By Rob Weinert-Kendt
The conventional wisdom on Broadway today is that you can’t have a hit without a star name or a Tony winner headlining the cast. If it’s a musical, your best bet is a property with some built-in brand recognition, which helps to explain the trend toward jukebox musicals and adaptations of popular films.
Memphis has been a blazing exception to all these rules since its opening in October of 2009. This original musical about the birth of rock’n’roll took the Best Musical Tony the following spring and ran for 1,165 performances; it arguably made stars of its lead actors, Montego Glover and Chad Kimball, each also nominated for Tonys. (Kimball was replaced midway through the run by Adam Pascal, something of a name in musical theatre circles for his originating role in Rent, but hardly box-office gold by himself.) And as it neared the three-year finishing line this past summer, Memphis checked another box in the success column: It recouped its entire $12 million capital investment before closing in August.
“That was the final cherry on top,” says Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show. Director Christopher Ashley pointed to another Memphis milestone—the recent release by the Tonner Doll Company of a pair of figurines based on the show’s lead characters, Felicia and Huey—as a personal highlight. “This is my first line of dolls,” Ashley deadpans.
Not that Memphis simply arrived out of the blue to open cold in the glare of Broadway. Instead, its heartening success can be traced back through a long period of gestation and tryouts. The show began in the early 2000s as the brainchild of producer George W. George (son of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, incidentally), whose idea for a musical about the intersection of rock and race in the 1950s was inspired by the real-life stories of Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips and his Cleveland counterpart Alan Freed—white men who helped integrate musical tastes at a time when actual racial integration was making significant if fitful strides.
As soon as DiPietro (best known for the hit Off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) heard George’s idea, he was hooked.
“It was a story I hadn’t heard before, and one I felt I had to tell,” says DiPietro, who was soon joined by composer David Bryan, the keyboardist from popular 80s pop/rock band Bon Jovi. The true-life stories that inspired the show, though, stood some tweaking en route to the stage.
“God isn’t a great dramatist,” DiPietro quips. “Dewey Phillips was essentially the first shock jock; he talked crazy on the radio like no one had before. And he was the first guy to play rhythm and blues on the radio at a time when it was unheard of, even dangerous to an extent.”
So far so good—but Phillips also “was a big drinker. He had a very dark life and a very early rock’n’roll death. We wanted to tell a story with a broader scope—an epic story.”
In a bid to simultaneously soften some of the character’s edges and heighten the significance of his boundary-breaking career, DiPietro created Huey Calhoun, a high-spirited hillbilly deejay in love with African-American music—and, before long, an actual African-American musician, in the person of singer Felicia Farrell. This across-the-tracks romance transpires at a time when anti-miscegenation is not only still the letter of the law, but very much the spirit of the majority white population as well.
“That gave us a very human hook for our story,” DiPietro says, fully conceding that in this aspect he borrowed a page from some very non-rock’n’roll forebears. “Rodgers & Hammerstein also placed their stories in dramatic times and put a big love story in the center.”
The biggest liberties taken, DiPietro admits, were less in the storytelling than in the music department.
“David interpreted early rock’n’roll through his modern ears,” says DiPietro. “The score is not rockabilly, and there are chord progressions that may not have been happening at the time.” Indeed, Bryan’s songs evoke a whole range of rock and pop sounds from authentic 1950s rock to Motown soul and even funk.
Director Ashley chimes in, “The clothes are very faithful to the era, and you can’t see a prop on stage that isn’t faithful to the time. But musically we really did decide that in capturing the essence of the music, we wanted to give ourselves permission to use chords and a musical vocabulary that were not strictly from that time.”
DiPietro makes another Rodgers & Hammerstein analogy. “It’s like in The King and I—that’s not actually Eastern music, but a Western interpretation of what it would have sounded like.”
One period norm that couldn’t be fudged was segregation, which meant that the cast size grew a bit along the way, the better to accommodate scenes in which a clear separation between groups of white and black characters was an important story point.
“In the early days of the show’s development, because it was practical, the onstage television scenes had a mixed black and white dance chorus,” says Ashley, referring to scenes involving an “American Bandstand”-style variety show hosted by Huey. It became clear that such corner-cutting wouldn’t do. “It would have been completely unacceptable for black and white people to dance together in that time; a black person touching a white person onscreen would have shut the show down.”
While the show’s vision of racial harmony is ultimately uplifting and forward-looking, in restaging the racial divisions of the time, the creators had to navigate some awkward moments in rehearsal.
“The language you use is very tricky,” says Ashley. “In rehearsal, we played with a lot of different names—including some really offensive ones—for the two groups. We finally settled on ‘Beale Street’ for the black community and ‘Main Street’ for the white community.”
After productions at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, and TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, California, in 2003 and 2004, Memphis had a pre-Broadway co-production. This took place at California’s La Jolla Playhouse (2008), where Ashley is the Artistic Director, and at the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre in Seattle (2009).
Though its clear Broadway triumph clearly bucked some of Broadway’s trends toward stars and adaptations, Memphis may in fact have been the beneficiary of a kind of brand recognition, after all. “The title was always Memphis,” DiPietro says. “It’s one of three American cities that when you hear the name you think of music—the others being Nashville and New Orleans.”
Of course, the home of Graceland, Sun Records, and Beale Street blues also happens to be a historic site of America’s civil rights struggle, and the city where that movement’s most iconic warrior was slain. As DiPietro puts it, “A lot of people, when they hear the title, think it’s about Elvis Presley or Martin Luther King Jr.”
For a show about rock and race, those twin expectations aren’t very wide of the mark.
“The musical’s not about either of them,” says Ashley of Memphis’ two fallen Kings. “But it couldn’t have happened without either of them.”
Memphis plays Denver’s Buell Theatre October 9-21, 2012. Tickets: denvercenter.org or 800/641-1222.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor at American Theatre, and has written about theatre and the arts for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Guardian and The San Francisco Chronicle. This article originally appeared in Applause magazine.