Bon Jovi Keyboardist Makes Broadway Gold
For a guy who didn’t have much of a musical theater background and had certainly never written a musical, David Bryan didn’t hesitate to get involved with “Memphis” back in 2001.
That was when Bryan, best known to that point as the keyboardist in Bon Jovi, was approached by playwright Joe DiPietro (”All Shook Up,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) with an idea for a musical loosely based on famed Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first white radio personalities in the country to play black music during the 1950s.
“I got the script and some dummy lyrics (DiPietro) had put in, and for some reason I just heard all the songs, right then and there,” recalls the classically trained Bryan, 51. “I called him up and said, ‘Joe, I got it. I got all these songs. I know I don’t have a lot of experience in this, but I hear every one of your songs.’
“He was probably thinking, ‘OK, great, I got a guy who’s hearing things!’ But I did.
”What Bryan heard, and ultimately wrote as the composer and co-lyricist of “Memphis,” turned into Broadway gold. Performed nearly 2,000 times between September 2009 and August 2012, “Memphis” scooped up four Tony Awards — including Best Musical and Best Original Score — as well four Drama Desk Awards. And while the caliber of the music — 20 numbers split between its two acts — is clearly responsible for the show’s popularity, Bryan — who shared Tonys for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations — says the real credit belongs to the entire package, including a story he feels resonates deeply with audiences.
“When I first got the script I saw it wasn’t entertainment for entertainment’s sake,” says Bryan, a New Jersey native (born David Rashbaum) who attended the Juilliard School in New York. “I saw there was an important story, an American story about racism that was so rampant about that time. To go from that all the way to now, having an African-American president. …
“It was just something I completely believed in. I think Broadway awarded all those Tonys to us because we had an original piece created and conceived for the theater. It hit home with a lot of people.”
“Memphis” focuses on Huey Calhoun (who will be played by Bryan Fenkart during the show’s run at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre), a music lover who takes a job as the house DJ at Delray’s, an African-American nightclub. He ultimately parlays his popularity into a radio job that turns him into one of the most popular — and controversial — DJs in town. There’s a love story as well, along with plenty of racial politics and social commentary both direct and implied in DiPietro’s script and his and Bryan’s songs, which reference but do not mimic the music of the period.
“It’s not an in-your-face history lesson,” Bryan says. “But I think you walk out of there going, ‘Wow, I can learn a lot about humanity from that.’ You’ve got people walking out of that theater maybe hating each other a little less, being more tolerant of each other. That’s a good thing, y’know?”
Despite the early connection to the material, however, Bryan notes that bringing “Memphis” to the stage, and ultimately Broadway, was “a long, hard road” and very different from anything he’d experienced with Bon Jovi.
Between 2003 and 2009 it was staged in Beverly, Mass., Mountain View, Calif., San Diego and Seattle before reaching the Great White Way at the Shubert Theatre.
“It’s a complicated process,” Bryan acknowledges. “We did different workshops and productions and had to get different producers. …We were up against a lot of challenges.
“But I loved the process. There was a lot to it that was foreign to me, but I could see what was right and what was wrong. The challenge was fixing the wrong parts.”
Besides the strong attendance and multiple awards, the musical’s success also included a “Memphis: Direct From Broadway” movie theater showing during April and May 2011. And last year Alcon Entertainment, Belle Pictures and the Mark Gordon Company bought the rights for a film adaptation, which is moving forward without any set details.
For Bryan, meanwhile, it established a love of theater that’s given him “two day jobs.” He and DiPietro collaborated again on the 2009 Off-Broadway hit “The Toxic Avenger,” and they’re now working on “Chasing the Song,” loosely based on the pop songwriting scene in New York’s Brill Building just before the Beatles came to America.
“Joe and I like to do original musicals — original stories, original shows,” Bryan explains. “It’s a heck of a lot easier to go in with a big title or an (adaptation) of something that everybody knows. It’s a helluva lot more challenging to come up with something completely original. But that’s what we like.”
Bryan is on the road with Bon Jovi and its Because We Can Tour, which plays July 18 at Detroit’s Ford Field. And he wouldn’t be surprised if the group’s catalog is at some point turned into a musical much like the work of Abba, Queen, The Who, Green Day and others has been adapted for the stage.
“I could be easily done. (The band) has so many story songs that could be done on stage,” Bryan says. “I’m not interested in a jukebox musical myself; I’m a lot more interested in coming up with something new, not just placing a story into those songs. But you never know what might happen in the future.”