From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage

As published in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

David Bryan, a founding and still active member of Bon Jovi, is more than just the guy who’s been playing keyboards on the likes of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” for the past 30 years. For Bryan, having a second career as a composer for stage musicals is just another side of the same coin.

A pal and bandmate of John Bongiovi Jr. since both were teenagers in late ’70s suburban New Jersey, Bryan is also the composer and co-lyricist of “Memphis,” which opens Tuesday at Bass Concert Hall and plays through Dec. 15 as part of the Broadway In Austin series at Texas Performing Arts.

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo
LINDA ROWE

David Bryan is the longtime keyboard player for Bon Jovi and composer of musicals, including “Memphis.”

Strictly speaking, “Memphis” isn’t a jukebox musical, because the songs are original to Bryan and his writing partner, fellow New Jerseyan Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). “Memphis,” which deals with segregation and an interracial romance against the backdrop of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s, was first staged in California in 2002, but it took another seven years to hit Broadway. In 2010 the show won four Tony awards, including best musical, best original score and best book.

Bryan and DiPietro have since collaborated on another musical, “The Toxic Avenger,” based on the ’80s cult horror film satire, and are developing a third, “Chasing the Song,” set in the world of the early ’60s pop-song hit factories.

We caught up with Bryan, 51, over the phone during a short home break before the last leg of the current Bon Jovi tour. “I got two more Japans and seven Australias,” he says with the matter-of-fact cadence of a veteran of the rock wars. “We’ve already done 95 shows in 48 countries in the last nine months, so I understand when our touring company tours. I go, ‘I get it.’”

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo
JEREMY DANIEL

Jasmine Richardson stars as Felicia and Joey Elrose as Huey in the touring production of “Memphis,” a musical about an interracial … Read More

American-Statesman: How do you get from Bon Jovi to writing the music for ‘Memphis,’ and do you use a different set of songwriting muscles when you’re writing for a stage musical as opposed to a rock band?

David Bryan: “Memphis” was one of the first things that I did in the theater world. I got a script from an agent and I connected with it, and I just knew every one of those songs. One of my first bands with Jon, when we were 17, we had a horn band that played Springsteen and the (Asbury) Jukes and blue-eyed soul, so I knew about horns and I knew what it sounded like. What you see today on stage, when I demo’d it way back when, that’s what it’s based on.

What kinds of changes were made to the show before it finally made it to Broadway?

I got the script in ’01, we put it up in 2002 and ’03, then we were on the shelf for three years. Contractually we couldn’t do anything, and it never went past that. And then we put a whole new team together, did it in La Jolla and up in Seattle, then came into Broadway. You don’t tell a musical when it’s done and how it’s going; it tells you. The advantage, I think, for us is even though it was a longer than usual road, we were lucky enough to have four full productions, and you learn. By the time we presented on Broadway, we were completely confident.

Why do you think the show is so popular?

It’s just a universal story. It’s not entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It has a message, and that’s what really drew it to me. It’s the birth of civil rights; it gives kudos to where rock ‘n’ roll came from. It shows an American story, but (also) shows a human story. And it shows how the arts have lifted mankind beyond beating each other with bones. It’s art. It’s the first time the caveman drew on the wall.

The show carries a message; it’s also primarily entertainment. How did you and Joe balance the two?

I think you let your audience figure it out, instead of pointing a finger and telling them. It is a subtle component to our show that I’m proud of. Instead of, you know, “You shouldn’t be racist,” it shows what it is, and we let people discover. It’s also not a dirge; for me, it can’t be such a heavy thing that you’re not also being entertained.

Currently, you and Joe are working on the musical ‘Chasing the Song,’ which is about the early ’60s, the Brill Building …

That’s still in development. Hopefully, it will be coming to Broadway next year or the year after. It’s about the first woman (music) publisher, so it’s like the female Don Kirshner, which, reality-wise, there was no such thing. We’re championing what women’s rights were in 1960, where a woman got out of the house and started a publishing company. It’s a fictional view of facts, so we get to twist our stories. I think for Joe and I, there has to be some moral fiber instead of just entertainment.

Does it come very naturally to you to write in older styles of music, or is that something you have to work at a little bit differently?

It’s funny, on Broadway everybody talks about that. Everybody does research and they try to be exact in that time period. I don’t come from that world and I don’t write from that world. I write from what I think the character does and how that character sings. In your dialogue, you have to have enough emotion so it boils over where you actually sing a song, because in real life you don’t burst into song.

It’s modernized, looking back on time. It’s not just a history lesson. So that’s why it feels more contemporary, that’s why it’s not just, “Wow, that’s a ’50s show.” That’s the beauty of writing something original. It celebrates what brings us together, not what separates us. And hopefully, you’ll walk out singing my songs.


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