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THEATER

More than a little bit of soul

When Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and theater veteran Joe DiPietro take on the story of Elvis-spinning DJ Dewey Phillips in 'Memphis,' the result is . . .

August 31, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA, CALIF. — "Jersey BOYS," the show, came off well for the La Jolla Playhouse. The rock 'n' roll bio-play about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons opened late in 2004 and soon after moved to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award for best musical and looks to keep playing to packed houses into the next decade.

Now La Jolla has the not-quite-sequel: Jersey Boys, the partnership -- Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, a writer-composer team of 46-year-olds who, on the face of it, are one of the oddest theatrical couplings since Neil Simon thought up Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar.

Their show, "Memphis," tells how black rhythm and blues music began to reach white listeners on Southern airwaves during the early 1950s. First produced five years ago in Boston and the Bay Area, it's having a retooled staging in La Jolla.

DiPietro, the word guy, is from Oradell in north Jersey. He has close-cropped hair, wears scuffed sandals and was stage-struck from the moment the lights went up on "1776," his first show as a kid. His calling card: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” a revue about modern romance that closed July 27 after 12 years and 5,003 New York performances -- second only to "The Fantasticks" among off-Broadway musicals.

The music man is Bryan. Born David Bryan Rashbaum, he's from Edison, about 35 miles south of Oradell as the Garden State Parkway flies -- or crawls. His hair is blond and ringleted, like Robert Plant's, and he's outfitted in a "Hellbound" motorcycle T-shirt, black-and-white tennis shoes printed with skulls, and a gold peace sign necklace. He saw a school production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" -- pretty much his only theatrical encounter until he was almost 40. His calling card: a quarter-century of playing keyboards and singing backup vocals in the pop-metal band Bon Jovi.

So, can these guys really function together? Well, listen to them talk about the creation of "Underground," the gospel-fired opening number from "Memphis" -- the first of three musicals they've worked on since discovering about seven years ago that they were creative soul mates.

It happened this year, while they were in preliminary rehearsals for “The Toxic Avenger,” a musical they've adapted from a 1985 B-movie horror film for the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., where it premieres this fall. Bryan was on rock 'n' roll time -- running a little bit late -- as he drove to the theater.

"I'd seen the set for 'Memphis,' " he begins, "and they'd put the club in the opening scene underground. And I thought, 'Underground, that's great.' And as I'm driving, I wrote the song. I called Joe from the car: 'I got it! I got it!' He said . . ."

"I said, 'Write it down! Write it down! You're gonna lose it!' " DiPietro says, following on cue.

"I sang it to my answering machine at home, so I didn't lose it. We walked in . . . "

" 'Everybody take five,' " DiPietro continues. " 'Get away for a minute, be quiet.' "

"We went right to the piano, and -- bang -- we wrote it," Bryan says.

"It took five minutes," DiPietro says

A creative match

Besides being able to make songs flow in a twinkling, "Memphis" director Christopher Ashley notes, DiPietro and Bryan hang tight when collaborating becomes more knotty. "They can talk about the tough stuff," says Ashley, artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse. "They can say, 'I really don't like that' to each other, and it's not, 'Oh my gosh, he really doesn't like my work.' "

The partnership's beginning was more organic and accidental than arranged.

In 1999, George W. George, an independent stage and film producer ("My Dinner With Andre"), had an idea for a musical based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a white Memphis disc jockey who crossed the airwaves' color barrier during the early 1950s, building a mass white audience for black music. He became the first DJ to spin an Elvis Presley record but self-destructed and wound up a small footnote to rock history.

DiPietro, a fan of early rock, wrote a script and lyrics, then began looking for a composer. "I thought, 'I would love a rock 'n' roll guy to write this, but I know zero rock 'n' roll guys.' I gave it to my agent, and it went out into the black hole, or wherever agents send scripts."

Cut to Bryan, pedaling through his morning Lifecycle routine out by the pool behind his home in Colts Neck, N.J., while he reads the "Memphis" script. Since the late 1990s he had branched out, honing his song craftsmanship by collaborating with writers outside Bon Jovi; that led to a solo gig writing songs for an unproduced musical based on "Sweet Valley High," a book series about twin teenage girls. Sweating and reading, "I heard every one of the songs that was there, heard the finished product."

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