It took two Jersey boys to come up with the musical “Memphis.”
The Broadway road tour opening Tuesday, Feb. 25, for a 13-day run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts features a Tony-winning book by Joe DiPietro and a Tony-winning score by Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan.
“We’re both the same age, and we both grew up in Jersey,” says DiPietro, who also wrote the book for “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” starring Matthew Broderick. “I’m Italian, and he’s Jewish, so we just get that ethnic thing.”
It worked so well the two went on to write stage musicals “Toxic Avenger” (based on the schlocky 1984 movie) and “Chasing the Song” (about the 1960s-era Brill Building and which is premiering in May at the La Jolla Playhouse in May).
“It was the late ‘90s when we met,” DiPietro recalls. “After the musical ‘Rent,’ the rock guys wanted to write a Broadway musical. Before ‘Rent,’ no one in rock wanted to write a Broadway show. It just wasn’t hip. And at that time in the ‘90s, grunge was the major music and [Bon Jovi] was seen as a metal hair band. We sort of came to each other in a really good time. I wanted to bring rock ‘n’ roll to theater, and he wanted to take his music and put it in theater.”
What Bryan did know was the subject matter. “Memphis” sets the birth of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s against the backdrop of an interracial love story between a white radio DJ and a black R&;B singer.
“Growing up, people hated us,” Bryan said in an interview last May with the Sun Sentinel. “Most people just don't understand what it is to have someone come up and hate you for being you. I get that.
“I hope that after the show,” he added, “people are hating each other a little less and understanding each other a little more. It’s easy to preach and hard to have people come to their own conclusion through your work. That's the subtlest art.”
When Bryan got the script for “Memphis” in 2001, DiPietro had not only written the book, but had written a few lyrics. “It's like I knew exactly what it was,” Bryan recalled. “I saw it onstage in my head. I called him up and said, 'I read the script, and I can hear every song in my head.' “
The next day, DiPietro says he was listening to a demo tape Bryan had overnighted to him with the show’s “The Music of My Soul” completely scored. “I listened to it, and I thought, ‘I hope he’s not crazy, because this is the guy,” DiPietro remembers. “He knew every sound and every nuance, and had this wonderful reservoir of knowledge and talent to draw upon.”
He also drew upon the storied Beale Street in Memphis and a real-life white DJ in Memphis by the name of Dewey Phillips. But the corresponding character in the show is named Huey Calhoun, and other than his integrating radio, bears little resemblance to Phillips’ troubled and controversial life.
“It’s not a documentary,” explains DiPietro., who also wrote the off-Broadway hit “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” “Obviously, it’s a work of fiction. Dewey was a great starting point, but was too limiting. That was the germ of the story, and we ran with it. We wanted to really talk about the music.”
IF YOU GO:
When: Feb. 25-March 9; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 6:30 p.m. Sunday (March 2); 2 p.m. matinee Saturdays; 1 p.m. matinee Sundays
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org.