Huey Lewis Discusses Lessons Learned in Helping ‘The Heart of Rock and Roll’ Beat to New Life on Broadway

Eighties hitmakers Huey Lewis and the News are the latest musical stars to get their own jukebox musical on Broadway. The Heart of Rock and Roll was written by Jonathan A. Abrams (who conjured the story with producer Tyler Mitchell) and is about a young man named Bobby (Corey Cott) working for a cardboard manufacturer in Milwaukee. His faded rock star dreams are supplanted by a desire to become a sales team star. But after being fired for cutting a bad business deal behind the back of his boss Stone (John Dossett) and his daughter Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz), Bobby journeys to a Chicago business conference they are also attending in hopes of making up for his terrible mistake. As he tries reeling in a big business partner, he learns that his old band The Loop have an unexpected new shot at stardom. Which path will he choose—or can he juggle both? And can he win over the affections of Cassandra?

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The Heart of Rock and Roll impressively manages to cram in nearly every single Huey Lewis hit along with some lesser-known songs from the band’s first two albums that had more of a new-wave flavor. The show includes tracks from their first seven albums. Those who love the Technicolor days of ‘80s fashion and MTV music videos—especially the warm vibes of Huey Lewis tunes—will enjoy The Heart of Rock and Roll, which moves along at a good pace.

A wild fact about the show: It features two songs, “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time,” that are also performed in the current Back to the Future musical adaptation. “The Power of Love” is the final song of Lewis’ musical and the penultimate one in Back to the Future, which runs 10 minutes longer. That means on days when both shows are running at the same time, the song is being performed close to the same time on two different stages only a few blocks apart.

Huey Lewis sat down with American Songwriter to talk about the lessons he learned in helping to bring the show to life onstage. He and his bandmates are not in the musical, but Lewis has been involved as producer all the way through. He, bandmate Johnny Colla, and the show’s musical supervisor and arranger Brian Usifer also co-wrote one new song, “Be Someone,” that emerges early in the show.

Adapt Your Material Appropriately

While the Huey Lewis and the News songs featured in the show have not been altered radically in spirit, some lyrical tweaks were made to fit the story as the individual tunes became part of a new collective experience. “It was not that easy because [in] Broadway shows the songs want to be very specific, and I prefer the song to apply tangentially,” Lewis explains. “So it was give and take, but we agreed we need to push the story forward. We didn’t want to lose the integrity of the song, so I think what we’ve done is fairly faithful.”

He adds Usifer did a brilliant job of translating the songs to the stage. “He reimagined them, if you will—not only just rearranged but gave them different settings entirely and stayed away from our version,” Lewis elaborates. “It gives the songs a completely different life, which is really gratifying and a lot of fun to watch as a songwriter, to see your songs live this other life.”

Reworking Classic Songs Can Give Them New Life

Lewis says he views most of the songs used in the show in a new light now that they have been integrated into the production. “We play a few of them for laughs—‘Stuck with You,’ ‘Hip to Be Square,’ and ‘Workin’ for a Living’ are played for the choreography and stuff,” he notes. “Then other songs like ‘It Hit Me Like a Hammer’ are played for the emotion.” He also notes the purpose of the songs within the musical is different and diverse. “We need them to do one thing in one place and something somewhere else, and you have to attend to that.”

Having Someone Deeply Connected to Your Material Helps

Lewis praises writer Abrams and producer Mitchell with doing “a marvelous job of placing the songs and writing the story around the songs to begin with.” Part of what makes the show work so well for Lewis, he says, is Mitchell “has been a fan since he was 12 years old. He grew up in the same town I did [in Marin County, California], and he knows all the early stuff. ‘The Only One,’ ‘Don’t Make Me Do It,’ ‘Giving It Up for Love’—these are not our big hits, but they worked really well in the show.” (The latter title refers to “Tattoo (Giving It All Up for Love),” a Phil Lynott cover from their second album, Picture This.)

Having a Team You Can Trust Is Essential

Lewis suffers from Ménière’s disease, a chronic disorder that affects balance and hearing. While the show has been in development for about a decade, Lewis lost most of his hearing after the show’s original run in San Diego six years ago.

“When we started this journey, I could hear, so I know the original versions that Brian used so I was able to judge that and work with him a little bit,” Lewis recalls. “I haven’t in the last six years, but he’s brilliant. I get an overview of the whole thing. I can’t hear the minutiae, but I can tell if the tempo is quick and I can always hear the lead vocalist. I’ve worked with Corey [Cott] a little bit on some of his stuff. I can definitely hear the lead vocal and I can hear tempos, but I can’t hear any of the intricacies.”

The production has been reworked many times since San Diego, but it has had the same creative team in place. “Because I’ve got to protect the songs, they have to make me a producer, so now I’m in on everything,” Lewis says. “It’s very collaborative, sometimes frustratingly collaborative. But the good news is the people you’re collaborating with are intelligent, talented, self-effacing, and a lot of fun. I weigh in on everything, script and choreography and all that stuff, and everybody pitches in. I’m the final word on the song which is nice.”

A Talented Cast and Musicians Can Take the Music to New Places

Lewis praises the members of the house band, and guitarist Nate Brown in particular as he can easily adapt to learn new material. “All he’s got to do is listen to it, he’s so good,” Lewis declares. “He’s really done an amazing job.” The singer zeroes in on the song “The Power of Love” and the guitar work of his old bandmate Chris Hayes. “Chris wrote a really great lick—the verse, the counterpart—that little riff is quite complex, actually, and he plays it well,” Lewis explains. “This guy [Brown] not only plays that, but he plays it in four keys. And it’s not easy to play the other keys. These guys are very talented, and our musical director is also very keen. He really did his homework, really knows the music. So I’ve always felt very comfortable with Brian and the band and their renditions.”

Lewis also notes the Broadway versions are sung by different cast members, which has resulted in some musical alterations. “In the Broadway versions of all of our songs, many of the songs are sung by three different people,” he says. “There’s our lead guy, and then our lead gal, so they switch keys. You find everybody’s sweet spot, and you’ve got to be a professional musician to do that.”

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

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