'Memphis' a nice side gig for Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan

'Memphis' a nice side gig for Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan

Bryan, best-known as the keyboardist for Bon Jovi (and as the lifelong pal/musical sidekick of Jon Bon Jovi), is cowriter of the hit Broadway musical "Memphis," which runs through July 12 at the Walnut Street Theatre.

Considering that "Memphis," which was inspired by the 1950s birth of both the civil-rights movement and rock 'n' roll, was the Central Jersey native's first stab at musical theater, it's tough not to be impressed: The show opened on Broadway in the fall of 2009 and copped four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score (which Bryan shared with lyricist-author Joe DiPietro). It already has enjoyed a national tour, and it's currently running in London's West End.

According to Bryan, it was love at first sight when it came to the musical that is loosely based on pioneering Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips. Phillips, the first DJ to play an Elvis Presley record, was also one of the nation's first white on-air personalities to play the music of black R&B artists.

"In 2001 I got a script from an agent friend," he recalled, during a recent phone call. "He said it was better than anything he'd seen. I read it, and there were some lyrics already in it. I [understood] every one of the songs; the musical made sense to me.

"It was song-and-dance, but it [had] a message - that it was the birth of the civil-rights movement, it was the birth of rock 'n' roll, it was this interracial love story."

Although the classically trained Bryan had no interest in musical theater growing up, he immediately connected with the script because of the musical genre it celebrated.

"One of my first bands with [Jon Bon Jovi] was a cover band with a five-piece horn section," he explained. "We did songs like 'Hold On I'm Coming,' 'Knock on Wood,' 'In the Midnight Hour,' 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay.' So, I knew these kinds of songs."

DiPietro subsequently asked Bryan to take a set of lyrics from his script and turn it into a full-blown song. "I went down to my studio and I picked out '[The Music] of My Soul,' which is really the heartbeat of our main character and the show," he offered.

"I wrote some lyrics, I changed some stuff and made a whole song out of it. I [did all the instrumental tracks] on it and I sang lead and all the background [parts], then burned it on a CD, because the Internet wasn't that good then. By 6:30 the next morning he had it, and that was the beginning of it all."

One thing that distinguishes "Memphis" from so many other contemporary musicals is that Bryan's score contains actual songs with verses, repeated choruses and bridges, not just sung dialogue and exposition, which is the norm these days.

"There isn't right or wrong, there just is," he said. "For me coming in, it was like, 'You're doing something new [by writing songs with traditional structures].' Actually, no, I'm just writing songs."

Bryan and DiPietro have other musicals in varying stages of readiness. The next one that should see the light of day is "Chasing the Song," set in the 1960s at New York's Brill Building, the midtown skyscraper that housed such iconic songwriters as the teams of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King, along with the likes of Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond.

The protagonist is a fictional character, the first woman to run a music-publishing company.

"Joe and I wrote 23 songs so far," Bryan said. "It's a championing-women's-rights kind of deal."

And what of Bryan's "day job" with Bon Jovi?

"We always do album/tour. We put out an album ['What About Now'] in 2013 and toured all of 2013 - 102 shows to 3 million people," he said. "We're back in the studio and we'll have an album out next year. That's our cycle."

That hopscotching between two significantly different precincts of show business makes Bryan a happy man.

"Whatever I learned in my rock 'n' roll experience, I brought to the theater experience," he said. "And everything I learned in the theater experience, I can come back to the rock 'n' roll world and bring that experience and make that better.

"I'm just an inquisitive kid that loves music, so I keep learning and learning and creating and learning. It's a never-ending job."

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