Monday, February 19, 2018
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Jersey boys team up to create 'Memphis' musical

Playwright Joe DiPietro grew up in New Jersey, so he knew all about Bon Jovi, the quintessential Jersey rock band, but he wasn't exactly sure which band member David Bryan was. He looked at a CD cover. "Oh, yeah, that guy, the one with curly hair, the keyboard player," DiPietro says.

It was 2001 when DiPietro got a phone call from Bryan, who said he'd like to write the score for a musical about the birth of rock 'n' roll. The playwright told Bryan to send him a sample of what he'd do musically with one of the lyrics from the script, not really expecting to hear back from him for a while.

"The very next morning there was a FedEx on my doorstep," DiPietro says. "There was something inherently theatrical about the music on the disc David sent me. He also happened to choose the second song in the show, which is the character's classic 'I want' song, which drives us through the entire show. I always call him a closet dramatist, because he knew that song was at the heart of the show."

The song is called The Music of My Soul, and the show is Memphis, which, nine years later, won a Tony for best musical. DiPietro also won a Tony for his book, he and Bryan shared the Tony for the score, and Bryan and Daryl Waters won for their orchestrations. On Tuesday the national tour comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Memphis is the story of a white DJ in the segregated South who breaks the race barrier by playing black rhythm and blues records on his show. "The first time I read Joe's script, I knew exactly how the show should sound," Bryan says. "I grew up on that kind of music, songs like Hold On, I'm Comin' and Knock on Wood."

Perhaps the biggest influence on the hard-driving score is the legendary Stax sound, from the label founded in Memphis that featured a great horn section on soul records by Otis Redding and others. "What I love about David's music for Memphis is that it creates a unique musical world, which I think all big musicals have to do," DiPietro says. "Some of those chord progressions were not necessarily common in the '50s, but he sort of funneled them through his modern ears."

In some ways, DiPietro and Bryan are a natural pairing. Both grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and are the same age — Bryan turns 50 on Tuesday. But they are also something of an odd couple. DiPietro is a man of the theater, with a string of plays and musicals to his credit, including the long-running revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. (His play The Last Romance is at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota through Feb. 26.)

Bryan, of course, is a rock idol, having been in one of the most successful bands ever for about 30 years. As a kid he never had much interest in musical theater, and he still likes to keep a relatively innocent point of view when it comes to the form.

"I'm coming from a totally different angle than the others involved with Memphis, Joe, Chris Ashley (the director), Sergio (Trujillo, the choreographer)," Bryan says. "I'm coming from being on stage and playing for 80,000 people at an outdoor show, feeling the emotion. That's really my expertise."

Many songwriters have tried their hand at musicals — Randy Newman, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon — but with scant success. Bryan doesn't think there is much difference between writing a pop or theater song.

"Every one of the songs I write I still imagine them to be on the radio," he says. "So I want them to have the form of a rock song, with an intro, a verse, a B verse, then a chorus, and then a second verse, a B verse and a chorus, a bridge, chorus out … that's the form of a rock song. People say, 'Why do you repeat the lyrics (in the chorus)?' Well, in a rock song, you do that, because the chorus is the central point of your story."

Memphis is loosely based on the life of Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, as well as other rock 'n' roll radio pioneers like Wolfman Jack and Alan Freed. The DJ in Memphis is named Huey Calhoun. The actor who originated the role, Chad Kimball, who was nominated for a Tony, played him in an eccentric style. Bryan Fenkart is Huey on the tour.

"Any good theater piece needs to stand up to different actors with different interpretations," DiPietro says. "Bryan has a bit of Chad in him, but he makes the role his own. Chad really committed to that guy being slightly crazy, in an absolutely marvelous way."

Memphis got a slow start on Broadway in 2009, with mixed reviews and less than robust attendance. "Our challenge was that we had no stars and it wasn't based on a movie," Bryan says.

With Memphis still on Broadway, DiPietro and Bryan have a new musical, The Toxic Avenger, based on a film about a New Jersey mutant. It's now playing in a production starring another Jersey guy, American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis (Rock of Ages), at the Alley Theatre in Houston.

Fittingly, the Memphis tour opened in Memphis, playing the Orpheum Theatre in October. DiPietro was a little nervous about what the city's reaction would be to the musical.

"You know, here are these two guys from New Jersey, and we're taking this examination of the town to the town," he says. "But I have to say there was an overwhelming positiveness to it. How seriously we took the town. It set box office records at the Orpheum. You write about a city and you name a musical after the city and the city winds up loving you."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected]

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