Memphis Meets Broadway

The Bluff City’s award-winning namesake musical launches a national tour at The Orpheum. How will the real Memphis respond?



Joan Marcus

See, never was taught to read none
Oh no, never taught to write,
The only thing my daddy taught
Was that white should stay with white.
But I heard it through the alleys
It floated on the breeze,
It burst out through the doorways
And knocked me to my knees.
It broke down all my senses
and made me feel at home,
See I was lost but now I found
The music of my soul.
“Music of My Soul”

 

Who stole rock-and-roll? And who did they steal it from? These are knotty questions that continue to rub at even older, still-raw sores.

Memphis, the Tony-winning musical set at the dawn of the civil-rights era in the city of Sun and Soulsville, asks them often and outright. It tells the story of “crazy little” Huey Calhoun, a motor-mouthed white deejay who falls in love with black music and with the beautiful Felicia, the powerful, dark-skinned woman he worships as its living embodiment. 

Composer/Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and playwright Joe DiPietroMemphis’ creators, playwright Joe DiPietro and composer/Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, have made Memphis’ famous jumble of country, blues, and sacred singing the uncredited star of their hit Broadway show, imaging Beale Street’s “underground” sound as a healing force that brings people together whether they like it or not. Audiences can hear that theory plainly spoken in the lyrics to songs like “Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives in Me.” They can experience it more completely in the ever-shifting musical landscapes of “Change Don’t Come Easy,” a purposeful blend of black and white gospel. It’s a classic song that calls to mind nothing less than this epic description of popular music by rock historian Nick Toches: “One song, ever-changing, ever-reincarnated . . . that inspires us to dance, smile, or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality. . . . That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket ’88, that Buick 6 — same journey, same miracle.” 

Or, as Huey, Felicia, and the whole Memphis company sing more succinctly in the musical’s exuberant final moments, “If you listen to the beat, and hear what’s in your soul, you’ll never let anyone steal your rock-and-roll!” This revisionist history is served up with only the best intentions, but it raises a different set of questions: How did a couple of guys from New Jersey end up taking a play about Memphis to New York? And even if the show sells out easily, as Orpheum CEO Pat Halloran predicts, how will Memphians ultimately respond when it launches its national tour on the downtown stage in October?

 

The blues sing softly in the air
Like a Sunday morning prayer.
Just one more drink
And you’ll see God everywhere.
Like a sad old melody
That cheers you up and sets you free,
That’s how Memphis lives in me.
“Memphis Lives in Me”

Memphis didn’t originate with either DiPietro or Bryan. It was the brainchild of the late George W. George, a noted producer and son of the famous cartoonist Rube Goldberg. George thought it might be a good idea to build a musical around the life of Memphis’ original gonzo disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, who was famous for playing country music and race records side by side and for being the first person to broadcast Elvis’ hip- and world-shaking single “That’s All Right.” George, whose producing credits include the Robert Altman-directed James Dean Story and Louis Malle’s critically acclaimed My Dinner With Andre, shared his idea with DiPietro, an emerging playwright who was enjoying success with his 1997 musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which has since become the second longest-running Off-Broadway show in history after The Fantasticks.

“I started kicking tires a little,” DiPietro remembers. “I got to know a little bit about the story. But this was before the outbreak of the Internet and I really couldn’t find too much information about Dewey.” What he could find was both fascinating and, as he describes it, “troubling.”

For all the music and social change that surrounded him, Phillips’ taboo-busting story wasn’t especially heroic. Nor was his story the kind of escapist fare most people think about when they think of flashy Broadway musicals. Memphis’ top record-spinner had his own television show and an unorthodox way of pitching products that made station managers nervous but kept advertisers satisfied: “If you don’t like to drink Falstaff Beer, freeze it and eat it,” he’d drawl over the top of whatever song happened to be playing. But he also had a dark side, and that’s what eventually consumed him.

Phillips’ popularity faded even as the race music he championed moved to the center of the radio dial. A heavy drinker with a taste for amphetamines, he died in 1968 at the age of 42 after a decade of transient, short-term employment at smaller and smaller stations. For the real Dewey Phillips, there was no big redemption song, no inspirational second act. 

This wasn’t a story DiPietro was interested in telling. “I had nothing to say about that,” he says. 

DiPietro’s greatest gift as a playwright is his ability to map the evolution of human relationships, so he decided to give the fashion disaster known as Huey Calhoun — his Dewey Phillips stand-in — a completely different set of problems. If Huey’s love for black music was so powerful that he couldn’t stop telling people about it, how much harder would it be for him to hide away the greatest love of his life? In the segregated South how much would his inevitable indiscretions cost? And ultimately who would pay the highest price? This was the perfect musical theater solution and one that DiPietro thought was true to the character, even if it deviated from the facts. 

There was still one big problem though: Memphis had no composer. “I knew a lot of composers — good theater composers — but I didn’t know anybody who did rock-and-roll,” DiPietro says. That’s when the deus ex machina happened: David Bryan, who had been doing synchronized hair flips on-stage with Jon Bon Jovi for decades, contacted DiPietro to say he’d read the script, liked it, and was looking for a composing gig. 

“You’ll think this sounds crazy but I know these characters,” Bryan told DiPietro. I hear all these songs in my head.” The very next morning FedEx delivered a surprise package to the playwright: a CD of recordings Bryan had written, arranged, performed, packed, and shipped the previous afternoon.

“I knew that I had to get it to FedEx by 6:30 p.m.,” Bryan says. As he saw it, that was his first deadline in a process that was all about timing. 

Bryan never had any intention of working in musical theater, and his initial attraction to the form was purely mercenary. When his publisher asked if he’d ever thought about writing musicals, the rocker — and former Julliard student — answered with a sarcastic, “What are they?” The publisher’s answer cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Musicals mean 23 of your songs are performed eight times a week.” Bryan’s instant, unflinching reply: “I’m interested.” 

Then he read Memphis and fell in love. “Joe calls me a closet dramatist,” Bryan jokes. “There was no learning curve . . . I know what it’s like to go out there live, no jive, no rewind, no do-overs. To just get out there and perform 110 percent — to whip the audience into a frenzy.”

Bryan recognized that his job wasn’t just to write three-minute “heads up” pop songs but to interpret the story emotionally. The trick, he thought, would be to somehow do both of these things at once. “I want everybody who sees Memphis to get the CD, not because they want a keepsake,” he says. “I want them to buy it because it’s full of great songs that they want to sing in the car on the way home.” Bryan also recognized that, in addition to being a job, Memphis was an opportunity to have fun while participating in a meaningful cultural dialogue.

“Racism just seemed so foreign to me,” he says. “And art’s supposed to make you think and grow isn’t it? It may not make your life any better, but for two-and-a-half hours you can be a little happier, right? Hate each other a little less, maybe? We need to question the stupid parts of society through art whenever we can.”

But change don’t come easy, 
It ain’t gonna happen overnight.
Change don’t come quickly,
It takes time to make all the wrongs right.
“Change Don’t Come Easy.”

Memphis took its own sweet time getting to Broadway. Six years to be exact. “It takes enormous sums of money,” Bryan says. “When you’re asking for $12 million, somebody may want to see something more than once [before they invest].” 

“And this was an original script. It’s not based on a movie,” DiPietro adds. “It was a riskier investment than a show with a bigger title.” 

The version of Memphis first produced at North Shore Musical Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 2003 was a darker affair, closer in some regards to the true story of Dewey Phillips. As one critic wrote, “[Downing] handfuls of pain-pills and knocking on closed doors, ‘Crazy Little Huey’ watches Dick Clark become famous doing a whitewashed version of his own act.” The new rock musical was favorably compared to John Waters’ popular adaptation of his film Hairspray, and described by the New England Theatre Mirror as being, “one re-write away from hit status.” After closing in New England Memphis moved to TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California, where the Palo Alto Weekly’s theater critic Jeanie Forte wrote, “If you see no other theater production this year, you must see Memphis.”

The show closed in February 2004 and promptly disappeared. Three years later it was plucked from oblivion by a new set of producers who wanted to pump up the choreography and take Memphis all the way to Broadway. To do so they enlisted the help of — who else? — Memphians.

In August 2009, two months before its Broadway opening at the Schubert Theatre, Bryan and DiPietro came here to put on a show for a group of potential investors. In the Orpheum’s lobby the musical’s stars Montigo Glover and Chad Kimball performed the songs “Colored Woman” and “Memphis Lives in Me.” Halloran used his time at the mic to remind his guests that if they’d been smart enough to invest in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s early productions, they’d all be driving Maseratis today. Pocketbooks opened. The Orpheum contributed $25,000. Halloran personally matched that amount and $100,000 was raised from local backers. That’s not much in the context of a $14 million show, but it was enough to earn the deep appreciation of the creative team and the producers, who subsequently wroteThe Orpheum into the script as the location for Memphis’ grand finale. 

When Memphis won its four Tonys — for Best Musical, Book, Score, and Orchestration — Halloran was there. “I knew we were going to win when I saw how good our seats were,” he says. 

The Orpheum invests in shows regularly. “Shows that I think will play well in Memphis,” Halloran specifies. Investing, he explains, provides him with inside information that helps him to negotiate bookings when a show goes on tour.

Now along comes a man whose skin is white and pale,
A shiny fool full of shiny tales.
He says he’ll make the people hear me.
He’ll force this world to fin’ly see me.
Is he a lie like ev’ry other man
Or Lord could he somehow/ could he somehow/
Could he somehow help to free me?
“Colored Woman”

 

Memphis’ Broadway premiere was greeted by some scathing reviews. New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood trashed the musical for being slick but formulaic. “Authentic soul is missing in action,” he wrote before declaring Memphis, “The Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals.” The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout was even less impressed. 

“I’ve seen dumber musicals than Memphis, but not many and not by much,” Teachout wrote, calling the show a “ludicrous fantasy.” 

Not entirely off the mark, these snarky reviews took Memphis to task for the ironies embedded in its “blue-eyed soul” score and for being too much like Hairspray, which, as Isherwood wrote, also “celebrated the power of popular music to close the racial divide,” showcased an interracial romance, and “climaxed during the filming of an American Bandstand-type television show.”

The bad reviews didn’t seem to matter. Memphis connected with its audience and in the midst of an anemic theatre market it became one of the Great White Way’s most reliable performers. During the three years that the show was dormant the world shifted on its political axis. And as it shifted Memphis’ reputation grew by word of mouth.

“It was weird,” DiPietro says. “People would stop me. They’d come up to me and tell me they’d heard about Memphis and how great it was. If we’d never reopened I think we could have been the best thing that never happened.”

In 2008 America elected its first African-American president and Memphis’ promise of hope, change, and the possibility of a post-racial America meshed perfectly with the new Commander-in-Chief’s optimistic campaign slogans. Does DiPietro think all this hopey changiness was good for business? “Absolutely,” he says. For one brief shining moment, following a headline-grabbing visit by First Lady Michelle Obama, Memphis started to look a lot like Camelot, the romantic “might for right” musical that landed on Broadway at just the right time and became a lingering metaphor for the Kennedy administration. 

“Things happen for a reason. We either got lucky or we were geniuses. Either way, we caught the right wave with a good untold American story,” DiPietro says. Bryan agrees but counters his partner’s assessment with a line Bon Jovi could build a song around: “It takes a lot of hard work to get lucky,” he says. 

I listened to advice from folks smarter than me,
And I ignored it.
I listened to hatred from folks richer than me,
And I deplored it.
I listened to music from folks darker than me,
And you know I adored it!
“Steal Your Rock-and-Roll”

DiPietro says he didn’t do a lot of research, read books, or watch many movies about this city, prior to writing Memphis. “You know, I don’t think Rodgers and Hammerstein spent a whole lot of time in Oklahoma,” he jokes. “The King and I? That’s not authentic Asian music.” 

Bryan didn’t do any research either. The journeyman rocker says he had just wrapped a three-month European tour, opening in Dresden’s Ostragehege before a crowd of 30,000 screaming fans. Atlantic City Express, the band he and Jon Bon Jovi put together in high school, played for considerably smaller crowds in less exciting locations. And they covered Booker T & the MGs. “We had a horn section. I know those songs,” he says, reciting a measure of the Eddie Floyd hit “Knock on Wood.” 

“I know what it’s like to play in a shitty bar for no money,” he says emphatically. “That was my research.” 

Bryan also interjects a personal memory of Memphis, the city noted for having worked its way into more songs than any other: “In 1984 Bon Jovi played the Mud Island amphitheater. And I remember what it felt like when my feet hit the ground. Suddenly everything was real. The people were real. It wasn’t some mythological place anymore.” 

Rock-and-roll anecdotes aside, the Memphis of Memphis is nothing if not mythological. Beale Street isn’t known for basement clubs like Del Ray’s, where Felicia sings her songs, but “underground” music makes for easy metaphors. The Orpheum, where Memphis’ streetwise chanteuse plays her final, triumphant concert, was actually a Malco movie theater in the ’50s, but outside of Shelby County who really cares? 

Memphis is a Southern-fried Romeo and Juliet and its unflinching look at the legacy of violence, class struggle, and the inevitably tragic results of subverted love seem ever more prescient as cultural barriers preventing same-sex marriage erode in the United States. This isn’t lost on DiPietro, whose collected works have covered every variation on sex and romance known to man. 

“The human experience is a common experience,” he says. “This idea is the soul of Memphis. It’s what keeps the musical honest in the face of frustrating clichés about blacks needing white champions to get over and whites needing black redeemers to find their souls.”

“I thought white people’s houses were supposed to be nicer than colored people’s houses,” Felicia says to Huey, surprised by the humbleness of his racist mother’s kitchen. It’s one of Memphis’ most unexpected laughs, an unsubtle but effective way of showing that the newly urbanized blacks and whites who put rock-and-roll on the map had more in common with each other than either group had with the music industry swells.

But in the harsh context of a segregated America, a line like, “Everybody wants to be black on Saturday night,” can be problematic even when the supremely funky Rufus Thomas says it. It’s uncomfortably so when appropriated by two suburban white guys trying to make audiences believe that, no matter what color you are, or how much money you’ve got in your bank account, if you only listen to the music in your heart nobody can “steal your rock-and-roll.” 

No one’s more sensitive to the lines Memphis walks and the risks the showtakes than DiPietro, who says the thing that scared him most is the idea that people from Memphis would eventually come to see his musical. He remembers watching the crowd gathered in the Orpheum lobby when Montigo Glover performed “Colored Woman,” worrying all the while that every African-American woman in the room was thinking the same thing: “What can you tell me?” 

Then he watched faces soften, and shoulders relax. “People connected with the song,” he says, recalling the moment when butterflies gave way to relief.

Bryan, whose score pays homage to the sounds of the period without ever sounding like a golden oldies jukebox, thinks Memphis has been special since its first read-through. He also thinks the musical will perform well wherever it goes because it ultimately has the same appeal as Memphis the place. 

“I’ve been to 50 countries — all around the world,” he says. “And everywhere I go, people know Memphis. They know what happened in Memphis. No matter where you go in the world people love American rock-and-roll. Can’t get enough.”

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