PrintE-mail Written by Mark Newbold

The Toxic Avenger musical has hit London’s West End, so we caught up with one of the co-writers - Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan - to find out all about it.

STARBURST: What gave you the impetus to turn The Toxic Avenger into a musical?

David Bryan: In 2010, Memphis came on Broadway and Toxic Avenger launched off-Broadway, and Memphis won a Tony for the Best Broadway show and then won the best off-Broadway show for Toxic Avenger. We were doing Memphis and then we had a three-year break, caused by some legal mumbo jumbo in the Memphis world, so Joe DiPietro, my collaborator, said what about Toxic Avenger? I said, well, write a treatment for it, so there wasn’t really a script for it so he made it up, came in and wrote the whole thing and it was funny as hell and we ended up nailing it in two weeks. I wrote most of the songs. We did it in New Brunswick at the George Street Playhouse and then we went onto off-Broadway for 2010.

Then it went into the licensing world and last year we were at Southwark Playhouse, to the Fringe and now to the Arts Theater. I saw it last year and it was just unbelievable. It’s a great show, it’s so wrong it’s right.

That should be on the poster! Stepping back a little bit, what made you want to step from the world that everybody knows you for being in Bon Jovi to doing musicals? Was that something you had an interest in before, or did it come out of the blue?

That journey for me started just from songwriting, I wanted my songs covered. This one script for the Sweet Valley High Musical didn’t really work out, then I got the Memphis script and that really worked out, but that was 2001, so it’s a long time ago. Then it took us 8 years to get to Broadway for Memphis, and it was in that gap that we made Toxic. Everything is good, Joe and I have two more new musicals coming out in the next three years on Broadway, so we’re killing it, it’s great.

What was it about Toxic that made you think this could really become something? Did it feel like an undiscovered gem, why did no one think of doing this before?

It was more about Joe DiPietro, he found it and said to me do you want to do this, and I said ‘let me read it’ and it was funny as hell, this is great. It’s really a love story. It’s almost a Beauty and the Beast story and it cares about the environment, so it’s doing two things at the same time so you’re just truly laughing your butt off.

That’s an interesting point. Is it written purely for comedy, is there an environmental edge to it? Is it multi-faceted?

It’s definitely multi-faceted. I don’t want to give it away because I want you to see it with no preconceived notions. I did that last year when we were at the Southwark Playhouse and a bunch of my friends went to it and I said I’m not saying anything, just go watch it. It’s really, really, really funny but at the heart of it there’s a love story and the underlying theme is that it’s all about the environment.

You mentioned Memphis which is one style of music, and Toxic is clearly another, you have two more on the go. Do you like to be a chameleon with the music that you write, compose things that people might not expect?

Yeah, it’s all different worlds. In a rock band, you write from the point of view of Bon Jovi, if you will. In a musical, you have an old guy, a young lady, a white person, a black person. Memphis was a whole different range and the same with Toxic Avenger. You have a mother, you have a mayor, the monster, the scientist, the blind girl, all these different characters. For me, I really immersed myself in the story and then thought about what the characters would say. Joe and I have a knack for coming up with songs. We were Skyping yesterday, he’s in New York and I’m in Rio and we wrote another song we needed for our new musical. I’d had 15 years of classical training, so that really helps out in different situations. I never really grew up on musicals but I just get it, we just click on something.

Years ago McCartney couldn’t read music and wondered if he knew how to, would he lose his magic touch? Spielberg the same about film. Do you think coming to this with an innocence has helped you, just to leap in and go for it?

I’ve always been that person I think. I’m the 'blast in there and go for it' person. I think if you’re a brain surgeon and you’ve got the brain open and you’re going to kill somebody and it’s one millimetre left or right and the person dies then I think you’ve got a lot of stress. I just write songs for musicals, so I blast in there and do it.

Thinking about your day job, if you can call Bon Jovi your day job, you’ve had big hits and being in a band like that there’s a huge pressure. Slippery was followed by New Jersey, and that was followed by Keep the Faith and you’ve got to keep stepping it up and up. Is this a different kind of pressure in that you want to keep doing things that are different and not the kind of stuff you’ve done before. Is there a freedom to that?

There’s a big freedom, yeah. In the band, it’s the same story. It’s the same musical, we’re just getting more mature and older. With musicals everything is different. Toxic has nothing to do with Memphis. I remember when Memphis opened up. We won two Olivier’s for it and it’s all about the birth of civil rights and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and in America 1945, 1950 a white person and a black person weren’t allowed to get married in Memphis, it was against the law. We had a lot to say and I invited that whole cast to go and see Toxic Avenger and told them that this was going to be completely the opposite. They looked at me and said, you’re fucked up. For some reason, it’s been a calling, if you will, but I really love to do it. It’s like the most insane crossword puzzle in the world because it’s so complicated and I love figuring it out.

You mention the serious aspects of Memphis, which couldn’t be further away from Tromaville, which is its own craziness. As a writer, if you stepped outside yourself and watched them side by side, do you think you could tell it was David Bryan who was involved in both shows?

Yes, because the one Bon Jovi element that’s in my life, writing the kind of songs that people can remember and sing, anthems. When you look out tonight, 100,000 people will be singing our songs [later that evening David and the band would play Rock in Rio], that just is in you. When I write these songs, and people go ‘wow, I can sing back the songs’ and I’m like ‘you’re supposed to!’

Do you think that’s what you bring to the songs, that anthemic element, repetition in the best sense of people hearing the songs and feeling like they know the songs and remember them because musicals need that sense of familiarity?

There are different forms of a musical. There’s the form with a run-on sentence, and that’s fine. I don’t do that, for me, it’s a song, it started with The Beatles. You have a song, you have a first verse, the B-verse, a chorus, the second verse kind of has the same melody as the first with the storyline further on, then the same B-verse, double chorus, bridge that encapsulates the whole big thought and then chorus out. I kind of write in that world, then there are different things in a musical that you can’t do for every song. That’s the basic of it.

You mention that you and your writing partner are working on two different shows, given that Memphis and Toxic are so different, are these different again?

We have one that’s tentatively called Chasing the Song, that’s from 1960 to 1964, right before The Beatles came to America. Our story is about a woman who was a song publisher in the Brill Building where Don Kirshner was. In 1960, a woman couldn’t get a loan from the bank unless a man co-signed. We’re championing women’s rights when there was no such thing as a woman song publisher. We made up the story, wrote 25 songs for it. I write all of the music, Joe and I co-write the lyrics, Joe writes the story and then the story morphs as the songs are morphing. That one is all about women’s rights in the ‘60s.

Our newer one, we wrote a musical based on Princess Diana. Nobody’s ever done it and Joe said to me what about Princess Diana, because we would have been about the same age as her. I said ok, write a treatment for it and I read it and I thought wow, this is fantastic. The story that we’re telling is great. It’s different from for America than in England because we don’t have prince and princesses, kings and queens, we got away from that. It’s more fairy-taley for us, and it’s really about a woman that got into a bad marriage and situation and came out empowered, stronger and started the world of charity and cared about her kids. It’s a triumph and even though we all know how it ends we did it up at the New York College of Stage and Film and we gave ourselves a week to get 12, 13 actors, put it up and people just said it’s the best thing they’ve seen in 20 years there.

One thing that strikes me, a correlation between what you do in Bon Jovi and what you do with the musicals is it seems you like to write from the point of view of the underdog. Tommy and Gina are the obvious examples in Living on a Prayer. Do you think that there’s a link there?

You know, I think that’s a great point, I don’t think anybody’s ever said that. I love that. Yes, you know what, it’s always been we’re the 5 kids from New Jersey, that’s where we’re from. We were lucky enough to be 30 minutes outside of New York City, but we were just guys who came out of nowhere and we were the underdogs. I think it’s really important for me. I don’t know about the future but I think that any of the subjects that I do write about, it is that, it’s championing someone. Fighting for that underdog. That’s a really great point.

So what’s the ultimate aim, when you start with a project? Is there satisfaction in a slow build off-Broadway or would you rather it went over gangbusters from the off?

You always hope it’s going to be the best and biggest but we go into it going ’this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to write the best musical we can write’, and that’s it. We’re going to make the work the best. Look at the difference between a musical and a band. A band puts 12 songs out and it takes a long time, a year to write and record it. A musical I have 25 songs and it’s a huge undertaking. The one thing about a musical is you don’t tell it, it tells you. Once you write this thing and it looks great on paper and you put it up you go ‘wow, there are holes in there’ or ‘wow that’s great, or isn’t so great’. You fix and fix and fix, it tells you. The only reason why we ever get them right is we run out of ways to get them wrong.

Is there more light and shade when you write a musical in a sense that because you’ve got more songs you can ebb and flow with the emotions. You have the opening track, the mid-album anthem, the closer. It’s not formulaic but there’s a pattern. With a musical, it’s a different pattern. Is that liberating as well?

Kind of, and people get it subliminally, but I still make it like a mini concert. Here’s the big opener, then the little down part, then we drive it up to the first act, then bang, the second act and hit it big, come down a little bit and bang for the big finish. It’s kind of like a record or a rock show. I kind of give it that same kind of vibe because it’s ingrained in me.

Toxic Avenger is not like the movie, it’s different. There are little moments. It’s a love story, a comedy with the underlying thing of caring about the environment.

The Toxic Avenger Musical is at the Arts Theatre, London until December 3rd.

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