Interview: Co-writer David Bryan talks Memphis: “It’s an American tale, but it’s a human tale”

Co-writer David Bryan talks Memphis: “It’s an American tale, but it’s a human tale”

We spoke to Bryan ahead of the Olivier Awards.

Best known as the keyboard player of rock band Bon Jovi, David Bryan has found further success as the co-writer of the award-winning musical, Memphis.

Co-written with Joe DiPietro, Memphis is currently playing at The Shaftesbury Theatre in London and stars Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly.

We spoke to Bryan ahead of the Olivier Awards which took place this weekend at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with Memphis scooping two awards at the star studded event.

You’re over here for the Olivier awards on Sunday…

It’s a London cast, I came over here for the first day of rehearsal and was here for a couple of months working it out and I’m proud of our London cast. They worked really hard and we created something that was special for London so it’s just a transfer.

It’s quite an American tale and this is a British and Irish cast. What differences did that make?

It’s an American tale but it’s a human tale, I think that’s what it’s really about so it just touches everybody it’s not just only America. Racism is around the world and here’s an interracial love story at a time when it was illegal so I think it’s more just about humanity, that’s what drew it to me in the first place. It wasn’t just a piece about song and dance, which is fine, but this one had some real deep meaning to it. It shows how ugly hate is. Then at the same time it’s the birth of civil rights and the birth of rock n’ roll. This is where everyone from the Rolling Stones to The Beatles - Paul McCartney said: “All we ever did was take American black blues and sell it to the white kids.”

It celebrates what brings us together not what separates us. That was 1950 and here we are in 2015 so the journey has been a long time and it still continues in all races.

Is musical theatre something that you’ve always wanted to get into or did this just happen by chance?

It definitely happened by chance in a way. I got the script in 2001. Musicals are a long journey and I just read the script and it touched me immediately. I knew the songs and actually the first band that Jon Bon Jovi and I were in was a cover band, a 10-piece band that had a horn section. We played those songs, The Midnight Hour, Knock on Wood… we played in New Jersey dives for a couple of years doing that and it was in my blood so I knew the second I read the script I just knew what these songs had to be.

What was the process of writing with Joe DiPietro? It must be different to writing with a band…

Joe wrote the story, the book, and I wrote all the music, he doesn’t play an instrument, and we write the lyrics together. He knows what he wants. We collaborated easily together and once you get the song going then it changes the story. The thing that I think is really great about Memphis is when a song comes up it not having a song for the sake of it, it’s a song that moves the character from point A to point B yet it’s in the form of a song that I know and I like. So for him and I the song helped the story and the story helped the song. Even way into the last scene when we were in previews I think in New York is when we finally tightened that up and were like: “Ok we’ve figured it out.”

What’s the hardest discipline in writing for a musical compared to writing in a rock band?

I think the difference is that when you’re in a band those songs are about you or the world around you and in a musical it’s a character, so you have to put yourself [in their place], in this you’re an old white woman, a young black woman, you’re a white guy. You’re all these different characters so you have to sit and you have to stand in their shoes and think about how do they feel and what’s their journey. I do it in the form of the way a rock song is, there’s an intro, there’s a first verse and there’s a pre-chorus and a chorus and second verse with the same melody but different words and it’s constructed the same way as a rock song.

As someone who has performed live so much over the years and in different countries are you ever tempted to get up on stage and join the cast?

Well I do a couple of solo shows and I do play those songs. But I think that a lot of my experience has really helped me because I know what kind of songs can get a crowd into a frenzy.

You took your star Beverly Knight over to Memphis to visit the Stax Music Academy. Was the Stax story something that you were aware of before you got involved with the show?

A little bit. It’s a great, great place and we were at Stax, we went to Royal Studios where Al Green sang and Beverly and I did Coloured Woman at that studio. It was awesome. Just to see where all this came together. In 1945 I think there’s a Little Willy song called Rockin’ And A Rollin’ All Night Long and Elvis and white guys heard this and were like: “Wow listen to the emotion.” You can still go up and down Beale Street and the bands playing in those little clubs are probably better musicians than 90% of professionals. Especially on that street because that’s where it was born.

Would you say that this kind of music influenced you from an early age up until the music you’re writing now?

Yeah it’s in there. It’s in my soul. I love the way the power of those songs moved me and then when I got an opportunity to write an original one - which was no small task - luckily it came out good [laughs].

The London cast are fantastic…

They really are.

Can you tell us a little about casting Beverley and Killian Donnelly in particular?

Beverley we had seen her in The Bodyguard. She has no problem when she opens her mouth to sing and she really worked hard at being an actress and I think she’s accomplished that to greatness. Killian we saw in The Commitments and he’s just great. He sings great, he acts great. They’re both really great. Our whole cast are all stand-outs.

Is there a song in Memphis that you find is personal and stands out for you?

I wrote Music Of My Soul, which was the first song I wrote from the show, when I got the script from an agent and I read the whole script through there were some lyrics put in and Joe had some ideas. When I called him up and he said: “Just pick any song”, and I asked if I could change some lyrics as I’m a lyricist and he said: “Go do what you have to do.” There were some lyrics in there and I talked to him on the phone about 1 o’clock. I knew at the time that 6.30 was the last pick up for FedEx. So I went down in my studio, I finished the writing of the lyrics then I put on my drum machine, the piano, the organ, the bass parts, all the guitar parts, I sang and I did the background vocals, I mixed the thing, burned it onto a CD, because the internet was dial-up I think then [laughs]. Then I ran and got the FedEx truck and he had it on his doorstep at 8 o’clock in the morning the next day and it sounds the way it does today. So that one was really special. The personal one for me is the last song, Steal Your Rock n’ Roll which means, just like Huey, no one can steal your dreams. Sometimes you make it and sometimes you don’t but you still have those, you can still dare to dream.

It’s quite unusual to find a new musical these days that is completely original and not just a bands greatest hits or it used to be a movie. As a consequence did you have difficulties in securing the finances to get it on the stage?

It definitely is the difficult route. It’s hard because people don’t really know what it’s about because they don’t know the songs and they don’t know the story so you’re educating them. It’s hard when you want to get into theatres and raise millions of dollars to get the show up and running so it’s a definite challenge all around but I think we’ve always been rewarded for what you just said, the fact that it’s original. But that’s how it started, all the musicals were original. A well known song or a well known movie has familiarity but I think the way we did it is a little more rewarding.

Are there plans for Memphis to go the other way and become a movie?

Yes that will be in the works.

What can you tell us about Toxic Avenger?

It was something that was in between the years when Joe and I were with Memphis and he had come to me with this idea about Toxic Avenger. The movie was a mess but fun and we thought we’d have a crack at it. We’re both from New Jersey and it was the first hero of New Jersey so we really had fun with it and we won the Best Off-Broadway Show the same year we put that on as Memphis so it was like four years ago and I didn’t have a day off [laughs]. It was fun. It will rear its ugly head again, Toxic is not going away.

Good luck with the Oliviers on Sunday.

You know what? My fingers are crossed, it’s fun to take home the hardware but it’s more important for me that you see every night that it is a show that exceeds people’s expectations. They may not know what it’s about but when everybody walks out of that show nobody has anything but positive feelings. It makes you feel something and you feel good.

Memphis is on at The Shaftesbury Theatre now. For more information and to book tickets visit memphisthemusical.com.

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