A maverick white disc jockey in late ‘50s America ruffles establishment feathers by playing records made by black performers on the radio. Along the way he falls in love with a black singer, further outraging so-called polite society, but sticks to his guns, strong in his faith that music can bring people together.
David Bryan brings Memphis to London
The Bon Jovi keyboard player's R&B musical is now on in London's West End
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Memphis: The Musical, the latest all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza to grace the West End stage. However, unlike such long-running successes as Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys, the production boasts original songs co-written by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, tailored to evoke the bygone sounds of labels like Stax and Volt.
Memphis played to packed houses on Broadway for three years, earning four Tony awards along the way, including the coveted Best Musical. But Bryan isn’t resting on his laurels, and has been hands-on in the run-up to this week’s West End opening.
“It’s our baby, we’ve been here for rehearsals since early September,” he says. “Me and my writing partner Joe [DiPietro] are the first ones in the theatre every day turning the lights on, we’re not the kind of guys who just phone stuff in.”
Your “baby” has actually reached its teens now. How did it all begin?
“We got the script back in 2001, started working up some songs, did a couple of low-key productions over the years and finally got to Broadway in 2009. It takes a lot of work to get to Broadway, it can be a painfully long time waiting for the right theatre to become available. Then, and only then, can you really get to the nitty gritty; once you see what you’ve got on stage for the first time it tells you what it needs. It’s a whole different world to making a rock record.”
What drew you to the story in the first place?
“I was in a covers band with Jon [Bon Jovi] when I was 16, a 10-piece band with a horn section, and we did a whole bunch of songs that were born and raised in Memphis; things like In The Midnight Hour and Knock On Wood. So, when I got the script for the musical, the book as it’s called, I knew exactly what was required. I instinctively had a feel for the kind of music that would tell the story, and how it should sound.
“I spent a long time recording my own demo versions of the songs, putting the piano down, the guitar down, I sang the lead, I sang all the background vocals, building things up to an approximation of what I wanted to hear on stage.”
A demo, sung by you, of one of the pivotal numbers, Memphis Lives In Me, appeared on the 2004 box set 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Were you tempted to offer any others to the band?
“I don’t know if they live in that same world, really. That one works as a stand-alone song away from the musical, but most are so specific to the story of the production that they’d kind of sound out of place anywhere else.”
Was it a fine balancing act to write an uplifting musical that also addresses racial prejudice?
“I grew up in New Jersey, which had its own race issues back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but there wasn’t anything on the same scale as the segregation and hate of the southern states. It’s an important part of the story we’re telling, but we didn’t want to make it too overt, we want the audiences to think for themselves. Our chief goal was to celebrate the things that bring us together, and foremost among those is music.”
Real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, the first man to play Elvis Presley on the radio, was clearly a touchstone, but it’s not his life story, is it?
“There are elements of Dewey’s life in it, but there are also things that allude to a couple of other DJs who were pushing similar envelopes back then. It’s a work of fiction, albeit one that has its roots in a certain time and place, using the social climate of the era, and of the entertainment industry, as a backdrop.”
Presumably you’re very happy with your lead performers in the West End, British soul singer Beverley Knight and stage actor Killian Donnelly.
“I’d heard of Beverley but didn’t really know much about her, she has a much higher profile in the UK than the US, but she really blew me away. Her chemistry with Killian was fantastic, and what an amazing voice! I’m so blessed to have her sing my songs. After each performance I want to go up to her dressing room and kiss her feet.”
Memphis: The Musical is on at the Shaftesbury Theatre.