At 17, keyboardist David Bryan hooked up in a band with Jon Bon Jovi in suburban New Jersey. The 10-piece included a horn section and, in addition to classic Springsteen tracks, the group played vintage Memphis soul tunes like “Knock on Wood” and “Hold On, I’m Coming.”
Many years later, Bryan found himself laboring over the score for a new musical called “Memphis,” which would begin life at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly in 2003 and eventually make its way to the Broadway stage.
“That was my school, playing those songs for seven dollars a night in a club,” says Bryan, who would go on to form another band with his buddy and sell over 100 million records. “I knew that music and loved it, and that’s why when it came to ‘Memphis,’ I thought, I know exactly how this should be.”
Considering that Bryan and collaborator Joe DiPietro wrote a show that ended up winning four 2010 Tony Awards — best musical, score, book, and orchestrations — clearly others agreed that he knew what he was doing. “Memphis,” which traces the integration of the airwaves against the backdrop of an interracial love affair, begins a stint at the Colonial Theatre Tuesday.
“People ask me, ‘Is there pressure to win a Tony for your next one?’ I’ve got three on my mantelpiece; I’m good,” Bryan says. “If that’s the end of the story, I’m fine.”
It is not the end of the story. Bryan — who is also working to bring his and DiPietro’s off-Broadway take on “The Toxic Avenger” to Broadway — recently spoke by phone from New York, where on Wednesday Bon Jovi will play the “12-12-12” Hurricane Sandy benefit concert at Madison Square Garden with other heavy hitters such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, the Who, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney. Sandy literally hit home for Bryan, and he is happy to do his part to help those affected on his beloved Jersey Shore. In 2013, Bon Jovi hits the road again with a date expected over the summer at Gillette Stadium.
Q. You have said that your background really wasn’t in musical theater growing up, so “Memphis” and “The Toxic Avenger” were new experiences for you. Was any creative challenge you encountered the opposite of your expectations in retrospect?
A. I started classical piano lessons when I was 7, and I studied for my one teacher who was a Juilliard graduate for 13 years, so I had a lot of classical training, which is really complicated compositions. So I think between that and then the feeling of playing in rock ’n’ roll bands and being a performer that can do it live in front of people, I think all of that helped me coming into this world. I just write the way I feel and if it feels good to me, hopefully everybody likes it.
Q. As you were bringing the show to the stage, did you ever get the urge to perform?
A. The wild thing is that when I’m in the band, I can control my destiny with four other guys. As a composer sitting in the audience, you can throw good vibes at everybody, but you can’t control anybody’s destiny, so it’s really unsettling.
Q. When you have theater fans who recognize you on the street and congratulate you on “Memphis,” is it a different feeling from getting recognition for Bon Jovi?
A. It’s different because it’s all me; it’s not a band. It’s pretty wild people saying, “I loved ‘Memphis.’ It was the greatest musical that I saw.” It’s unbelievable.
Q. Have you heard from Bon Jovi fans who were previously averse to the theater say your involvement turned them on?
A. Oh yeah, 100 percent. It just widened the band of rock ’n’ roll coming into Broadway.
Q. Would you ever consider doing a Bon Jovi jukebox musical?
A. I don’t think Jon’s so interested in it, and for me, I really like original songs. That to me is more challenging than just writing a story around songs.
Q. In that vein, what are you working on now?
A. Joe DiPietro and I are working on another musical called “Chasing the Song.” We’ve been working on that for a while, so we’ve got a little workshop of that going on in January. It’s our fictional view of the facts, if you will, of the ’60s songwriters.
Q. The Brill Building types like Carole King and Gerry Goffin?
Q. But it won’t be a jukebox musical? You’ll be writing original material?
A. Just like in “Memphis.” I think one of the best compliments I ever got from my lawyer was when he came to a preview and said, “Do I have to clear all these songs?” I went, “Thank you very much, I wrote ’em.”
Q. That’s excellent. We’ll see if Carole King feels the same way.
A. Well, you know, when “Memphis” was in Memphis at the Orpheum Theatre, it really hit me. I write from my heart and I do the best work I can do and hope for the best. And at the Orpheum I felt like, “Oh my God, I’m actually in their hometown now. I could get killed.” And it was really disturbing. After the show went on, everyone from Memphis loved it and just embraced me — I got the keys to the city. I passed their test, so I figure I’m good.
Q. Did Sandy affect your area of New Jersey?
A. Oh yeah, New Jersey got beat up bad. I’ve got a beach house down in Bay Head and my wife actually grew up there, and it’s a lot of our good friends and it’s a close-knit community, and we got decimated — the house was totaled. The ocean went through the front door and out the back. There was 4 feet of sand, my fireplace was completely filled up, and on the mantelpiece was my Tony, and my wife’s a painter and her artwork was right above it, so we rescued the Tony and the artwork.
Q. You were pre-med at Rutgers and studied at Juilliard, so the alternate-universe David Bryan is a classical piano-playing doctor. Do you ever wonder about that life?
A. It’s funny. A lot of my friends are doctors and the difference between me and them is there’s no musical emergencies to pull me away from dinner. “I need the chords for that song right now!” No, it can wait.