sun and Green Day’s American Idiot and is the President and CEO of Tiwary Entertainment Group LTD. You can follow Vivek on Twitter @VivekJTiwary and @fifthbeatle.
Black Ship Books: Tell the readers a little bit about your background growing up.
Vivek J. Tiwary: I was born here in New York City, and my parents were lovers of the arts, so ever since I was a little kid they were taking me uptown to Broadway, operas, the fine arts if you will. As soon as they were allowing me out of the house on my own I was going to places like CBGB’s and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut and seeing punk rock shows and avant-garde theater and that sort of thing. On top of it all they were also huge comic fans so I grew up loving the arts and loving comics. They were also huge Beatles fans so I grew up loving the Beatles. From a young age I knew that I wanted to work in arts and entertainment. It’s just what I was passionate about.
I went to business school at Wharton in Philadelphia and while I was there I got a job working for Sony Music in distribution in the Philadelphia area, so I got my start in the record industry. After I graduated I moved back to New York where I started working for Mercury Records. I was there for a few years before the division of Polygram; Seagram’s corporation bought Polygram and merged it with Universal, and that’s when I left and started my own company. I called it Tiwary Entertainment Group and I gave it that very vague name because I wanted to be involved in a lot of different projects across the arts and entertainment spectrum. Right off the bat I was doing a lot of music industry stuff, that’s what I knew, but I put word out to my network that I wanted to get involved in theater since Broadway was here in my backyard. I thought that was a good place to start and that I would eventually expand over to television and film. I met a group of gentlemen who were working on a project to open a Broadway hall of fame and I got involved in that. It ended up not happening, but it was through that project that I met the lead producer of the Mel Brooks musical The Producers, so I got involved with it. I raised some money for the show and earned my place at the table so to speak, but the truth is I mostly kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open and learned how to produce. That kind of launched my career in Broadway. Since then I was involved in the financing for Hairspray, as lead producer of A Raisin in the Sun, I went on to be one of the producers on The Addams Family, and Green Day’s American Idiot. Right now I am working with Alanis Morrisette to adapt her album Jagged Little Pill for the stage.
BSB: Was the revival of A Raisin in the Sun the first production you really did as far as a hands-on producer role?
VJT: Well I wouldn’t say that. It was the first production I was involved in where I was one of the lead producers, which means I was involved in it every step of the way. I was involved in casting and raising the money, and putting the marketing plan together, securing the theater, arranging the closing night party. I was involved in everything. That’s what a lead producer does. I was hands-on in some of the projects I had been involved in before, but I wasn’t a leader, wasn’t in a leadership role, if that makes sense. It wasn’t the first piece I was hands on in, but it was definitely the first piece in which I was one of the leaders of the ship.
BSB: I do remember the revival of Raisin in the Sun being a big deal when it was out or I remember hearing about it and I think that was primarily because Sean Combs was in it, correct?
VJT: Yeah, well it was for a few reasons. It’s actually being revived again right now with Denzel Washington and that’s doing really well but it’s not considered radical like it was when we did it ten years ago. People told me we were crazy because we cast Sean Combs and they also said, well first of all it’s a very African-American production, and everyone said African-Americans don’t come to Broadway. They said Sean Combs is somebody who appeals to a youth audience, and young people don’t come to Broadway. At the time we thought, “That’s insane. If you give people something that they want to see and you make sure they know about it, even if those groups are not reading or consuming traditional Broadway media, they’ll come.” And that’s what we did. We put on a show that we felt we were sure they would enjoy.
In terms of marketing, I basically used my music background and marketed it like you would market a hip-hop record. We did radio promotion, we hired street teams, we did all sorts of creative marketing that you typically don’t do for Broadway shows and, sure enough, they came. The show broke even in, I think, seven weeks, which might be a record on Broadway. We made good money. We went on to be nominated for a slew of Tony awards. We won a bunch of them including Best Actress, which is the first time an African-American has won Best Actress…
BSB: Oh, wow, I was not aware of that
VJT: That was for Phylicia Rashad. Yep yep. So it was a great experience.
BSB: Was it hard because you had big stars? Is it easier to do something with unknowns? Obviously they both have pros and cons, but do you have a preference one way or the other?
VJT: Well, if you’re talking about on a personal level, sort of dealing with personalities, it really depends on who the star is. Dealing with Sean Combs, for example, the public persona he’s probably best know for is P. Diddy, and as strange as it may be to say this, in acting, he is Sean Combs, and Sean Combs is not P. Diddy. P. Diddy walks around with an entourage and is very confident, whereas Sean Combs would show up at the theater on time if not early, never had an entourage. Yes, there were bodyguards, but they were so far in the background you couldn’t see them and he would show up very humble and very eager to work. He would say “What can I do to help? How do I learn? How do I make the most of my performance?” and when he was done with that he would sit down with the producers and say “What can I do to help market the show? I’m going to be on Hot 97 next week, can I do anything? Can I say anything? How can I promote?” He was a complete joy to work with. One could say he was a big celebrity but he wasn’t in acting. He didn’t have a diva bone in his body. On that front it really depends.
I will be honest that I have had experiences where I was working with relatively unknown actors who had big egos and thought they were superstars and acted like divas and really shouldn’t have. Then there are, obviously, the unknown actors who are a joy to work with because they are just hungry and they want to learn and excel. So in terms of personalities, it can go either way.
In terms of the business, however, as much as I hate to say it, there’s a very easy answer; I’d prefer working on shows that have stars. That’s because, working on shows that have stars, it’s easier to raise money, it’s easier to get people to come to buy tickets and it’s easier to convince press to write about it. There is a certain power to celebrities that is undeniable. There’s no question that if you are working on a Broadway show that has a recognizable star in it, you have doors open to the show that wouldn’t otherwise be open. You know, as much as I might sound like a sell-out for saying it, you know, all things being equal—and all things are never equal, but if they were—I would say you’d always choose to work on the production that has the star in it.
BSB: Because it is easier to get funds and get people in?
VJT: Yeah, I mean answering the question in that framework it’s a very easy answer, and any producer who tells you otherwise is lying. I mean really, it’s that simple. It is so much easier to raise money, secure a theater, convince the press, etc., when you have a star on board. Doesn’t necessarily mean the show is going to be a better show. Personality-wise, talent-wise, that’s a whole separate ball of wax. That’s why I want to be very careful when I say all things being equal, let’s assume all those other things are the same, you always want or prefer to work with a star.
BSB: It makes sense particularly from a business standpoint that if you do have a star, obviously it’s that much easier on every end of it. You talked about doing American Idiot after Raisin in the Sun. Was there a break of a few years in between?
VJT: Yeah, the next theatrical piece I did after Raisin in the Sun was indeed American Idiot and The Addams Family, both of which ran simultaneously although it wasn’t supposed to work that way. You spend years developing something and you’re never quite sure when it’s going to be ready to go to Broadway. It just turned out that the two were ready at the same time, so those were the next two shows where I had a deep involvement. In-between those I invested in A Little Night Music, a Stephen Sondheim revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. I helped raise and invested money for the show but I had zero creative involvement. The lead producers were some of the lead producers on the Mel Brooks musical The Producers, so they were old friends and mentors of mine. I thought the show was great, I thought the cast was a really smart cast and the numbers made sense. It was a rare occasion, because I don’t do this very often where I am involved in a show purely on the investment level. How I got my start was raising money and being an investor or financier, but these days I don’t really work on shows that I don’t also have a creative involvement in, but I did for A Little Night Music. I think part of why I did that was to keep myself in the world, you know? It takes a really long time to develop a Broadway show, so while we were kind of plugging away with American Idiot and The Addams Family it was nice to have a show that I was launching that I didn’t have to work deeply on. I believed in it and it was a way to kind of keep myself in the work, you know?
BSB: Both American Idiot and The Addams Family were well-known properties in other mediums already. what was it like getting attached to properties that big?
VJT: Oh, I mean, it was great fun, and I try with all the shows I work on on Broadway, I try to work on shows that have a name recognition or some underlying material or source that will bring in a new media fan base. Even A Raisin in the Sun is a beloved piece of African-American literature, so there is an immediate group of people who know it. I tend to not work on brand new musicals. Something like Next to Normal, although I’m a huge fan, is not the kind of thing I do. It’s a brand new musical and the composer Tom Kitt is a dear friend of mine who is doing orchestrations and arrangements for Jagged Little Pill. Next to Normal is a genius show; it won the Pulitzer, but that’s not what I do. I don’t work on shows that are completely new with new stars and new material. I always work on something like The Producers, Hairspray, Raisin in the Sun, The Addams Family, American Idiot. I always work on stuff that has kind of underlying source material, whether it’s a big brand like The Addams Family or a classic piece of literature like A Raisin in the Sun, so for me when you ask “what it was like?” it was kind of business as usual, because that’s sort of what I do.
I will say working with Green Day was a particular thrill. I’ve been fans of those guys ever since Dookie. I grew up listening to that kind of music and it was a great thrill to be working with a band that I was listening to when I was just getting my start in this business, so that was really cool. It was really cool to be working with the estate of Charles Addams because I also grew up watching the TV show. But it never really felt different or intimidating or anything like that just because that’s kind of how I work.
BSB: How did you get involved with Dark Horse? You wrote in the end notes that you had always wanted to tell the story of The Fifth Beatle, and you had determined you wanted to do it as a graphic novel. How did Dark Horse come into play? Did they come to you or did you bring it to them?
VJT: It’s a bit of both really. My background is in theater as we have been discussing, and theater is unlike film in the sense that in film you’ve got studios who make a slew of films. In the art world and in Broadway, every show is its own stand-alone business entity. You basically go out and raise the money for that show and you set up a new company for that show and you go about the business for that show.
Even when I went back to the music industry I was working for major record labels, but I was always a big fan of do-it-yourself. I grew up listening to hardcore, and the hardcore community is all about DIY. I would always advise artists to record your own demo, book your own shows, go out there and do it yourself and get so big and so popular that the labels and the booking agencies are coming to you. That’s the moment where you want a record deal, you don’t want to beg for a deal, you want the labels to come to you. So that’s the kind of world and the mentality that I come from.
When I decided to tell The Fifth Beatle as a graphic novel, I said, “Let’s do it ourselves,” if only because that’s how I knew how to work. I had no desire to become a publisher, but I thought, “Let me raise the money, let me find an artist, let me hire an independent editor, and we’ll just make the book.” I was writing the script myself, so let’s just make the book, and when the book is done then we’ll take it to a publisher and we’ll look for a deal. That was my intention and I went about putting it together. I got Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker on board, both of them incredible artists and very well respected in the comics world. I had never done a graphic novel before, but, having had other successes under my belt, I had a little bit of a name in the arts and entertainment industry.
Basically word got out that a graphic novel was being made that was tied to the Beatles’ history. Some people knew that I was writing it, people that knew me from American Idiot or whatever, and in comic circles it dropped that Kyle Baker was involved. Kyle is a multiple award-winning cartoonist and Andrew is somebody that has done primarily beautiful cover work. The fact that Andrew was doing a graphic novel and doing interiors was kind of a big deal for people that know his work. “Andrew’s doing interiors on a Beatles book?” We were in a fabulous situation where all the best publishers wanted this book and there was a bit of a bidding war going on.
[Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson is a huge Beatles fan, and it just seemed like the right team. To be very specific though, I was at a party at book expo, BEA, and I was introduced to Michael Martins, head of sales at Dark Horse. I am a huge Dark Horse fan, and we were just chatting, and he asked what brought me to the comics world. I told him that I was a fan and then told him about The Fifth Beatle. He asked me if I was looking for a publisher, and I was just honest and said that we really weren’t. He mentioned that he wanted to run it by Mike Richardson, and I agreed to that, and the next week I got a call from Richardson asking if I would be interested in meeting him, so he flew out to New York to talk to me about publishing it. After meeting with the staff in Portland several times it was very clear that everyone at Dark Horse was passionate about it and that they were very much a family, and they are really a part of my family now.
BSB: What makes this story more interesting to you than, say George Martin, Astrid Kirchherr, or even Pete Best? Is it just that his story has not been told in this way before?
VJT: There’s certainly that, it being a largely untold story, straight off that might make it more fascinating. People tend to have some degree of knowledge of Pete Best, and with Astrid there has been a movie, a graphic novel, and Astrid is still alive. Every now and then she will do an interview, so she’s not as much of a mystery person the way Brian Epstein is.
In terms of interesting, I can’t really speak to interesting; everyone’s taste differ. For me, the reason I am so moved by his story is I find it an incredibly inspiring story. I started researching Brian’s story because I was a huge Beatles fan. I was in business school at Wharton, and I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, so I thought I should study the business behind the band that rewrote the rules. I needed to learn about the guy that discovered them and guided them. How did he get them a record deal when no one wanted to sign them? How did he convince Ed Sullivan to book them when a British band had never made an impact in America? How did he do the suits and the haircuts? Those were the stories I was after. Personally I find that all very interesting, however for me what struck a deep chord and made me relate to the Brian Epstein story in a way that I don’t react to a Pete Best or Astrid Kirchherr, is that I find Brian’s story to be an incredibly inspiring and human story. He was gay, Jewish, and from Liverpool, and in the 1960’s those were three significant obstacles. No disrespect to Pete or Astrid or anyone else, everyone has their struggles, but Brian had the deck stacked against him. It was a felony to be gay, antisemitism was pervasive in the country, and prior to the Beatles Liverpool was a city that had no cultural influence whatsoever. So you’ve got a gay Jewish man running around Liverpool saying that he’s found a local band that’s going to be bigger than Elvis and elevate pop music into an art form. It was crazy.
Now I’m not saying that I’ve had the same obstacles in my life as Brian, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be told that your form of love is illegal, however, in my mind I could relate to that. When I was getting my career off the ground I was a young person of Indian origin wanting to get into the entertainment industry, and people of my ethnicity, we don’t go into the arts and entertainment. We tend to be steered towards engineering, law, accounting, etc. We don’t go into comic books and Broadway theater. And people might think of Bollywood, but unless Bollywood is the family business, you are warned against Bollywood as well. So as a young Indian kid wanting to get into comics or put a punk rock album on a Broadway stage, maybe that’s not that different from a gay Jewish man from Liverpool saying he found a band that’s going to be bigger than Elvis. There are points of emotional connection there. I think that everyone, maybe not to the extreme that Brian had it, but everyone in their life at some point has felt like a misfit or an outcast, felt like they had a dream that was crazy. The Brian Epstein story tells you that it’s never crazy, that you’re never too much of an outsider to chase your dreams. That to me is an inspiring story and one that none of the other people connected to the Beatles world has.
Part 2 will be posted next week. The Fifth Beatle is nominated for two Eisner Awards (for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior Artist) and Best Reality Based Work). If you like the book and are eligible to vote, then get on it because the polls close on Friday the 13th! Go to http://www.eisnervote.com and let your voice be heard!
All artwork used is taken from The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson with Kyle Baker, published by Dark Horse Comics.