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Q&A: With 'Memphis,' Bon Jovi keyboardist brings rock 'n' roll to the theater

David Bryan co-wrote the score to "Memphis," which comes to the Hippodrome.
David Bryan co-wrote the score to "Memphis," which comes to the Hippodrome. (Anita Shevitt, Handout photo)

David Bryan has a message for Baltimore theatergoers: You won't be able to tell the difference between "Memphis" at the Hippodrome and its Broadway counterpart. The casts and stage have changed, but the 50-year-old playwright and Bon Jovi keyboardist ensures the quality will remain the same.

"You don't have to go to Broadway to see the real show," Bryan said. "This is the real show."

Bryan should know, since he is the show's "quality-control guy." He says he and co-writer Joe DiPietro were in charge of all of the auditions for the Baltimore production. Bryan's attention to detail has paid off in the past, culminating in four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.

In between working on a new Bon Jovi album and trying to get the other play he wrote with DiPietro, "The Toxic Avengers," to New York, Bryan discussed why he was drawn to "Memphis" and what Bon Jovi still has to prove.

How did you first get involved with "Memphis" and what made it so appealing?

I got a script in 2001 from the script gods. I read it and it had some lyrics in it already. I said, "Wow, this is something that matters. It's about the birth of civil rights and rock 'n' roll." So many factors rang true with me. For some reason, I read it and heard the songs, and I knew what they were supposed to be. I just got it.

I called up Joe at 11 in the morning. He said, "Pick a song and send it to me." I picked "Music of My Soul," and I said, "OK, here's the central story for our character." I went down in my studio and got the drum machine going. I played piano, bass, organ and sang on it. I mixed it, burned it on a CD and FedExed it to him. I knew my cutoff was 6 p.m. for FedEx. He had a finished record, almost, the next morning. He said, "Wow, you're crazy."

The show deals with segregation, race, music, history. You were born after the show's setting, but what about that era hit home for you?

One of the first bands I played in with Jon [Bon Jovi] was called Atlantic City Expressway, and we had horns. We played five nights a week in clubs for no money, but I played it and loved the sound, loved the way it felt. When it came to "Memphis," I heard all of those parts again.

What elements of the show will appeal to the nontheater type?

I'm pretty much a nontheater type. I didn't go to the theater growing up. I'm the rock 'n' roll type. For me to come on board, I had fresh ideas. I didn't have any history in theater; I just went with my gut feeling. … I'm writing from the rock radio standpoint — A verse, B verse, chorus. They said, "Wow, that's different," and I said, "Oh no, it's not." But that's different for their world. You're going to walk out and want the CD.

If you compared writing music for "Memphis" to writing for Bon Jovi, where does the process overlap and differ?

They're different animals but I know what it is to perform, to see reactions of people, to see how the band can whip everyone into a frenzy. I take that knowledge and bring it to the theater world, and write those songs that way.

Word is you guys are busy writing the next album.

We're working on it, and when we get it right — which we will — we'll release it. We don't have any plans yet. [We're] just making a record.

What's left to prove with the band, or is it about something else these days?

We thought the hardest thing in the world was to get a record deal, then the hardest was to get a No. 1 record, and then the hardest thing is to stay at the top. It's a lot of work. Every time we do a new record, we do the best we can. For us, every record is stepping into the ring with another heavyweight champion.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

twitter.com/louder_now

If you go

"Memphis" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $45-$65. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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