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As Memphis heads toward a closing date of August 5, Broadway.com decided to check in with Tony-winning composer and orchestrator David Bryan for his reflections on the musical’s three-year Broadway run. Long before making his theatrical debut, Bryan had achieved worldwide fame as the keyboard player of Bon Jovi—having turned down a spot studying classical piano at Juilliard to join the band! Below, the multitalented rock star speaks fondly of his Broadway experience and explains why fans can expect at least four more new David Bryan musicals in the future.
Before Memphis, I had never considered working on a musical. But when Joe DiPietro sent me the script, I heard the entire score in my head. I love the Memphis sound. When I was 16-and-a-half, with my driver’s permit, I was playing New Jersey clubs in a 10-piece band; we had a horn section and would play great, great songs like “Hold On! I’m Comin’” and “Knock on Wood” and “Midnight Hour.” I read Joe’s script and thought, “This is not just entertainment, it’s entertainment that matters.” It had such a strong, important message, I knew I had to be a part of it.
I don’t find writing for the theater that different from writing a rock song. A song is always a character’s journey; it’s just in a different format when it’s played on the radio, with a chorus that has a repeating lyric and everything leads back to that. With Memphis, I knew right away with that we could tell this story in song in a way that wouldn’t be boring.
The whole process of getting a musical to Broadway is pretty amazing. If you looked backward from our opening night, you would see the building process—from Joe and me sitting in a room talking, going away to write and coming back together, getting musicians and actors involved, answering a million questions from the director, digging deeper to make the story better and doing readings and productions. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication from everyone involved. Memphis took eight years to get to Broadway, but the thing I learned in my other world, as a member of Bon Jovi, was perseverance: You’ve got to keep pushing the rock up the hill, no matter how heavy it is, and never stop believing in what you are doing.
The Broadway run of Memphis has been like going to the moon. It was so great to actually open at the Shubert Theatre, and then amazing to be nominated for eight Tonys and attend all the luncheons and events. And on Tony night, the honor of Joe and me winning the first three awards, then waiting for the big one: Bernadette Peters presented Best Musical, and she paused for a second that seemed like 20 years. When she said “Memphis,” it was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life.
I saw the show recently with my wife and family, and I found myself tearing up when I heard Montego Glover sing “Colored Woman.” I looked over at my daughter, who is 18, and realized that I wrote that song when she was seven. The fact that it is still just as relevant now as it was 11 years ago is amazing to me. When my daughter saw me tearing up, she said, “Dad, it’s so sad” that the Memphis is closing. I said, “No, it’s the end of a marathon, and when a runner hits that tape after going 26 miles, those are tears of joy.” When we opened on Broadway, it was like my stamp on the planet. I felt like saying, “I told you from the beginning that this is what I saw and heard!”
Joe and I are working on a new show, Chasing the Song, about a ’60s songwriter in the Brill Building. We’re going to do a workshop and a production and try to make it the best it can be before we bring it on Broadway. There’s no hurry. I figure that Joe and I are 50, so if it takes five years for each new musical, I’ve got four good ones left before I’m dead. After all, Bon Jovi tours every other year—I’ve still got a day job that keeps me busy as hell!
Bonus: Watch Bryan and DiPietro play and talk about their Memphis score in this exclusive Broadway video feature from 2009!