“How could people be so bad and make me feel so good?” This is a line from “Music of My Soul” from the hit Broadway show Memphis, which won the Tony Award last month for Best Musical. The music of Memphis, based on the first white DJ to put African American music on the radio in the 1950s, was written by David Bryan, founding member and keyboardist of New Jersey rock group Bon Jovi, and a new Tony winner himself (Best Original Score with co-lyricist and bookwriter Joe DiPietro, and Best Orchestrations with Daryl Waters). I spoke with David about Memphis, Japan and Bon Jovi prior to the group’s fourth and final show at New Meadowlands Stadium Friday.
What were the goals in writing Memphis? Did you and co-writer Joe DiPietro say, “All right, we’re going to conquer Broadway,” or did it just develop through its earlier productions starting in 2003?
I got the script from Joe in 2001, and that’s when we started. I read the script and called him up and said “I hear all this music,” and we got together and banged it all out. We did a great story—it was the birth of rock and roll; it was the birth of civil rights, if you will; ending racism; it was a love story—there was a lot things going on in it that really drew me.
Ultimately, everybody wanted to get to Broadway, but I think you can’t get there unless your piece has been worked on, so it’s a journey. It’s a very long journey, and it’s a complicated piece, the musical; you want to make sure you get it right. So we really worked on it and honed it and worked on it, and it’s a very different production now that it’s at the Shubert than the first time out, because I think, you know, we’re better at it, because we looked at it more.
Although he’s based on actual DJs from the 1950s, the protagonist Huey Calhoun’s character is especially rock and roll, sort of like Jack Nicholson with maybe a little George W. Bush thrown in. Did you help shape the character in terms of dialogue or that ol’ rock star swagger?
Joe and I create it, and then we have our director [Christopher Ashley] who takes that to the next level, and then we talk to Chad [Kimball], who tries a couple of things out because he’s an actor. It’s a very collaborative effort, the musical…there’s no right or wrong answer, you just have to try it.
Where does his catchphrase “hockadoo” come from, and what does it mean to you?
Joe and I wrote that; we were looking for a catchphrase. It’s just a nonsensical word that we kind of invented, and it’s a fun word that people are saying all the time now. We sat there like, “I don’t know, does it make sense?” It shouldn’t make any sense, it’s just a fun word.
Did you play any of the Memphis tunes for the other members of Bon Jovi for feedback or advice? Did they express interest in recording any of them, or was this project your baby from the start?
It was really my baby from the start. I mean, they all came up and—we put it up in ’03 up in Boston, so everybody came up and checked it out then…after winning these Tonys, I went back to Europe and duct taped them to the keyboards and Jon [Bon Jovi, vocals] was giving me a big shout-out in the announcements. It’s a great thing.
What were your initial impressions on your first visit to Japan in the ’80s, and how do you feel about Japan today?
Japan is like our second home, you know? We’ll be down there in November, and it’s always our second home. I remember going there [in 1984], our first year playing Super Rock [Festival], and it was very isolated, if you will, and now, with the Internet, the world is way less isolated…everything’s becoming everything. It’s a very special place, very special fans, and the Japanese have embraced us, and it’s great, you know? We’re going to go back there and play and I’m going to bring Memphis there, too. Memphis is going to be a huge musical in Japan.
Compared to other Western rock bands, Bon Jovi is still hugely successful in Japan, selling out the biggest stadiums with each tour and enjoying healthy record sales. What do you think is the key to the group’s long lasting appeal over there?
As a band, we’ve strived to stay current. Our new record, The Circle, was Number One in 15 countries, you know, we just strive to be current, not just go, “Okay, the last record did good and that’s it.” You want to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” on the radio, but yet you want to hear us playing the new song “We Weren’t Born to Follow.” So, the idea is that we keep pushing the envelope, keep pushing new songs and keep trying to better ourselves and keep expressing ourselves. Other than that, as a live band, we’ve always committed to walking on that stage and leaving your heart on the stage. We put out 150 percent every time we walk out on stage.
Are there any Japanese bands you personally would have liked to tour with when Bon Jovi plays there? Any Japanese groups you’re a fan of?
I don’t know—I mean, there are a lot of Japanese acts. When we go there, we usually get CDs and listen to stuff. I’m not that familiar with the local acts.
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For more on Memphis, visit www.memphisthemusical.com. Bon Jovi performs with Kid Rock at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey Friday, July 9. Visit www.bonjovi.com/Tour for details. Visit David’s homepage at www.davidbryan.com.
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