"Huey Lewis and the News" frontman Huey Lewis never imagined his iconic songbook would become a musical.
And up until eight years ago, it was not looking very likely, either. Many had tried, and many had failed, Lewis told NBC 7 San Diego.
When "The Heart of Rock and Roll" producer Tyler Mitchell and book writer Jonathan Abrams first approached Lewis about making a musical from his songbook, he gave them the green light to make a concept - and wished them luck.
“I said, 'Good luck.' I’d had several inquiries before," Lewis told NBC 7 San Diego. "And I’d always told them the same thing, 'Good luck,' and that was usually the end of it."
Lewis told the pair he thought it would be hard to fashion a compelling story out of his songs.
"'I think it's going to be really hard to fashion one around my songs,'" Abrams remembered Lewis saying. "Because, as Huey is fond of saying, each song is its own story."
Over the years, Lewis had seen many pitches for projects involving his work, but none were very good, he said.
When Abrams and Mitchell pitched him their loose story idea, he gave them his blessing to keep going. Abrams, who has developed works for NBC, FOX, ABC, and The CW, had never written a musical before. Mitchell, who has more than two decades of experience in film and television as a producer, writer, and executive, had never produced a musical before.
It took the pair a while to figure out what exactly they were doing, Abrams said. The musical they created, "The Heart of Rock and Roll," would be in the works for more than eight years before its world premiere at The Old Globe.
"I love a challenge, but also, I love Huey and his music so much that the opportunity to attempt this was such a great one that I felt like, I have to see if I can do it, because opportunity is knocking," Abrams said in a phone interview with NBC 7 San Diego, explaining why he wanted to take on a musical.
The process was more complex than Abrams expected, he recalled, and at the time, he really had no idea how difficult it was going to be.
"I thought, 'Oh, you know, you just stitch together some songs and do a plot,'" Abrams said. "It's just so much more complex than that."
The trick for Abrams and Mitchell was to listen to Lewis' entire song catalog first, he said. When they looked at the catalog, Abrams said, they pulled out ten or 11 top ten hits they would have to use in the show (or else it would be short-changing the audience, Abrams explained). Then, he listened to common themes in all his music.
"If you look at Huey's music, even though he says they're all individual and they're not part of a story, well that may be the case, but they're still all coming from him and he has a certain point of view as a person," Abrams said.
"Whether he's aware of it or not, there are going to be common ideas and common themes in this music, and maybe it took other people to actually be able to figure that out," Abrams said. "But what we figured out that there's a lot of stuff - 'Working For a Living' being like a really good one - talking about the interception in your life between your dreams and your reality, and negotiating that."
Some of the popular songs that did not fit into the plot will still be in the musical, Abrams said. The musical tells the story of how his character, Bobby, trades in his guitar and band life for an office job. Those songs that do not quite fit the narrative will now be sung by the band.
Plus, the musical features two new songs. One of the songs, "While We're Young," will be released on Lewis' new album coming out this winter. Lewis wrote the second song, "Be Someone," exclusively for "The Heart of Rock and Roll."
It's incredible to see how the "Huey Lewis and the News" hits have been reimagined for the stage, Lewis said.
Musical Supervisor Brian Usifer, known for his work on hits like "Frozen" and "The Book of Mormon," has done a marvelous job with his music, both old and new, Lewis said. Some of the arrangements are things Lewis had wish he had thought of himself earlier.
"He understands how to build dynamics and how to prepare these songs for the stage, where you have lots of dynamics," Lewis said.
One example: "Hit Me Like a Hammer," which Lewis says now includes more ebbs and flows that give the song a new feel.
"I must say that when we first started rehearsing and Brian really hadn’t arranged much, the songs just always sounded like one of my songs. They didn’t sound like they belonged in the show much," Lewis said. "But now, we’ve been working, and now they really are a part of the show. Many of these songs have taken on a new life. They're just a new animal."
And as for the theater putting on his show? Lewis said that when it came to finding a theater to produce the world premiere of his musical, his first choice was The Old Globe.
"We wanted to originate it here at The Old Globe because it has such a wonderful cache," Lewis said. "And (Artistic Director) Barry (Edelstein) does such a great job, and the staff – it’s just a wonderful atmosphere to create. They love theater."
Lewis spends long days in the rehearsal room with the cast and creative team ahead of the musical's world premiere at The Old Globe. There is such good energy in the room, the cast and creative team said, and it starts with Lewis coming in with such a positive attitude.
"He comes by, and we started doing our warm-ups yesterday, in rehearsal, and he started warming up with us, doing the stretches - I mean, he wants to be involved, he wants to experience it," Broadway Star Matt Doyle, who stars as lead Bobby in the musical, said. "He loves the piece; he can't believe what we've done with it."
Abrams hopes that people who love musical theater and people who love Lewis' music alike appreciate the show. To him, it is a show about the intersection in your life between your dreams and your reality, and negotiating those two sides of the equation It treats the story in a realistic way, he added.
"In that, when you make a choice, there's going to be some sacrifice involved," Abrams said. "There's no perfect, tied-up-with-a-bow-happy-ending in this story. It's not dark, by any means, but being an adult requires sacrifice and that's the thing that (Bobby) comes to understand. And he's a better guy for it when it's all said and done."
Before this project came along, Abrams had seen musicals before, but he was never a big fan of musical theater. In fact, at times, he was even intimidated to see musicals and wondered, would he get it?
He hopes this piece is a gateway for many who aren't sure if they would even like musical theater.
"For that guy who's like, 'A musical? I don't know.' He'd go see it and he'd be like, 'Wow, I really do enjoy musicals,'" Abrams said. "'This is a lot of fun.'"
"I wasn't a musical fan," Abrams explained. "So I was like, what's a show that I would want to go to? That I would feel okay going to, that I wouldn't be intimidated going to?"
"This is that show."
"The Heart of Rock and Roll" starts performances at The Old Globe on Sept. 6 and runs through Oct. 21. The musical is inspired by the music of Huey Lewis and the News. Book by Jonathan Abrams; Story by Tyler Mitchell and Jonathan Abrams; Directed by Gordon Greenberg; Choreography by Lorin Latarro; Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Brian Usifer. To buy tickets, click here.