The keyboardist for Bon Jovi is embarking on a busy 2020, with a new album and tour with one of America's favorite rock bands as well as opening his second Broadway musical, “ Diana.” “This used to be moonlighting,” Bryan laughs about his side hustle on Broadway. “Now I have two full-time jobs? What am I doing to myself?” The one thing that's definitely still rock star about him is his view on the hours: Working early mornings, he says, is like “getting waterboarded.”
Bryan, 58, has been faithfully attending rehearsals for his musical about the life of Princess Diana, which opens March 31. He's one of the first to arrive and is happy to sit through hours of tweaking to get it ready. “It is my fault if it's good," he says. "It's also my fault if it's bad.”
He has teamed up with longtime collaborator, playwright Joe DiPietro, to tell the tragic and yet inspiring story of a young woman learning to break free of the confines of the British royal family. It arrives at a time when Diana's youngest son is also pushing royal boundaries. “We got good luck in the timing world,” Bryan jokes.
Stage musicals — with all their moving pieces and the need to do it live — offer a delicious challenge to Bryan. “It's the hardest algorithm anybody can ever solve,” he says. “I love all those moving pieces. To me, I want to figure it out.”
The first stage show he attempted was “Sweet Valley High: The Musical,” but it didn't get beyond a small workshop. A breakthrough came when he was sent a script by DiPietro for “Memphis,” which traces the integration of radio in the 1950s against the backdrop of an interracial love story.
The music was right up Bryan's alley: Before he hit it big with “Livin' On a Prayer,” he and Jon Bon Jovi had been in a horn-led cover band in 1979, earning $7 a night playing rock classics like “Knock on Wood” and “In the Midnight Hour.”
"I literally read the whole thing and I heard it. And I called up Joe. I’m like ‘I hear every song.’ And he's like ‘Do you hear anything else?’ I go ‘Yeah, there are other voices in my head. But we can talk about that later.’”
DiPietro challenged the rock star to prove his musical chops. So Bryan picked a song — “The Music of My Soul” — and went to work. Their phone call was at noon and Bryan knew FedEx's last pick-up was 6 p.m. He wrote the music and lyrics for the song, added drums, piano and horns. “Burned a CD, made it to FedEx and it was on his doorstep the next morning,” Bryan says.
“Him and I, you know, we click. It's great," he adds. “I've written with a lot of other people and, for some reason, with him, I just get whatever it is to put into a song.” “Memphis” went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for best musical and DiPietro won for best story. He and Bryan won for best original score, sharing credit for lyrics. Bryan also won for best orchestrations, meaning he's got more Tonys than Grammys.
Bryan grew up in New Jersey with a father who was a good singer, if not a professional one. The elder Bryan liked to sing “Sunrise Sunset” and his son saw “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in 1975 for his bar mitzvah. ("You have to. It’s part of the rule," he jokes.) He would fall in love with cast albums for “Hair” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and became a classically trained pianist.
Music tumbles out of him. He and DiPietro have come up with 26 songs for “Diana,” and he's not afraid to scrap any for the greater good. After the show premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in California, the songwriters overhauled the second act, tossing out about six songs and writing another eight. Then they went back and wrote five more to make those eight songs make sense.
“I go, 'OK. Throw that away and let's do it again. Let's try this.’ I have no problem just throwing,” Bryan says. “Maybe it will be in another show. It's not going away. OK. But for now? Wipe the slate clean.”
DiPietro compliments his collaborator for an ego-less ability to change course. “He's one of those rare people from which music somehow flows. He's not precious with his work, I think because he always has another idea which he is equally excited to try out,” DiPietro says.
Fittingly, Bryan and DiPietro began writing songs for “Diana” in London, where “Memphis” was opening. The first tune they penned — called "An Officer's Wife" — was about the queen, and Bryan decided to use lots of drums to make it sound like a military march.
Something clicked and the creative floodgates soon opened. Each character would have their own musical flavor — a string quartet for Prince Charles, soft rock for Camilla, ugly guitars for the paparazzi and rock for Diana. He wrote it all for a 16-piece band.
For both his Broadway musicals, Bryan, a white Jewish kid from Edison, New Jersey, has written songs for characters far from his own personal experience — African Americans in the segregated South for “Memphis” and now upper-crust Brits for “Diana.”
Empathy and the ability to step into someone else's shoes is his strength. Bryan recalls facing anti-Semitism growing up. “I know what hate is,” he says. “I know what pain is. I understand that.” As for as “Diana,” he thinks a couple of Yanks can write something powerful because they don't have any skin in the game. “I think being removed is an advantage.”
He's juggling his new musical at the same time his other job is also requesting his talents. The album “Bon Jovi 2020” is set for release in May, and the band goes on tour this summer. Whether it's on a concert stage or a Broadway one, Bryan has the same target: “The goal is always exceeding people's expectations,” he says.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits