David Bryan grew up in New Jersey, a world apart from Memphis, Tenn., in many ways. But as a teenager, he and his buddy, John Bongiovi, started a cover band that included a bunch of songs made famous by Memphis artists, and Bryan became a fan of the city’s music.
A few years later, Bongiovi changed his name to Jon Bon Jovi and asked Bryan, a keyboard player, to start a new band. They added a couple of guitar players, called themselves Bon Jovi and got to be pretty well known.
More than a decade ago, Memphis came into Bryan’s life again when he was given a script for a musical in development. It dealt with Memphis in the 1950s, using songs as a vehicle to tell the story of racism in the South and how the city’s wealth of blues, rock and soul music acted as a cultural bridge.
There were lyrics, but no music.
“When I first got the script for ‘Memphis,’ what you see on stage now is what I heard in my head; I knew that was what it was supposed to be, which doesn’t happen a lot,” said Bryan, 51.
Bryan immediately wrote and recorded “The Music of My Soul,” one of the play’s key numbers, playing and singing every part. He shipped it the same day to Joe DiPietro, the play’s chief lyricist and book writer, who had it the next morning.
“He listened to it and said, ‘Well, if you’re not crazy, you got the gig,’ ” Bryan said, “and I said, ‘Well, I can’t say I’m not crazy, but I’ll take the gig.’ ”
Bryan’s inspiration paid off. When he and DiPietro were finished, they had a production that would go on to win four Tony Awards for best musical, best original score, best book and best orchestration. It also scored Drama Desk awards for best musical, score and orchestration.
“Memphis” comes to the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall Tuesday through next Sunday for eight performances as part of PNC’s Broadway in Louisville series.
The story of “Memphis” was inspired by the life of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips (called Huey Calhoun in the play). Phillips was the city’s most popular DJ, and his love of what was then called “race music” spilled over onto the airwaves at WHBQ. He freely mixed music from black and white artists, and was the first to play Elvis Presley on the radio.
In the play, Calhoun not only champions black music but falls in love with an African-American singer, setting up a storyline that hinges on pre-civil rights issues. Critics have enjoyed the play’s crisp, entertaining story, but the music has earned the highest praise.
Rock musicals are by no means new — “Bye Bye Birdie” was the first in 1960 — but ones that have done well in recent years have all featured familiar hits, from “Jersey Boys” to “Mamma Mia.” With “Memphis,” Bryan got to work in a style with which he was intimate, but apply it to an unfamiliar medium.
“I had worked on a show in 1998, a rock show, and I wrote everything for it,” Bryan said. “And people were like, ‘Why is it so loud, why do you keep repeating that one part?’ I was like, ‘Well, that’s a chorus, and it’s not loud.’ For ‘Memphis,’ there’s an intro, a verse, a B-verse and a chorus. It’s in that form because that’s what those songs were” in the 1950s.
Bryan has enjoyed a spectacular career with Bon Jovi, and it hasn’t slowed by much; the band just released its 12th album and performed two weeks ago at the KFC Yum! Center. But his old pal writes the majority of songs for Bon Jovi.
Since “Memphis” made its debut in 2003, making it to Broadway in 2009, Bryan and DiPietro have also collaborated on a 2009 off-Broadway production called “The Toxic Avenger.” They’re currently working on “Chasing the Song,” which will tell the story of the Brill Building, a New York headquarters for pop’s finest songwriters in the 1950s and ’60s.
Although Bryan has experienced every decadent thrill the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle has to offer, he said that the world of musicals has been an intense — and intensely rewarding — change of pace. When he saw the play on stage for the first time, it was “surreal,” he said.
“And then to actually get it to Broadway, that’s impossible,” he said. “It’s a miracle. It’s so difficult, and then to do something that matters and wins four Tonys ... . We done good, as we say in Jersey.”