InDepth InterView Tony Awards Edition: Joe DiPietro - Part 1: MEMPHIS, Early Inspirations & Film Scoop!
Today we are talking to a two-time Tony Award winning lyricist and book writer who was responsible for the 2010 Best Musical winner, MEMPHIS, and who has since written the libretto of the Gershwin revue NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET and received a well-earned Tony nomination for his efforts; one of the show's ten nods - Joe DiPietro. Discussing the finer points of his many musicals with a special focus on the two currently running on Broadway - MEMPHIS and NICE WORK - DiPietro eloquently elaborates on the process of creating both shows and the challenges new musicals these days face on their developmental road to Broadway. Additionally, we discuss Montego Glover, Chad Kimball, Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, Judy Kaye, Adam Pascal and the many other talented individuals onstage and off who have participated in the two hit productions treading the boards eight times a week. Besides the complete 411 on MEMPHIS in Part I and NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT in Part II, DiPietro also opens up about his new musical endeavor with Bon Jovi and MEMPHIS composer David Bryan, THE TOXIC AVENGER, and its star, Constantine Maroulis - and don't miss my exclusive interview with Constantine all about the most recent Alley Theater iteration of the show, available here. Plus, DiPietro shares fond remembrances of shows past - I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE; F*CKING MEN, ALL SHOOK UP and ALLEGRO - and future - CHASING THE DREAM - and expresses his infectious enthusiasm for the theatrical arts in general by revealing his early theatre memories, favorite scores and general love for the art form. All of that and much, much more!
In Part I, DiPietro and I analyze MEMPHIS and take a step-by-step look at its creation and the development of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical. Additionally, DiPietro shares his theatrical influences and the shows and scores that meant the most to him growing up. Plus, he shares his thoughts on GLEE, SMASH and the modern movie musical era.
More information on MEMPHIS on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre is available here.
More information on NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre is available here.
Musicals Live In Me
PC: MEMPHIS was recently a Fathom event in movie theaters nationwide. What do you think of the in-cinema theatre age we are in and the viewing possibilities that that offers?
JD: Oh, I think it is just fantastic. You know, I think that with all the tradition of theatre, it's easy to forget that we always need to be current in terms of how we present it and how we roll out our shows. In a show like MEMPHIS, which is a musical that has never had any movie stars in it and it's not a famous title based on a movie or anything else, when the opportunity presented itself for us to have a taping of it, we really jumped at it - and that goes back to the intelligence of our producers; they believe in introducing the show to a whole new generation of theatergoers who will grow up on MEMPHIS now, hopefully.
PC: MEMPHIS is available on Netflix Instant, as well - anyone can access the show at any time; it's there.
JD: Yeah - that's just fantastic.
PC: Do you think that the filming has raised awareness for the show and perhaps brought in a younger audience than it would have otherwise, potentially, given the subject matter?
JD: Sure. I mean, MEMPHIS deals with racism in America and I believe that it deals with it in an effective way. You know, David Bryan and I have a couple of beliefs about writing shows together: first off, it has to be entertaining. You can talk about any subject you want, but you also have to entertain the audience - and I think that is something MEMPHIS does - but, in the case of MEMPHIS, it also deals with a very important subject of American life.
PC: That still exists.
JD: Right. Obviously, these events happened fifty, sixty years ago, but the reverberations are still here with us.
PC: From where did the concept for MEMPHIS originally arise?
JD: Well, it was actually a producer that brought it to me - this story about a real-life DJ named Dewey Phillips who was the first white disc jockey to play rhythm and blues in the center of the radio dial in the 50s in Memphis. When I heard that story, I thought, "Oh, my God! What a great idea for a musical!"
PC: The subject just sang to you.
JD: It did! You know, telling a story about the birth of rock n roll, which was really the precursor to the civil rights movement - which really happened about ten years later. I thought, "What a great untold, important American story," and, to tell it from the point of view of a disc jockey? I don't think that had ever been done before. What an impact just one man had on the whole culture.
JD: Yeah - I mean, once I had that idea I could just go ahead with it; it was like, "Oh, now I know how to tell this story."
PC: Did you immediately think of David Bryan to do the score? Did you two know each other yet at that point in time?
JD: You know, it's funny, because I know a lot of really talented theatre composers, but, I thought, "This show really requires someone with a basis in rock n roll - this show is about the birth of rock n roll."
PC: It had to sound authentic.
JD: Yeah, so, for that reason, I felt that I really wanted to work with a rocker on it, but I knew exactly zero rockers. So, I gave a treatment I did of it to my agent and he said, "Oh, I really like this - I know some rock n roller's managers, so let me send this out to them and see if they are interested." So, my agent sent out some copies - to what I call the black hole; the place where agents send things and then you have to forget about them for a bit - and, a couple of months later I get a call saying, "Hi, Joe. This is David Bryan and I play with Bon Jovi. I just read your entire script to MEMPHIS and I loved it - I want to know how I can get to write the score."
PC: Wow. What an offer!
JD: Yeah! I was like, "Who?! What?!" [Laughs.]
PC: He was already in before you even met to discuss it, then.
JD: Yeah! Yeah. Then, after I caught my breath, he said to me, "I hear every song already in my head."
PC: Even better!
JD: I was like, "Really?!" And, he said, "Yeah, trust me - I know what this is. I know this time period and I have studied under people who played music back then." So, we met and he seemed like a nice guy and we chatted. Then, I wrote a first draft of some sort with a set of dummy lyrics and I said, "Pick some lyrics and set them and then we'll talk." And, he said, "OK." So, I just thought in a couple of weeks I'd get something from him. Well, the next morning there was a FedEx on my doorstep with a CD in it!
PC: No way! What songs were on it?
JD: I immediately put it in my CD player and I heard "Music Of My Soul", which is the first song Huey sings in the bar. And, I just knew that, you know, "This is the guy!" I just knew it. He knew what a song was in those days and he also knew what was inherently theatrical, too - I always felt like, "Oh, this will reach across the footlights."
PC: It was a theatrical score. Do you think we will see more rockers composing Broadway scores in the future or perhaps less since many have not had success in pulling them off onstage?
JD: [Laughs.] The Street is strewn with rockers who tried… funnily enough, I think RENT is the show that finally made theaTre Cool for rock n roll people - before that, you know, rockers didn't really write for the theatre; Broadway was not cool to them.
PC: Definitely not in the 80s and most of the 90s.
JD: Exactly. RENT was the show everyone went to see because of the hype of it all - people who were in the original cast have told me that almost every rock star imaginable came backstage and took pictures with them. So, I think a lot of them saw RENT and thought, "Hmmm, I can do this." But, what I think a lot of them learned, though, was that it was deceptively hard to write a musical and you can't just write songs on a napkin and turn them in and expect them to tell a story and move along the plot and do all of the things that songs in a musical are supposed to do.
PC: It's a very fine art.
JD: It is. But, I think that David deserves a lot of credit because he came to MEMPHIS with the attitude of, "OK. I know there is something I can bring to this, but I also want to learn how to actually do this," and that's why I think he has been more successful than most.
PC: To say the least - you can count rockers who have won Tony Awards on one hand.
JD: And that's totally a credit to David's abilities. He has worked really hard on the theatre side and he also knows so many things about rock - how to sell a song to an audience in a rock way and how to write pop-ier music that still functions as theatre music. [Pause.] He can always figure out a way for the song to really hit you.
PC: How did your process work with him on actually writing MEMPHIS? Did he compose to the outline you wrote and worked with the drafts of lyrics you had tried out by that point?
JD: Yeah - that's exactly right. The first thing - always - is I write a draft of the book and then we talk about it. I always say that we are just putting words on paper and the story will evolve from there. It's like, you know, "We just need something on paper to start with - anything."
PC: A concrete, black and white starting point.
JD: Yeah. So, then, I generally will write a first draft of the lyric of a song - or, sometimes, we will just throw a title out or something; or, we will throw a couple of titles out - and then David will go away and work on the melody and write lyrics or change lyrics or add lyrics. Sometimes, he'll come back with two or three choices for a moment - I think that's because rockers are used to working in the studio and trying out different things. He'll say, you know, "Do you think it should sound like this? Or this? Or this? More gentle? More soaring?" So, he gives me two or three choices sometimes - which is just amazing.
PC: You can say that again.
JD: David is just one of those guys - music is just inside him. I don't know where he gets it all, but, like with all the great composers I know, music is just inside him.
PC: What have been some lessons you taught him about theatre since he is new to it all?
JD: Well, for one, in rock n roll, you don't button songs - songs repeat and fade out, or the DJ talks over the end or whatever. So, one of the things I had to teach David about was, you know, buttoning songs up - you can't just fade a song out. You see, you have to remind people that aren't from the theatre world about something like buttons since they're so used to fade-outs in pop and rock music.
PC: Speaking of buttons, how did you decide on the last note of "Memphis Lives In Me"? Was that always written to be that high into the stratosphere?
JD: That was David - all David. He asked, you know, "Can we do this?" And, we said, "Sure! Or, at least we'll try." [Laughs.]
PC: It's not an easy note to hit - especially not eight times a week.
JD: Yeah - it was David going for a real rock n roll moment at the end. But, in a way, it's the best of both worlds because we found a musical theatre performer who could hit that note in Chad, and, now, Adam.
PC: The convergence of the two worlds. Is there an alternate note you will include for the licensed version or for performers who can't quite hit it?
JD: Well, I think people will just adjust it accordingly.
PC: So, no official alternative?
JD: You know, what usually happens with regional theatre is that a lot of the timepeople listen to the album and they try to imitate it - so, like we were talking about earlier, there is an official DVD for our show, so people will have access to that and they will take what they like and then have their own take on it, too. As a theatre person, I hope people really reinterpret our show, though - and I am sure they will; they will put their own take on MEMPHIS and I am sure there will be many alternate notes written. [Laughs.]
PC: Do you know when regional licensing will begin?
JD: I do not, but I do know that we are in the middle of the first year of the national tour right now and we have a whole second year planned already, so probably in a couple of years.
PC: I'm sure you've gotten a lot of requests already.
JD: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - we have. We'll have it available for stock and amateur groups in a year or two, probably. I should know more about this, but, I believe there is a performing arts school in Chicago - one that is like the best performing arts school in the state - who we have given permission to put it on in January of next year. So, that will be the amateur premiere of MEMPHIS.
PC: No doubt it will be a popular choice. Did you grow up as a proto-GLEE kid - were you heavily into theatre growing up?
JD: Yeah, I grew up as a theatre kid - I grew up doing shows. I am a big proponent of getting shows out there and having actors of all styles and types perform them and for new directors to take them on. Oddly, when David and I wrote it, we didn't realize the historical significance of it - we didn't realize that kids will look at it like a history lesson. You know, obviously racism still exists, but we have come a long way from the time of MEMPHIS.
PC: Indeed, we have.
JD: Many a high school kid have asked, you know, "Is that really how it was?" They are shocked that that's how it was - and it was not that long ago. So, the history lesson of this show is something I am really proud of - it's something that they can really chew on and get a lot out of, I think.
PC: It's a cultural lesson, for sure. This is what it was like growing up for most baby boomers - my generation's parents, mostly.
JD: Right. I've been in talkbacks, where, variously, people in their 60s will say to me, "Oh, this was cathartic for me - segregation was so terrible and I feel so bad about the things I said and the things I did." It really affected people - it's just a testament to the power of theatre and how visceral it is.
PC: Nothing hits harder.
JD: No. Nothing.
PC: What was the first song you wrote for Felicia's character - "Colored Woman"?
JD: Yes, it might have been - it might have been. You know, I have a very early CD of David singing that song in his studio and his son is knocking on the door in the background saying, "What are you singing, dad?" and David is going, you know, [Soulful Female Voice.] "Colored wo-man!" [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious. What was the genesis of that song?
JD: I remember he sent "Colored Woman" to me on a CD and I remember the saxophone playing that riff - the groove going into the song - and I just instantly thought, "This is going to be great!" Cool sax; smoky - just perfect. One of the things I really love about David is that he writes emotion - he writes really hot, emotional music. Once I heard that riff, I just felt like, "Ugh, I can't wait to hear the rest of the song now."
PC: What were your specific inspirations for the sound and style of the score - musically and lyrically? What groups or performers in particular had an influence?
JD: Well, we looked to a lot of the early rock and roll stuff, of course...
PC: The Coasters?
JD: Yeah, a little bit of The Coasters - especially some of their earlier, dirtier stuff; that kind of thing; and, then, "Sixty Minute Man" by The Dominoes and "Shake, Rattle And Roll" and that kind of sound. You know, a lot of that stuff was really fun, but, you have to remember, it was considered really obscene at the time. So, we wanted to find a sound that was very different from the sound that was mostly being played on the center of the radio, which was more The Coasters and those kinds of groups. We listened to a lot of stuff, and, what David does so brilliantly is he takes the best of that music and then he filters it through modern ears.
PC: He added a contemporary edge.
JD: Yeah - some of these chord progressions were not really used then. But, I always look at it like Richard Rodgers writing THE KING & I - he didn't really write Asian music, he wrote what modern people think Asian music is. And, so, David's interest is in writing a score of songs, not just pastiche or homage - but, you know, some of those songs are homage, too. But, other songs have a more modern sound - he didn't want the songs to all have a three or four chord rock n roll structure; which most of the songs were in those days. David wanted the songs to have a more layered sound.
PC: If "The Music Of My Soul" was the first song you wrote for MEMPHIS, what was the last - "Steal Your Rock N Roll"?
JD: "Steal Your Rock N Roll" was actually one of our first songs. "Colored Woman", "Music Of My Soul", "Someday", "Love Will Stand" - those were the tent pole songs in the show and they were written very early on, before we even had a workshop of it.
PC: What was the most difficult song to write?
JD: Well, there is always a song that takes three or four tries to get right - in every show; no matter what. [Laughs.]
PC: The stickler of the score.
JD: Yeah - in this case, it was Mama's song in the second act, "Change Don't Come Easy".
PC: An apt title given its genesis!
JD: [Laughs.] It was a comedy song and then it was with the reverend and then it was a country western song, but I think when we finally locked it in to where it is in the second act, that's when the show came together.
PC: Tell me about writing the standout of the score, "Memphis Lives In Me" - that's the big one.
JD: Oh, I agree that that is probably the best song in the show, too - we wrote it after the first performance, actually. We were doing the show at North Shore and we were going to Theatreworks next and someone said, "Oh, you need a title song." And, we said, "Oh, yeah! A title song? That sounds interesting." So, we came up with the title "Memphis Lives In Me" and then David wrote this groove that I loved and we sat in a room in his house and wrote it - that was a real collaboration, that song.
PC: What was the collaboration on that like?
JD: We just sat in his studio, throwing back lyrics about Memphis to each other as we thought of them as he played along. [Pause.] It was really like you think it is - like from a movie; you know, lots of sandwiches and pacing around. [Laughs.] You are just throwing things out and creating images and trying to get inspired - then, as soon as we wrote it and got it down and got it on tape and listened back, I remember that I thought, "Oh, this is really good - this is exactly what we need."
PC: The final piece to the puzzle.
JD: Yeah - definitely. You know, that ended up becoming the eleven o'clock number - a term, I am proud to say, David now uses freely, even though he never knew what it was before we wrote MEMPHIS.
PC: He was a mere babe in the theatricAl Woods before that!
JD: I feel like we should give an award to people who learn so much like David has with this show - I feel like a proud father! [Laughs.] I really do.
PC: Was Chad Kimball always Huey, even in the MEMPHIS workshop?
JD: Well, Chad and Montego auditioned for the first production of MEMPHIS at North Shore. We did a workshop at Theatreworks and did their new musical festival and we used very talented local actors for that. So, really, once we started doing the show proper, Chad and Montego were with us every step along the way - in every production; they did all the workshops and various productions of it.
PC: Had you seen Chad on Broadway as Milky White, the cow, in INTO THE WOODS - or in something else - before his audition?
JD: Yeah - that was a big thing for him; the cow! I remember that whenever he did an interview before MEMPHIS they would always mention him as the cow in the intro. [Laughs.]
PC: He gave a very memorable performance - in a non-speaking role, even.
JD: He did! Who knew that, vocally, he was so thrilling, though?!
PC: That's the kicker - as it were.
JD: It should have been a singing cow - just for him. [Laughs.]
PC: To have two new Broadway stars come out of the original cast of one show is a fine accomplishment in and of itself, for sure.
JD: Yeah - we were lucky. And, you have to remember, we started at North Shore, which is a great theatre outside of Boston. We took the regional theatre path because we didn't have a lot of money attached to the show, so we saw a lot of people, but Chad and Montego both walked into the room and we thought they would be pretty good. So, we cast them both and then they did the first production and then they did the second production and then there was a long hiatus. Then, when our producers Randy and Jim came onboard, they said that they really liked Chad and Montego and they said, "Let's develop the show around them."
PC: How fortuitous.
JD: Yeah - I really give our producers a lot of credit; they were the ones who wanted to stick with two relative unknowns because they felt they were the best two people for the roles.
PC: And they were.
JD: And they were.
PC: How did Adam Pascal get involved as Chad's replacement?
JD: Well, Adam had heard about the show and his people inquired, as they do, and they said, you know, "Adam has expressed interest in doing this show and would like to come in and read for it." And, we knew that Chad would be leaving the show at the time and I happened to be on vacation in Provincetown, and, wouldn't you know, Adam Pascal was giving a one-night-only concert there that night!
JD: Yeah - totally! So, I thought, "I should go and introduce myself." And, so I went to this incredibly intimate little venue that he played at up in Provincetown and his vocal ability was just so thrilling to experience in that kind of space. So, I introduced myself afterwards and he said he wanted to come in and read for the part and I said, "Sure!" And, he's been great for us ever since. The fact that we got this iconic performer from RENT to do our show and reimagine the role - he does it a very different way from Chad - is really, really exciting for us.
PC: Do you think Jon Bon Jovi could play Huey someday, especially given the Bon Jovi connection with David? He would be fabulous in it, I think.
JD: [Big Laugh.] Well, I do have to say, I may have strongly hinted at exactly that with David early on and I was told by David in not uncertain terms it was not a very good idea. [Laughs.] I think that Jon does his own thing and he is obviously a great rock star and I'm not sure if he has Broadway ambitions - plus, I think it might be a bit dicey for Jon to work with David in a situation where David is suddenly the boss. You know, Jon and David are like brothers, so I think it would be a weird situation all around for him to step into the show. But, I agree with you - he would be really good as Huey, I think.
PC: He's a compelling actor in his own right, as well.
JD: Oh, yeah - definitely. I'd never say no, but I think it would be a weird configuration for the Bon Jovi folks to have to deal with.
PC: What is the development state of the film adaptation of MEMPHIS that has been bandied about?
JD: Well, actually, it's funny you mention it because I believe we are about to sign a deal with a very terrific film company. So, I am expecting that I will be starting to write the first draft of the screenplay by the time the year is out. I am very much looking forward to it.
PC: Are you going to open it up considerably for film?
JD: Yes. I am really interested in reinventing it for the movies - I think you really have to in a movie musical. You know, we wrote MEMPHIS for the stage, so that's a whole different thing. Then, there are certain things I am specifically interested in as a writer - for instance, you know, there is a time jump between Act One and Act Two; I am interested in exploring that and seeing if we can put parts of that onscreen. So, yeah - I think it will be a really exciting writing challenge for me.
PC: Editing and movie montage could be used to brilliant effect given the structure of MEMPHIS even as it exists in the stage version.
JD: Yeah, yeah - totally. I know. I agree. We will be exploring that - definitely.
PC: Who would you like to work with on the film - Christopher Ashley? He is directing the LUCKY STIFF movie musical that starts shooting next month.
JD: You know, we really haven't figured that out quite yet. We are really focusing on the screenplay right now - you know, I am really new to moviemaking in general, so I am just going along for the ride at this point and focusing exclusively on my work. And, plus, it could take a year or five years or ten year or never even happen, you know? I am just looking at writing the best movie adaptation of this material that I can at this point, and, then, we can hope for the best and try to get the right people. And, anyway, if it doesn't work out I can always go back and focus on my theatre career. [Laughs.]
PC: And you can always do both.
PC: Now is the time of movie musicals in Hollywood, for sure - and, especially with MEMPHIS a Best Musical Tony-winner, it seems the right property to do.
JD: It seems that the way Hollywood works is that as soon as one movie musical is successful then they order ten more - so, hopefully, we will be able to ride that wave with the MEMPHIS movie.
PC: GLEE has brought a whole new audience to theatre and theatre has a heightened awareness by younger kids now than it ever has. What do you think about the GLEE effect on young audiences and them turning up for the theatre?
JD: Oh, I think GLEE has revolutionized young people's appreciate for musicals and what that show has done for the musical theatre art form is just tremendous - and, as a result, there will be a bigger audience for new musicals and more musicals created and there is more appreciation for musicals. It's all so wonderful. This generation has a whole new appreciation for musicals - you know, when I was growing up in the 70s, musicals were not cool; musicals were just not the music or the ideas of the day. But, now, musicals are much more accepted, and, because of GLEE, musicals are more embedded in the thread of society - and that's something that I am definitely all for.
PC: Were the great scores of the 70s especially influential to you - particularly those of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber/Rice?
JD: Oh, I devoured all that stuff. Still to this day, whenever I see a new musical, I analyze it and I listen to the cast album and I am just a huge theatre fan. At this point I've been writing for a while, but I still get that incredible thrill whenever the lights go down and the curtain goes up.
PC: You're still a Broadway baby at heart.
JD: Yeah - totally. Totally.
PC: So, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR? EVITA? SWEENEY TODD?
JD: Yes, yes, yes - I saw all of those shows growing up. The fact that the great ones - the ones you just listed; SWEENEY TODD, EVITA, SUPERSTAR - keep getting revived and are still talked about and keep getting reinterpreted I think is because they are just genius; they are great shows.
PC: What other shows left an impression on you growing up?
JD: I mean, I remember when I was a kid going to see THE WIZ, ANNIE, SHENANDOAH - these shows that just hooked me. I've loved theatre ever since.
PC: What was the first show you ever remember seeing?
JD: 1776 was the first show I saw. I was about 12 years old and I remember exactly where I was sitting in the theater and I remember when the lights came up, I thought, "I don't know how, but somehow, someway I have to be a part of that someday. I want to do that."
PC: 1776 is the greatest book written for a musical, so to be Tony-nominated for your book for NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and having won for MEMPHIS, you must have studied and learned from Peter Stone's peerless work quite well.
JD: Well, 1776 is just the most brilliant book - to make it actually suspenseful for the audience over whether or not they will sign the Declaration of Independence is just genius - you know, you really start to think, "Jeez, maybe they're not going to all sign this after all!" [Laughs.]
PC: Deceptively perfect.
JD: It's so interesting as a case-in-point because the second act of that show plays out almost like a screwball comedy and there's very little music in it. You know, the last two scenes of 1776 there is no singing, really - there is no eleven o'clock number because the book is the eleven o'clock number.
PC: What a fascinating insight - and how true.
JD: Yeah - the book has the eleven o'clock number written right in it. It's pretty perfect.