Bon Jovi keyboard player and Memphis composer David Bryan has described the forthcoming Broadway export as “entertainment that matters”, joining the show’s West End stars Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly at an exclusive launch event this morning.
“I read the script and it grabbed me right in my heart, and I thought ‘This is wonderful, it means so much’,” singer turned West End leading lady Knight agreed on stage at the glamorous event held today at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. “For me it could almost be the story of my own mum coming to a country… it was difficult, there was a whole racial segregation undertone, but ultimately [she] was a huge success. For me, it’s almost like… I’ve gone back in time, but the characters are people that I know intimately, because it’s my own family.”
Telling the true story of white DJ Huey and his collaboration with singer Felicity in the face of racial tensions in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, the musical will arrive at the Shaftesbury Theatre this October with Christopher Ashley, director of the Tony Award-winning production in New York, returning to the helm to direct The Bodyguard star Knight and West End regular Donnelly in the leading roles.
“There’s an incredible contrast in it where you’re laughing one minute and then something terrible happens, and it just hits you and they let it settle rather than just crack a joke at the end of Act One,” Donnelly, who is currently starring in The Commitments, explained to Official London Theatre after wowing the gathered crowd with a rendition of the production’s show-stopping number Memphis Lives In Me. “It’s just got such a deep meaning in it and a strong story throughout the whole thing and that’s what’s so exciting about getting involved.”
Of course, as well as the “weighty” story, as Knight described it to us chatting after the trio took to the intimate venue’s stage to publically perform songs from the show for the very first time, the production won acclaim on Broadway for its soulful score that captures arguably the most exciting time in musical history, bringing everything from rock and roll to blues to the stage.
Penned by lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer Bryan, the musician followed a stirring rendition of the show’s Music Of My Soul at today’s launch with an equally entertaining story about how he came to be involved in the project, his musical theatre writing debut.
“When I first read [the script] there were some lyrics in there Joe DiPietro had written … it was such a strange thing, because I heard every one the way you’re hearing them now. I called him up and said: ‘Hi, I’m David Bryan and I love the script and I love the songs, and I hear all these songs in my head.’ He said: ‘Why don’t you pick a song and send it to me.’ He figured in a couple of weeks I’d send it. I knew FedEx [went at] 18:30 and it was 13:00 and I went ‘Okay…’. I wrote some lyrics, changed some stuff, went down to my studio, had the drum machine, put the bass, put the piano, organ, sang it, did a little background, burned the CD, got to it to FedEx and he had it on the doorstep the next morning.”
Approached for the project even before she appeared in The Bodyguard, the score was clearly a selling point for Knight who told us: “When I heard the songs I was like ‘I will die if I don’t do this!’… Musically this is everything I know and it could not be more comfortable for me. Those songs speak volumes.” A sentiment shared by Donnelly who was won over by the importance the music has in the story. “Every song is written with a purpose, so when you can’t tell it through text, it’s told through song,” he enthused. “That’s what I absolutely love about this piece, there’s nothing in there with no reason at all, it’s really powerful.”
Rehearsals will begin for the show in September, and while Donnelly will be following credits in numerous musicals including Les Misérables and Billy Elliot The Musical, this will mark the hugely successful recording artist Knight’s follow-up from her 2013 theatrical debut in The Bodyguard.
Talking about her new career under a different kind of spotlight, Knight told today’s audience of press and theatre insiders the transition had been “magical,” jokingly telling the crowd: “You can’t fake things in theatre, it’s a live performance… There is no hiding, there’s no auto-tune, there’s none of those things! You have to bring your a-game every single time.”
The talented pair are clearly planning on doing just that for Memphis, with Knight excitedly telling Official London Theatre: “I want this show to be a smash because it deserves it. It’s so good, we take your heart out and hand it back to you having thrown it up in the air and done all kinds with it.”
If you’re worried about having “all kinds” of things done to your heart, Donnelly’s stamp of approval might be more up your street. “Friends of mine who have never gone to musicals or anything like that have said to me ‘I saw that on Broadway, I was dragged to it by my girlfriend, but it is the most incredible show I’ve ever seen’ and my friend would be a rugby player or something like that! It’ll change you and that’s what you want from a new show coming into town. That’s the exciting thing about it.”
Memphis begins previews at the Shaftesbury Theatre from 9 October and will follow Richard Eyre’s current five star hit The Pajama Game into the venue.