Enter the Rocker

Rock ‘n’ rollers Billie Joe Armstrong, Duncan Sheik and David Bryan have found a home in musical theatre.

Set to the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, the new musical Memphis will make its mark on Broadway come October. And no — it’s not another jukebox show, nor is it a show written by a musical theatre god like Stephen Sondheim or an up-and-comer like Lin-Manuel Miranda

Memphis will feature an original score written by rock ‘n’ roll veteran but Broadway newbie David Bryan, of the band Bon Jovi. The musical, which will begin previews at the Shubert Theatre Sept. 23, marks the Broadway debut for the 47-year-old Bryan and a continuing trend for theatre. Bryan will join a rapidly growing list of mainstream recording artists (plucked from the worlds of country, rock, pop and even punk) whose roads converge on Broadway. 

With the segregated 1950s South as its backdrop, Memphis tells the story of white disc jockey Huey Calhoun and his love for both rock ‘n’ roll and the African-American bar crooner Felicia Farrell. Filling out the creative team with Bryan are librettist/lyricist Joe DiPietro, director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (reuniting after working on the 2005 Elvis musical All Shook Up). 

It may surprise some that Bryan has always been an aspiring musical theatre artist and a longtime fan. He was first introduced to Memphis in 2001. “I was looking to stretch out a little bit since 1990. I tried doing movie soundtracks, but at the time there wasn’t the internet and you had to live in L.A. and I didn’t want to do that. Once I read the script [to Memphis], Joe [DiPietro] had some contemporary lyrics in there. I said, ‘Listen, I hear every one of these songs.'” Changing some of DiPietro’s lyrics, Bryan did what he does best — he gave what was on the page his “rock treatment.” He recorded lead and back-up vocals and composed an arrangement with percussion, bass and guitar. 

DiPietro, best known for creating the Off-Broadway hit I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, says working with Bryan has been a fruitful experience. “David is a rock star, which brings its own energy. I bring a theatrical sensibility to the table and David brings rock ‘n’ roll.” 

Breathing life into DiPietro and Bryan’s characters are Chad Kimball, who plays Huey, and Montego Glover, who plays Felicia. Both agree that Bryan has the instinct and talent to compose for this art form. 

“He’s a rock ‘n’ roll artist and storyteller, and I think that audiences are used to a certain sound coming from the radio and it’s [now] comfortable to see that kind of music onstage,” says Kimball. Glover refers to Bryan as a “talented whirlwind of blonde curls — a rock ‘n’ roll hurricane who allows you to collaborate.” 

And although Memphis marks the Broadway debut for the Bon Jovi co-founder, it looks like music will continue to pour from his soul to the stage. Bryan wrote the score for The Toxic Avenger, which opened Off-Broadway earlier this year. He is also collaborating with DiPietro on another musical work about songwriters.

Memphis, much like its predecessors Billy Elliot (Elton John), Spring Awakening (Duncan Sheik), 9 to 5 (Dolly Parton) and the upcoming Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark(U2’s Bono and The Edge), features new and exciting contemporary sounds courtesy of its pop/rock icon composer writing for the theatre. Duncan Sheik, who ended up a Tony winner his first time out of the gate, explains the appeal of writing for the theatre. “As a singer/songwriter having [been in the music business] for the past 13 years, touring with a band, you sing your song for 90 minutes, you walk offstage and that’s it. Having an amazing production [with] costumes, sets, really great actors speaking powerful text — all these design elements going into a show — it makes the creative process more rich and fuller. To me there’s a host of reasons why working in the theatre is more satisfying than just going on the road in singer/songwriter fashion. [You have an] incredible visual element, and that’s more exciting to me.” 

And why not compose for the Broadway stage? It is undoubtedly the world’s greatest theatrical platform and can expose an artist’s work to a whole new audience. If it’s a hit, it can bring longevity to one’s work, and it gives these accomplished icons the chance to see their work interpreted by other artists. 

The Grammy Award–winning and multiplatinum band Green Day is just getting its feet wet in the theatre with American Idiot, a musical adaptation of the band’s 2004 album of the same name. Their front man, Billie Joe Armstrong, explains, “I just want to learn more about the process of theatre production. Everyone involved are the most creative people I’ve ever met. There’s a new synergy. It would be great to write material that would be specifically for theatre.” 

So it looks like Broadway is a new playground for these music industry demigods. As Armstrong reflects on the possibilities, he adds, “Wouldn’t Liza Minnelli make a great punk singer?” 

Frank DiLella is the theatre producer for NY1 News.