June 12, 2014 / 9:20 PM / 5 years ago

New musical shines spotlight on forgotten composer Bert Berns

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hits such as “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Twist and Shout” and “Hang on Sloopy” made Bert Berns one of his era’s most successful songwriters and producers before he died in 1968, yet few people outside the music industry ever knew about him.

Cast members sing during a rehearsal for "Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story" at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan, New York June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

That could change with a new musical, “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” which begins previews on June 25 and opens Off-Broadway on July 21.

Rolling Stone magazine described the songwriter’s life as “one of the great untold stories of rock and roll.”

Denis Jones, the director and choreographer of “Piece of My Heart,” believes now is the time to tell it.

“He was not supposed to live past 30,” Jones said during sneak preview of the show that includes more than 20 of the songwriter’s hits. “Interestingly, the entire body of work that he generated was between his 30th birthday and his passing.”

As a teenager Berns suffered from rheumatic fever, which damaged his heart. He died from a heart attack at the age of 38.

From the rhythm and blues song “Under the Boardwalk” for The Drifters and “Tell Him,” the hit for The Exciters to “Cherry Cherry,” which sent Neil Diamond to the top of the charts, Berns produced dozens of hits that were recorded by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie and other artists.

But he was never honored for or credited with so much of his prolific output.

“He had some connections, some people around him who were tricky. And based on their business practices, after he passed certain people decided to wipe him out of the history books,” Jones said.

“All of that will be explained in the play,” he added.

“Piece of My Heart” is the latest of the jukebox musicals that have drawn huge theater audiences. “Jersey Boys,” the Tony-winning show about singer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, has been playing on Broadway for more than eight years. The film adaptation, directed by Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood, will open in U.S. theaters next week.

Jessie Mueller won a Tony on Sunday night for her starring role in the musical “Beautiful: The Carole King Story” and the hit show “After Midnight” features original arrangements from the 1920s and 30s by jazz great Duke Ellington.

“Music becomes part of your life. Through popular culture you connect to it so deeply. I know we all do that with this music. We remember where we were,” said Jones.

Zak Resnick (Mamma Mia!”) plays Berns and Leslie Kritzer (“Legally Blonde”) is his daughter in the show that shifts between the past and present.

Like most people Resnick knew the music but not the man.

“He is such an intense, complicated person. He went through so much to find his voice, his sound and his style,” Resnick said about Berns. “There were some dark times and he left this world far too soon.”

Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and David Gregorio

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