February 23, 2020

Bringing Huey Lewis’ Music to a Stage Musical

Jonathan Abrams. Photo courtesy of the Old Globe

The heart of rock ’n’ roll is still beating in San Diego, where Jonathan A. Abrams is part of the team supplying the pump. A devotee of all things ’80s, Abrams is the book writer for “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” a new jukebox musical inspired by the music of Huey Lewis & the News, opening Sept. 15 at San Diego’s Old Globe theater. The story revolves around a former dive bar rocker who has hung up his guitar to work in corporate America, and his boss who has given up her personal life for a shot at being a CEO.

It’s the first live stage project for Abrams, 40, who graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2000, and whose previous work has been entirely in film and television.  

Jewish Journal: How did you become the book writer for “The Heart of Rock & Roll?”

Jonathan Abrams: The producer of the show [and co-writer] Tyler Mitchell’s father-in-law is a longtime friend of Huey Lewis, and Tyler asked Huey if he’d ever thought of doing a musical with his song catalog. Huey said, “I have, but I don’t think anybody will have any luck trying to craft an original story using my songs as a road map because they have nothing to do with each other.” Fools that we were, we tried and we came up with something. We’ve been revising and shaping that story for nearly eight years, but we’ve got it to a place where it’s pretty good.

JJ: How did you decide on the title for the show?  

JA: We laid out all [his] songs and said, “OK, he has 18 songs that were top-10 hits. Of those 18, let’s say there are 10 that you would have to use, or any fan is going to feel shortchanged.” So we looked at those and started looking for common themes. With the song “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” we thought that would be a really great idea of a band trying to convince someone to come on tour with them, and they’re saying all these cities to psych him up to get back with the band. 

JJ: Were there certain songs that you couldn’t get into the show?

JA: There are a ton. On the flip side, there have been a bunch of songs that I didn’t really know that have become my favorites. There’s a song called “World to Me.” It’s one of Huey’s favorites too, and it never really found an audience back when it was released. Then there are two songs, one of which he wrote a couple of years ago, and a completely original song written for [the show] called “Be Someone.” It’s a really cool sort of musical theater ballad with a little bit of a Huey’s rock ’n’ roll sensibility to it as well. 

JJ: Since you never previously worked in theater, what did you find to be some of the challenges of the genre?

Cast during rehearsal.

JA: There’s no editing. In film and TV close up imagery is important. It’s kind of everything. If you can show it, why would you say it? Whereas here, it’s almost like the singing becomes the visual aspect of it. So it’s just looking at it through a different lens and you’re allowed to be a little bit on the nose, I suppose. So it’s been tough because my training and my experience is that you kind of want to say and do less and the audience will fill it in. Here, you have to do a little bit more or they really won’t understand. It’s kind of a different style of writing, not to mention what comes with having songs and using those songs to help further the story is a completely new experience. 

JJ: How has your Jewish background influenced your work? 

JA: “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” is a family-focused story. There’s no vulgarity in it. The comedy doesn’t come at the expense of other people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my roots and my beliefs and my spirituality filter into the script of this show and Judaism obviously is at the core of that.

My father was Jewish. He passed away when I was 4. My mom, who wasn’t actually Jewish, converted to honor him and is still practicing, as am I. She raised me and my sister Jewish. I wouldn’t say I’m the most religious person by any means but certainly when you have your own kids [Editor’s note: Abrams has a 1-year-old son], it really does sort of make you think about the things that are important in your life and the way you want to lead your life. It’s sort of reminded me of the spiritual elements to my life and what I want to impart upon him. Some of the tenets about acceptance and doing right by other people I think are really important and powerful and things I would love to pass on.