“When Broadway Rocks”
A Guest Blog by Joe DiPietro
Many years ago when I first started writing musicals, a friend suggested that I meet a promising young composer whose work she had admired. She thought his style to be more downtown, and my style to be more mainstream, so she reasoned that perhaps we’d make an interesting writing team. The composer and I met a couple of times and we threw around some possible ideas, but we soon lost touch as we both got overwhelmed with new shows – I was working on the first production of my first musical, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” and he was hurriedly finishing up demo tapes for a show that he thought may get produced soon. A couple of years later, I was happy to see his show was going into production, so I bought a ticket to an early preview to cheer him on and say hi again. The show starred a cast of complete unknowns. It was called “Rent.”
Of course, Jonathan Larson never got a chance to see the phenomenal success of his musical, which went on to change Broadway forever. I remember sitting in the theatre, being both saddened by this tragic loss and stunned by what I was hearing – a score propelled by its driving guitars and drums – a honest-to-God rock ‘n roll score. Of course, there had been a smattering of honest-to-God rock ‘n roll scores before – “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” are two of the most important — but “Rent” was the show which truly shook up the Broadway establishment. When I first started writing, I remember hearing a very notable producer state, “As we all know, rock ‘n roll doesn’t work on stage.” How excited was I to now be sitting in a theatre and hearing Jonathan Larson prove that not-uncommon adage wrong. And how equally excited was I to be watching the theatrical debut of a young man who tore into his songs as if he was channeling both Janis Joplin and every front man for every heavy metal band. From his first moment on stage, Adam Pascal took his rock star presence and brought it thrillingly to the world of musical theatre.
Amazingly, “Rent” not only shook up the Broadway establishment, but the rock ‘n roll establishment, too. Prior to “Rent,” it wasn’t cool for a rock ‘n roll writer to write a musical. But “Rent’s” success brought tons of rock stars into the theatre to witness this phenomenon, and against all odds, musical theatre became an acceptable artistic avenue for these second- and third-generation rockers. The late, great Jonathan Larson had somehow made musicals cool.
In fact, the rockers were so smitten that many ventured backstage after the show, and at least one, Billy Joel, expressed interest in writing an original musical. A backstage friend of mine suggested that he should meet me, so, miraculously, I found myself in a car heading to Billy Joel’s Long Island estate. He had an idea for a musical in which a misunderstood rock star is treated so terribly by his record company that he is eventually gunned down by its record executives. Given this plot, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Billy Joel happened to be in the midst of an epic battle with his record company, who, fortunately, never gunned him down. Regardless, I told the piano man that I was interested, and then the coolest thing that had ever happened to me happened — Billy Joel wrote my name and number in his address book and promised to call.
Well, Billy Joel never called me. But David Bryan did.
David, the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, had read my first draft of “Memphis” and he wanted to write the score. He told me that he knew exactly what the music should sound like – a combination of early rock ‘n roll influences including gospel, blues and jazz, filtered though the ears of a modern rock ‘n roller. I said pick a lyric, write a tune, then we’ll talk. He selected “Music of my Soul,” and FedEx’ed a demo to me the next day. I listened to it once and excitedly called him to say that his demo didn’t sound like a typical theatre composition to me, it sounded like a song you would actually hear on the radio.
“Exactly,” he responded, “I write rock songs for guitar, drums, piano. That’s who I am and that’s what I write.”
So David and I began to write together, teaching each other our respective disciplines but always adhering to a common vision of marrying rock ‘n roll to theatrical storytelling. And some folks, of course, still think rock ‘n roll is too loud, too simple, too relentless for Broadway But as “Memphis” is about to enter its third year, the show continues to speak to an audience who grew up with guitar-based rhythms and soul-searing vocals. Without “Rent,” “Memphis” (along with “Spring Awakening,” “In the Heights,” and many others,) would probably never have existed on Broadway. But thanks to Jonathan Larson – a man who I only knew briefly but whose work has influenced me greatly – Broadway has undeniably entered the age of rock n’ roll.
And, in a moment that I could never have imagined while watching Jonathan’s show all those years ago, Adam Pascal will soon join “Memphis” in the leading role of Huey Calhoun – a rock ‘n roll DJ who embodies all the passion, joy and recklessness of the music he loves. I hope that somewhere Jonathan is happy that his leading man is back on Broadway in a show that is an unquestionable descendant of his stupendous rock’ roll masterpiece.
And I still hope Billy Joel calls me. If for no other reason, just to say hi.