In the Beginning

Like the chameleon of a place that it is, our own little city has been many things in its past, besides just, well, itself. In the twentieth century alone, for example, Memphis was two different U.S. Navy cruisers, and one nuclear submarine. “Memphis” has been and still is a popular cigarette brand in Austria, of all places. And for the past thirty-five years, Memphis has also been a somewhat successful magazine in these here parts. Hopefully you’ve noticed.

One thing our city’s never been, however, is an award-winning Broadway musical. Until now. Early next month, Memphis the city will welcome to town its namesake creation. Memphis the musical will pack The Orpheum to the rafters for eleven days on this, the first stop of the Broadway production’s first-ever national tour.

And even though the production itself takes severe liberties with the local historical record (Vance Lauderdale will not be amused), Memphis, most observers agree, does indeed capture the spirit of this place. Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press has called Memphis “the very essence of what a Broadway musical should be.” Our own Chris Davis describes the musical more succinctly in this month’s cover story (p. 36), calling it “a Southern-fried Romeo And Juliet.” One thing’s certain: Everyone’s bound to feel right at home. In fact, local attendees will enjoy something of a barbershop-mirror moment, sitting in The Orpheum watching the final act of Memphis that’s set — where else? — on the main stage of The Orpheum!

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Pat Halloran, the real-live Orpheum Theatre has been an integral and magnificent part of the Memphis downtown scene ever since it was restored and re-opened in 1984; literally thousands of great performances have graced its gilded stage over the past three decades. But our city is blessed with many great stages. In fact, the local theatre community has been a cornerstone of the arts in Memphis, and has also played a critical role in this city’s contemporary cultural renaissance.

Just last month, for example, that community gathered at the Botanic Garden for the 28th annual Ostrander Awards, Memphis’ version of the Tony Awards, celebrating excellence in local theatre at all levels (p. 43). Thanks to the long-time efforts of pioneers like the late Sherwood Lohrey (Theatre Memphis) and the indefatigable Jackie Nichols (Playhouse on the Square), remarkable dramatic talent has been nurtured and blossomed, and more than a few stars have been born right here in the Bluff City.

Altogether, nearly a dozen separate companies provide Memphis audience-goers with as rich a theatre experience as any that can be found in any similarly sized market in these United States. Among the many locals who have gone on to stellar careers on Broadway and in Hollywood are George Hearn (La Cage Aux Folles, Sunset Boulevard), Chris Ellis (Apollo 13), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), and the late Michael Jeter (The Grand Hotel, Evening Shade).

We all should be pumped as we await the arrival next month of Memphis in Memphis. But we shouldn’t forget as well that all our local theatres are swinging back into action this month for the fall season; if you haven’t had the opportunity to sample their wares, you owe it to yourself to see just what terrific work is being done in every corner of our community. For comprehensive local theatre listings, be sure to check out the Arts Memphis website at

Congrats again to Pat Halloran for having played such a critical role in putting Memphis on the map in so many ways over his long career as our city’s leading impresario, and for insuring that we’ll have the very first front-row seats when Memphis the musical starts its national tour. And congratulations as well to all this year’s Ostrander Awards finalists and winners. There are no losers when so many excellent folks are working so hard to help make this city shake, rattle, and roll.

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