David Bryan has a sweet gig. As an original member and the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, he regularly tours the world and performs before legions of fans every night. But he’s not simply content with that; he’s also become a successful, Tony-winning Broadway composer and co-lyricist with Memphis, a musical about turbulent race relations in the titular city during the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll in the Fifties. He’s making a successful transition into theater, which he wants to stay with as long as possible.
When I spoke with Bryan two months ago for a story about rockers turned composers for Grammy.com, he was in the midst of a world tour with “that other job I got.” Don’t worry, Bon Jovi fans, he’s not going anywhere. But David Bryan’s love for musical theater is taking him on exciting new adventures, and more are coming up ahead.
Bon Jovi is going strong after more than 25 years. It’s great to have that longevity, isn’t it?
You kidding me? Jon’s cousin and I went to high school together, so in 10th grade when I was 16 I got my permit, and that’s when we drove over the bridge and joined the band, as they say. Just a little band from Jersey.
Speaking of people who were there at the start, do you guys ever stay in touch with Aldo Nova?
Yeah, he’ll be at the show tonight. Aldo’s a good guy. He was living in Ireland, but I think he’s back here now.
He’s had some hits writing songs for Celine Dion and Clay Aiken recently. Did he record with you at all in the ’80s?
He was big with “Fantasy”. Jon was working up a lot at the Power Station when he did that. Then we would come in and do sessions with him.
I went to the Memphis hundredth performance, and at the afterparty I mentioned the film Netherworld to you, and you seem surprised.
A lot of the Full Moon stuff is a guilty pleasure for me.
It was bad, and it was supposed to be bad. You could see the flying hand of Satan coming in and see the strings on the hand a little bit, and it was pretty much a music video because I remember I had done that around 1990 when the band took a break. That’s when I was throwing everything up on the wall. I wanted to do a solo record, so I wrote songs on that, then I did an instrumental version of it. I tried to do soundtracks, and you have to start somewhere. There wasn’t the Internet at the time, so you had to live in California. I live in Jersey, and I didn’t want to move to California to do this. I like to do it, I thought I was good at it. I took classical piano for 15 years. You can play Beethoven and there’s no lyric, and you can have every emotion in the emotional palette, more because lyrics limit you. The emotion of happy and sad and getting happy and sad and being pensive and every word that is in the dictionary can be played out with music as an emotion, so that was such a huge instructional for me. When do a movie like that, you see someone getting scared or happy or whatever, when you look at what the emotion is you match the underscore, and in a musical you’re kind of doing the same thing except you’re matching the emotion with the song.
You did some of the Netherworld soundtrack with Larry Fast from Synergy, correct?
Yes. Larry is a technical genius and one of my heroes. I went and bought my first synthesizer. He built his first. There’s a very big difference in that.
How did you get into film initially, and then how did you get into doing Memphis? And how did you get involved with the Toxic Avenger musical off-Broadway?
The first progression was when the band took a break [in 1990]. I did Netherworld and got another film, Conflict Of Interest, which was a cable movie with Judd Nelson and Alyssa Milano. It was a cop movie, and I was starting to like it [composing]. But at the time it was the matter of the fact that I lived in New Jersey, and it’s impossible to be in the film business. There was no e-mail and barely cell phones. I kept working on that, then we went back on tour. I always write one or two songs with the band; on the first couple of records I wrote more. I wrote a couple of songs and was looking for outlets to see what I could do, and I remember in ’98 I got signed to a publishing deal because I had written a song on the Bon Jovi record [Keep The Faith]. I was talking to my publisher and said it’s not a banking deal, I want to learn how to do the art. I want to sit down with all of your writers and learn the craft of songwriting.
That’s what I did. I worked with 10 different songwriters and learned a lot of things about co-writing and learning how to not be attached to your ideas, and there were a lot of valuable lessons in there. I learned people’s tricks, and they learn your tricks. I had 10 really good songs, and one of them got covered, “This Time” by Curtis Stigers. Clive Davis called me up and said it was the best song he heard all year, and he stopped Curtis’s record and made him put it on it. And they loved the song, which was big. Then I wasn’t getting any more covers. They’re just so hard in a rock band. In country it’s expected that very few artists write their songs. They just buy songs or get songs. In rock it’s really hard. I kept trying, and I was frustrated because he [my manager] wasn’t getting me any covers. Nobody else was doing it. I told him I wasn’t going to write another song and waste five hours of my day when I had 10 really good ones there that he could sell. “I’m not building any more houses. You sell the other 10 houses before I build another one.”
Then finally he said, “What about musicals?” I said, “What are those?” He said, “I can get you 20 songs covered eight times a week.” “I’m interested.” At the time he put me together with Frank Military. John Teeter was the publisher and Frank Military was an old Broadway guy who knew Sinatra and knew everybody because he was 80 years old at the time. He knew Francine Pascal, who was Michael Stewart’s sister, and Michael Stewart wrote Bye-Bye Birdie and Mack & Mabel. He was huge. He was also in Sid Ceasar’s Show Of Shows. He had passed away, and Francine had his whole world. She had a book series called Sweet Valley High that sold about 500,000,000 copies in 20 years around the world. She knew Michael Price at Goodspeed [Opera House] up in Connecticut, and there was no rock ‘n roll at the time on Broadway in ’98. I wrote all the music and lyrics about this character who went from point A to point B, and used in my mind what was a hit chorus. I did that [the basic rock formula] for 23 songs for that. We got to a certain point where we had done a reading and they put about $30,000 into it. Everybody’s opinion was, “It’s loud. It’s too loud. Why do the songs repeat like that?” “It’s not too loud, and it’s rock ‘n roll. That’s what a rock song does — it takes your emotions and is a simpler form than classical, but it is a highly complicated form of emotion.” So I got to certain point and then it stopped, and I sat around.
In 2001, a script came through the script gods and fell in my lap, and it was Memphis. Joe DiPietro had written it. He had shopped it around for couple years for a composer, and he was looking for an authentic rock composer not a theater rock composer. Not that that’s bad or good, but I am what I am. He had some lyrics put in there already, and I read the whole script. When you see Memphis, I saw that finished product in my brain. I knew it had to be horns, I knew every one of the songs. I called him up and said, “Joe, David Bryan from Bon Jovi.” He was like, “Okay.” “Listen, I hear every one of your songs in my head.” “Okay. Do you hear other things in your head?” I go, “Yeah, but we can talk about that later.” He said, “Okay, pick a song and take it from there.” I said, “I’m also a lyricist. Can I do mess around with the lyrics?” “Yeah, just have fun with it.” So the first song I picked was “Music Of My Soul” because I saw that that was the heartbeat of our lead character. That’s what meant everything to him. The chorus was there and some lines were there, but I added some things. I did that and went down into my studio, and I got the drum machine going. I played piano, bass, organ and guitar on it. I sang lead and all the background vocals. It mixed it onto a CD and FedExed it to him. He got it the next day and was expecting some whiny little thing on a cassette tape piano, and he said, “If you’re not crazy, you’ve got the gig.” I said, “I’m a little crazy, but I’ll take the gig.”
Was the show performed off-Broadway originally?
Any journey of a musical is painfully long. It’s original songs and original story, which is even harder, and it all depends sometimes if the song cycles ae big. We got a reading it at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, California, and at that little reading we put it up for the first time. Two theaters — the Palo Alto and the North Shore [Music Theatre] in Boston — came together and came up to us at intermission. The guy from Boston said, “I’ve got to fly home, but I love this. We’re not going to do a reading, we’re going to do a full-on production. ” Which meant that both theaters were putting up $500,000. You go from $10,000 to $1,000,000, that’s a good jump. Joe whispered in my ear: “People don’t usually do this. They usually like to see the second half before they commit a half million bucks. Just nod your head yes.” I was green. And they did it. We put it up in Boston and put it up in California, then it sat for a couple years because of the business and the producer and a bunch of bullshit that business can always lead to. It sat there on the shelf. Good things happen for a reason. We mounted it up again with our new producers in New York — Junkyard Dog [Productions]; Randy [Adams] moved to New York and Sue Frost moved there from Connecticut and they started a company — and we were really comfortable with them. We put it right up and got a new creative team. Chris Ashley was just made head of La Jolla Playhouse, and he wanted to direct it and have it be his first piece. So we went there, then we went up to Seattle, collected all of our money and then raised the curtain.
The interesting thing is that when we went into the California production we still had most of the same cast. We just picked up a new lead. So they had been with us the whole time. We saw the story, and everybody believed in it. Even when we did the first reading there was a piece that resonated with me because he was talking about hate and racism. It’s not a racial dirge but it’s talking about that, and that’s entertainment with a meaning. That’s what drew it to me in the first place. It’s always worked with even a small audience, or just in the reading stage, not even honed, and that’s what rock ‘n roll does. It puts you into a frenzy by the end.
Was it frustrating going through the process of watching this grow? Did you do it for fun before you got to Broadway?
I wanted to find that something. I was searching for a creative outlet. I love to make music. When I mounted the first production and saw the power from the page to the stage, I thought it was powerful. Not growing up in the world it’s a really powerful art form, and I liked it. During the previews, it’s a live focus group. It’s right then and there. Everybody’s there, they get it, there with you. They didn’t think it’s funny, they think it’s funny. You can tell if their backs are off their seats because they’re really paying attention. It’s really neat to take a character and bring it all the way through and really problem solve and fix everything. I truly love the art form. In that hiatus for Memphis, I never left the band [Bon Jovi]. We made records and toured, and meanwhile the whole Broadway world was changing. Joe came out with All Shook Up and was now on Broadway. Then Duncan Sheik happened with Spring Awakening. That was around ’06, and I was five years in already. During that, that’s when we did the Toxic Avenger because we were on a break and my hands were tied. So Joe came to me, and we put that up relatively quick. It went right into New Brunswick and then straight to off-Broadway, and we won Best Musical [from the Outer Critics Circle].
Is it still playing?
It closed in January. We ran for almost a year. Off-Broadway is different, and due to the recession it wasn’t easy. A year is great, and it will be out on the road. It’s amazing that musicals are all over the place on the planet. Joe DiPietro wrote I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and that’s been running for 12 or 13 years in 15 countries. We have a couple deals with the Toxic Avenger pending in Japan, Korea and the Far East, then into Europe, and it is going to tour in America. It’s pretty wild. It’s big business.
Coming Soon in Part Two: David Bryan discuss the Toxic Avenger musical, playing vintage Bon Jovi songs, his charity work and “trunk songs”.