As the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, David Bryan knows plenty about rock music.
But Broadway? Not so much.
That didn't stop him from writing the score to "Memphis," the stage musical appearing at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center May 7-12, and winning three Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestration) along the way.
"I really wasn't into Broadway," Bryan admits in a telephone interview from Phoenix while on tour with Bon Jovi. "I mean as a rite of passage, I saw 'Fiddler on the Roof,' which you have to do as Jew."
What he did know was the subject matter. "Memphis" is about 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 explains. "Most people just don't understand what it is to have someone come up and hate you for being you. I get that."
What he also knew, all too well, was that no one was hearing his songs.
"I got so frustrated, because I had all these songs and couldn't get other acts to cover them,” the Grammy-winning musician says. “I’m talking to my publisher … and he said, 'I can get your songs covered eight times a week in a stage musical.' I said, 'What’s that?' I just wanted people to hear my songs."
Bryan was a quick study.
"I got the script in 2001. Joe [DiPietro, the show’s book writer, who co-wrote the lyrics] already had some lyrics in there," Bryan recalls. "It's like I knew exactly what it was. 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 two teamed up again for the musical "The Toxic Avenger." Bryan says all that touring with a rock band paid off when it came to pacing a stage musical.
"I've been onstage for 30 years," he says. "I know how to whip a crowd into a frenzy, how small you can get, how big you can get. You're riding the wave and making the audience go on this emotional journey."
At the end of that trip, he hopes to find a little more tolerance. "I hope that after the show, people are hating each other a little less and understanding each other a little more," he says. "It’s easy to preach and hard to have people come to their own conclusion through your work. That's the subtlest art."
He and DiPietro are working on yet another musical. "Chasing the Song" is about the storied Brill Building in Manhattan during the early 1960s, where a who’s who of songwriters gathered.
"A lot of people come up to us all the time and ask, 'How do you come up with a song?' or 'How did you write that one?' So we wanted to do a show about how songwriters write songs. From 1960 to 1964, there was a small window of opportunity where the songwriters had all the power and groups went to them to get a song," Bryan says. "[The show] is also about women’s rights. We have this character, a woman publisher who in 1955 divorces her husband, and she leaves behind her husband and the kids to go to work, which did not happen. Back then, no women went to work. She walks into this girl who turns out to be her estranged daughter, who is now a songwriter."
While that show is being workshopped before a full production starts as early as next year, Bryan has more work to do on "Memphis."
"We signed a movie deal to make it a big movie," he says. "So that's where we are. We're moving forward with that now. It's just a blessed piece, all centered around this great American moment in time: the birth of rock ’n’ roll and the birth of the civil rights movement.
"Memphis" will run May 7-12 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $26. Call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.
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