Music

Huey Lewis Calls Musical Inspired by His Band’s Songs a ‘Creative Outlet’ After Losing His Hearing

You may not think of Buddhist philosophy and Huey Lewis as the same time very often, but it works for him when considering The Heart of Rock and Roll, the jukebox musical inspired by the song catalog of his band, the News.

“Y’know, Zen Buddhists say you need something to love, something to hope for and something to do — so for me, thank God for this show,” Lewis tells Billboard from New York City. The musician has been residing in the Big Apple to help prepare the musical comedy — which was first staged during 2018 in San Diego — for its April 22 opening at Broadway’s James Earl Jones Theatre.

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“This is, like, bonus time for me,” he continues. “It wasn’t something I’ve ever aspired to. I never thought about having a Broadway show. But it’s been a real kind of gift for me and a blessing for me because I don’t have anything else. It’s given me a creative outlet since I lost my hearing.”

Lewis revealed his hearing struggles back in 2018, after he was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that’s rendered him unable to sing with the band, scuttling any hopes of live performances for a group that was a dependable annual fixture on the touring circuit. And, Lewis reports, things have not been getting any better. “My hearing’s collapsing,” he laments, although he’s still fighting via a variety of therapies and a recent ocular implant.

The News dug into its vaults for a new album, Weather, in 2020, but his creative focus has been The Heart of Rock and Roll, which has been in previews since March 29. A love story and comedy in which the lead character, Bobby (portrayed by Corey Cott), grapples with his continuing rock n’ roll dreams within a comfortable corporate life, was written by Jonathan A. Abrams from a story he crafted with Tyler Mitchell of Imagine Entertainment. Brian Usifer arranged the songs for the stage.

“He sort of reimagined all the songs in kind of a wonderful way,” Lewis explains. “Rearranging them is more what he did, although more than that because he sort of zigs where the song zags and stays away from our version of things. It’s very interesting, and it’s gratifying to see the songs live this other life. You’re kind of happy for the songs, really.”

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Some of the lyrics have been changed — with permission and buy-ins, Lewis says — “to push the story forward.” But he was conscious of maintaining a balance between the songs’ stage life and their original versions.

“It’s a balancing act; you don’t want to lose the credibility of the songs,” Lewis says. “That’s one of the problems these jukebox musicals have. In the old days, you write for a musical, and then those songs became popular when Sinatra or Dean Martin or somebody covered them. Nowadays, they’re wrapping whole shows around popular songs. But one of the reasons that’s happening is you need recognizability to open these shows, ’cause it’s so competitive.”

The idea for The Heart of Rock and Roll came up during a conversation with Mitchell’s in-laws, who are Lewis’ neighbors in both Montana and Ross, Calif. “They had me over for dinner for my birthday, and Tyler was there as well, and we started talking about Mamma Mia, ’cause I love Mamma Mia,” Lewis recalls. “And [Mitchell’s father-in-law] said to him, ‘You should do a musical on Huey’s music.’ I didn’t know about this at the time, but Tyler was a huge fan. He knows our music really well. He knows the lyrics better than I do! So he and Jonathan Abrams printed out all of our lyrics and put ’em on the wall and they immersed themselves, and this story emerged. They came to me with their very first draft, and it was very good.

“Of course, that was seven years and nine drafts ago,” he adds. “It’s only gotten better.”

Lewis says the show has changed “significantly” since its 2018 stagings at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. “There are probably four new songs, some different scenes,” he notes. The story is set in the ’80s, which Lewis says allows it to “poke fun at Sony Walkmans and cassettes, a bunch of material there.” And while it’s not biographical in any way, there are elements of the book that related to Lewis’ own life.

“It’s actually got a lot of parallels, even though the story is not about me at all, or my band,” Lewis says. “Bobby’s 28, the same age I was when I formed Huey Lewis and the News. We’d been playing in bars for 12 years, and I had [the band] Clover that didn’t work out. So [the News] was my last shot, probably, at the ripe old age of 28, 29.”

Lewis drew on that to write the musical’s sole original song, “Be Somebody,” with Usifer and News bandmate Johnny Colla.

“Barry [Edelstein], the director in San Diego, said it’s customary in a musical to have the lead character sing a song early in the show, which articulates all of his or her aspirations, hopes, goals, etc.,” Lewis says. “Bobby’s got a day job, so I understood the anxiety he felt. So we wrote a song in which I kind of channeled that stuff a bit. I sang the melody, verse chords and words into my iPhone. Johnny tweaked the chorus, demoed it up, and Brian wrote the bridge chords.

“It’s fun to write for characters,” Lewis adds. “It’s liberating. You don’t have to write something that’s true to yourself. You can write for the character, and that fosters creativity.”

A Broadway cast album has already been recorded, according to Lewis, and is currently being shopped for a label deal. He’d love to record a News version of “Be Somebody,” too, but is uncertain about his ability to sing it. Regardless, the other News members will be on hand for a celebration April 19 in New York, and during his red carpet moments, Lewis will be sporting a new suit courtesy of good pal Jimmy Kimmel and his wardrobe director for Jimmy Kimmel Live!

“We’re texting, and he said, ‘I’m buying you a suit for the premiere,’” says Lewis, who hosts Huey’s ’80s Radio for Apple Music. “I said, ‘That’s strange … Where did you get the notion to buy me a suit? Is it the fact that you’ve seen me in those same two suits I wear all the time, over and over?’ And he nods his head, ‘Yep.’ [laughs] That’s a friend, right?”

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