Thursday, January 12, 2012
When David Bryan phones from a stage in Houston, the Bon Jovi keyboardist isn't calling to discuss his band's tour updates or studio news. He's not giving love a bad name. He's not talking about Slippery When Wet, Richie Sambora, or other topics typically Bon Jovi.
The New Jersey native who started playing with Jon Bon Jovi when the singer still used his given name "John Bongiovi" (Bryan's real last name is Rashbaum) is in the Lone Star State, readying a theatrical production of The Toxic Avenger, his second musical stage pairing with playwright/novelist Joe DiPietro.
Their first? Memphis, the Tony-winning, rocking romantic tale loosely based on disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s.
Now on its first tour, Memphis opens at the Academy of Music on Tuesday and runs through Jan. 22.
Among other prizes, the show won four Tonys in 2010, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Score, and Best Orchestrations.
Bryan is "amped" that Philly (a home away from home when Bon Jovi recorded 1985's 7800° Fahrenheit at Philly's Warehouse studio) finally gets a chance to experience his rocking historical musical. "The touring production is a testament to what Memphis is on Broadway, where it's been for three years and almost 1,000 shows. Honestly, we're just so upbeat about it."
Being upbeat is a big part of being David Bryan. Fellow Jersey native DiPietro, famed for writing book and lyrics for I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (the second-longest-running Off Broadway musical) says in a phone interview that there's an optimism about Bryan that you don't usually find in theater folk. "Most of them are pretty tragic and pessimistic," adds DiPietro, laughing. "Then again, maybe David's optimistic because he's had people screaming at him in adoration his whole life. Who knows?"
After calling himself the "ultimate optimist," Bryan (who will turn 50 in February) proves as much when discussing the forlorn finale of Memphis, "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll." Though it's about one character's rise and another's fall, Bryan says that through everything, the ill-fated character "stuck to his dreams no matter what - that's the person I am."
The person Bryan is learned to play trumpet at age 5 when his father, horn man Eddie Rashbaum, taught young David the intricacies of his craft. "He led me down the path of music," recalls Bryan, who eventually learned to play violin, clarinet, and piano before hooking up with Bon Jovi. "Jon and I have been playing together since I was 161/2, and honestly it's been a pretty long, fun ride," says the keyboardist who worked in cover bands with the vocalist before forming Bon Jovi. Bryan has penned a fleeting few songs for the pop-metal act including the fan favorite "In These Arms."
When Bon Jovi went on hiatus between 1990 and 1992, Bryan started considering options. He started work on a solo album, the prog-jazzy On a Full Moon that came out in 1995 (a second solo effort, Lunar Eclipse, was released in 2000) and composed the film score to 1992's Netherworld. In 2001, the "script gods" came calling when an agent sent Bryan, a theater novice, a request for an authentic score for a musical love story, an interracial one, with the birth of rock-and-roll at its core.
"It wasn't just music-for-entertainment's-sake," says Bryan. "The story mattered. It's history. Plus, I knew as soon as I read the script that I wanted to make the band a horn ensemble. I played that soul sound growing up."
DiPietro says that although he knew many talented theater composers, he was looking for a rocker to collaborate on Memphis. "[Bryan] called out of the blue and said, 'I'm David Bryan from Bon Jovi. I just got your script. I want to know how I could write the music,' " DiPietro recalls. "He seemed like a good guy, so I told him to send me something." Figuring a rock guy would take weeks to dispatch music, DiPietro was astounded to receive a burned CD the next morning. "I listened to it once and hoped that David wasn't crazy, because he was the guy," he says.
Bryan had been so enthused by DiPietro's words that he had run into his New Jersey home studio, plugged in the drum machine, sang lead and background vocals, and layered in half a dozen instruments. When DiPietro called, Bryan told him, "Yeah, I am a little crazy, but I'd still take the gig."
After several tryouts with new teams of producers and designers, Memphis debuted during the 2003-04 season in Massachusetts and California and opened on Broadway in October 2009. Nothing about the Broadway staging of Memphis has changed for its touring run, says Bryan. "That final production works because we ran out of wrong things to do," he explains with a laugh.
Meanwhile, the collaboration between rock guy and writer goes on. Not only are they testing out The Toxic Avenger ("The feel-goo musical of the year," proclaims its tag line) in Houston for a hopeful run at Broadway in 2012, they are at work on a musical, featuring all original songs, about the tunesmiths who worked in Broadway's famous Brill Building. DiPietro and Bryan hope to see that effort hit Broadway in 2013.
DiPietro says that the pair's similar ages, Jersey roots, like-minded mothers ("his is Jewish, mine's Italian") and laid-back manners make them a good team. "I've never been in a writing situation where the other person isn't spinning and screaming all the time," says DiPietro. "David isn't that." Nor does Bryan have much of an ego, according to DiPietro, who can tell you stories about rockers who've tried to write musicals and failed.
What DiPietro loves most about Bryan is that the keyboardist writes bright, authentic rock that's inherently theatrical. Music in the theater has to come over the footlights. "David writes with the richness of emotion that the theater requires, whether he knows it or not," says DiPietro.
Bryan knows it. Whether it's an oozing, green, toxic superhero or Memphis disc jockeys and soul shouters, Bryan is confident of his ability to make songs happen and put emotions onto a stage.
"I know how to whip an audience into a frenzy and how to build that up from beginning to end because I've been doing that with Jon [Bon Jovi] since we were kids," says Bryan with a laugh. "I know all the tricks of rock-and-roll, and I use them all in Memphis."