TORONTO — One of the founding members of the iconic rock band Bon Jovi says that success hasn’t diminished the memories of the antisemitism he faced as a child.
Growing up amongst only a handful of Jewish families in small-town Edison, N.J, David Bryan – full name David Bryan Rashbaum – said he experienced bigotry and hatred in his youth and used those memories to help influence the music and feel of his hit Broadway musical, Memphis, which he co-wrote with partner Joe Dipietro in 2001.
The show is set in the 1950s and deals with race relations and the birth of rock and roll. It has received tons of accolades and won four Tony awards at the 2010 Tonys, including best musical, best composer, best book, and best orchestrations.
Bryan, Bon Jovi’s keyboard player who co-founded the band with Jon Bon Jovi in the early ’80s, is immensely proud of the show, which will make its Toronto debut on Dec. 6 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
“The show is entertainment with a meaning,” Bryan said in a phone interview from his New Jersey home studio last week. “While I’m a white Jewish kid from New Jersey, where there wasn’t a lot of us, there was hate. And I know what that feels like, how ugly that is and how wrong it is.”
Memphis’ press release describes the storyline as taking place in the “smoky halls and underground clubs of the segregated ’50s, where a young white DJ falls in love with everything he shouldn’t – rock ’n’ roll and an electrifying black singer.”
Bryan said putting the musical together – something he did during breaks from recording and touring with Bon Jovi – incorporated themes that resonated with him as a Jew.
“It was an opportunity to [deliver] a message. It’s a story about civil rights and interracial love, which was illegal in the 1950s. I can relate to a lot of the pain involved in it.”
He added that writing the songs for Memphis took him on an “important journey” to reflect on all these weighty issues.
As a minority in New Jersey, the antisemitism he and his family experienced shaped how he would interact with others, he said.
“People would say they hated me because I’m a Jew, to which I responded: ‘You have to get to know me to hate me first.’ I just saw how much this affected me and how much I didn’t like it.
“I had a rabbi who told me no one walks ahead or behind anyone else. And I take that message to heart.”
Bryan recalled how he and [Jon] Bon Jovi used to play 1950s-era songs together in their youth at various bars in New Jersey, many of those included Motown classics such as Hold on I’m Comin’, In the Midnight Hour, and Knock on Wood.
“Those songs were ingrained in me. So when it came to Memphis, I knew what it should sound like, but I wanted to modernize them,” he said. “This is not a Memphis jukebox musical, it’s all original material.”
He said he and Dipietro are currently penning another musical called Chasing the Song, which will focus on the songwriters of the 1960s, specifically those who worked out of the Brill Building in New York. Some of those artists include Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond.
The writing duo of Bryan and Dipietro are “prolific,” he added.
Asked if he’s considering completely veering off the rock ’n’ roll path and leaving Bon Jovi for a career on Broadway, Bryan, in a strong New Jersey patois, answered: “Everyone in Bon Jovi goes on vacation when we break from recording and touring, but David goes to work.”
He said the band, is currently taking a “well-deserved break” after a two-year tour and will slowly find its way back to the studio once the right songs present themselves.
Bryan said he’s unsure if he’ll be in attendance for the Toronto premiere of Memphis, but he had some words of encouragement to the Jewish community here.
“I’m really excited about our three-week run in Toronto. Joe and I are quality control for this show and we made sure this was a Broadway quality show for Toronto. Everyone in this show is fierce. Tell all the mishpachah to come out and see my show!”
Memphis, presented by Toronto theatre company DanCap Productions runs at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Dec. 6 to Dec.24. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.DancapTickets.com.