How Huey Lewis shaped 'The Heart of Rock and Roll' on Broadway

The new musical is set to nearly 30 hits by Huey Lewis and The News, and the band's frontman was a crucial and active collaborator throughout its journey.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Great news for Huey Lewis fans: You can hear his music live again. For the first time since Meniere's disease impaired the '80s rock star's ability to hear music, forcing him to stop performing with his band The News, his songs are back on not one stage, but two.

Lewis isn't singing them, but those familiar with the Huey Lewis and The News hits "The Power of Love" and "Back in Time" will thrill to hear them nonetheless. Both those songs appear in this season's Broadway musical adaptation of Back to the Future at the Winter Garden Theatre and, as of March, in The Heart of Rock and Roll, an original romantic comedy musical at the James Earl Jones Theatre set entirely to Lewis's catalog.

It's not unheard of for pop songs to appear in multiple musicals, but two of the same songs from the same artist in concurrent shows is rare.

"It makes me feel like Richard Rodgers!" Lewis said with a laugh, then backtracked. "It's flattering and gratifying, but I don't think for a moment that I'm Richard Rodgers."

Despite being a widely beloved Grammy Award winner who's sold millions of records over the last 40 years, Lewis is persistently humble. "I've had precious little to do with this show," he had said earlier to a roomful of journalists, noting that he didn't script, cast, choreograph, or produce The Heart of Rock and Roll. He even deferred to music arranger Brian Usifer to rework his songs for a Broadway orchestra.

But ask anyone else involved, and they'd be quick to say the show wouldn't be anywhere without Lewis.

The entire lead creative team — Lewis, Usifer, Abrams, director Gordon Greenberg, choreographer Lorin Latarro, and co-conceiver Tyler Mitchell — have been with The Heart of Rock and Roll since its 2018 world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, and some even longer. They've made numerous changes to the story of struggling rock star Bobby (Corey Cott), who takes a corporate job and falls for the boss's daughter, Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz), inspiring each other to chase their dreams.

"Huey's very smart to the point of being brilliant," said book writer Jonathan A. Abrams. "He calls me and says, 'Hey, what about this instead of that?' Every time, his ideas are great."

And despite his hearing loss, Lewis still shaped The Heart of Rock and Roll musically with Usifer's help. From the band's extensive catalog, they decided on a final lineup that includes "Stuck With You," "Hip to Be Square," "Do You Believe In Love," and the title track.

When the pair couldn't decide which tune to use as the "I want" song for Bobby to express his dreams, they wrote a new one together called "Be Someone."

"Every song that has been placed into this show is not because it is Huey's best song; it's because it's the best song for the show," said cast member F. Michael Haynie, who's been with the project since San Diego. "He doesn't have favorites."

Most of the other actors met Lewis on the first day of Broadway rehearsals. Raymond J. Lee got "a hug or a handshake" from him (he was so starstruck he doesn't remember which). John-Michael Lyles relied on Haynie to hype him up. Zoe Jensen was too nervous to introduce herself at all. But eventually, they realized he was just a regular guy ("he acts like he's your next-door neighbor," as Latarro put it) who was as excited to be there as they were.

"When we did this at the Old Globe, every preview, he would come down to the basement and cheer us on after the show. That's who Huey is," cast member John Dossett recalled. His castmates shared similarly warm stories: Haynie was touched that Lewis always remembered their name, and Jensen said Lewis would mouth the lyrics to his songs while the cast rehearsed them.

Lewis's eagerness, collaboration, and generosity has only made The Heart of Rock and Roll team extra-motivated to succeed with the show, especially after all Lewis has been through.

"He had to cancel all his performing engagements — this show became his legacy," Greenberg said. "I felt a deep responsibility to honor him, his music, and his style and sensibility."

The feeling is mutual. "I guess if you'd give me any credit at all, it's for surrounding myself with talented, creative people," Lewis said. "It's been so gratifying to see our songs live this other life and entertain in a whole different way."

Get The Heart of Rock and Roll tickets now.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Discover more spring preview content on New York Theatre Guide and learn about all the Broadway shows this season.

Photo credit: Huey Lewis. (Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice)

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