It’s probably no surprise to anyone who reads ROT even occasionally that I’m old enough to remember the early days of rock ’n’ roll. I was growing up in Washington when the wave hit, and in my memory it struck suddenly and just took over the AM radio dial. I woke up for school to “Rock Around the Clock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” on my clock radio, and came home to turn the radio on again to hear “Chantilly Lace” or “Blue Moon.” I’d painted a little green dot on the dial of my transistor radio (the linear ancestor of the iPod, in a manner of thinking) to mark where I could find WEAM (“The WEAM Team,” at 1390 on the AM dial), the AM station to which my friends and I all listened, so I could always find it instantly. I’d turn on the TV to watch American Bandstand every afternoon; one of my friends even got to be on the show. In the latter part of the decade, my dad bought a part interest in a Top 40 station in Little Rock (KGHI, which became KAJI to conform with its local pronunciation, broadcasting at 1250) and even listened to our hometown rock ’n’ roll stations in the car to hear what was going on in the field. He’d also go out to Little Rock and come home with the dupes from the station, so I had the best collection of R ’n’ R 45’s in my class (or probably anywhere else in D.C.). If a song was on a play list, I had it! I was 11 and 12 by this time, and my dance parties were the best in my middle school! I even loaned many of my 45’s to the school for the sock hops (remember those?) we had in the gym in those days. I was totally caught up in the rock ’n’ roll tide, as were almost all my friends and schoolmates.
Of course, I never witnessed the actual birth pangs of the new music, I just experienced the baby in its infancy. I know now, though, how the music of my pre-teen and teen years came to be, and I happened to be living in Europe when the Beatles came along and changed it all. (I was a huge Beatles fan from the moment I heard their first releases through the end of college, when the Fab Four broke up.) Watching the musical Memphis, the 2010 Tony-winner for best musical, best book (Joe DiPietro), best score (David Bryan and DiPietro), and best orchestrations (Daryl Waters and Bryan), plus a passel of other nominations and Drama Desk Awards, in its Washington stop on the National Tour, an awful lot of my musical childhood came back to me in a rush. It’s a tad hard to separate the personal nostalgia from the current musical-theater experience, but I’ll give it a try.
I was particularly caught up emotionally when the play presented singers or groups that are supposed to be recording artists of the time (as opposed to the songs that are about the play’s plot and characters). I heard echoes of Little Richard and Chubby Checker and, I think, Diana Ross (who really came along a little later, so my ear may have been miscalibrated). I don’t know if composer Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, intended to create those echoes or if I just heard them on my own because the play’s environment evoked the era and the milieu for me. (It may be partly because the opening set piece is a giant AM radio dial, a motif often repeated throughout the production. It made me go back immediately to my middle school days, listening to rock ’n’ roll on the radio. We really did walk around sometimes with portable radios squeezed up against our ears. No ear buds yet in the mid-’50s!)
That’s all sort of what Memphis was about for me when my mother and I took in the Saturday matinee performance in the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on 23 June. It was the first chance I had to see the play since it opened on Broadway in 2009. (Readers of ROT will recall that my friend and frequent guest-blogger, Kirk Woodward, wrote about being a small investor in Memphis in “Broadway Angel” on 7 September 2010.) Even though the tour had just landed here from Buffalo, it was already substantially sold out and my near-last-minute plan to come to D.C. at the end of the month meant we were way up in the balcony, but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, both theatrical and personal. The Washington performances began on 12 June and ran through 1 July before moving on to Las Vegas, San Diego, and L.A. following the Kennedy Center stop.
After workshopping and trying out in a number of venues around the country (early stagings were at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, and TheatreWorks in Mountainview, California, both in 2003-04; the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California where director Christopher Ashley is artistic director, in 2008; and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater in 2009), Memphis landed at the Shubert Theatre on 23 September 2009 for previews, opening to the press on 19 October. The show has announced its closing for 5 August 2012, mounting up a total of 30 previews and 1,166 regular performances. The critical reception was mixed and, according to the reports, the play never really caught fire with audiences. Still, a run of nearly three years and over 1,000 performances is more than respectable and, were it not for the present-day economics of Broadway, it would have been a box-office hit. (Kirk tells me he’s only about 5% short of recouping his full Memphis investment, which suggests that the whole show’s in a similar state. That, too, is respectable these days. Apparently the current National Tour will not benefit the original production’s bottom line, though the contributions of college and amateur productions are uncertain, and I also don’t know about European and other foreign productions—of which I’m sure there will several because of Memphis’s quintessentially American story and sound.)
The plot of Memphis, suggested by late Broadway producer and screenwriter George W. George, is really two stories, one folded inside the other. (Which of the two is the envelope and which is the filling depends entirely on your perspective and your sentiments. I’ll give my impression and you can extrapolate yours.) To set the scene, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, is to blues and rhythm-and-blues what New Orleans is to jazz and Nashville is to country: it’s the sipapu, the place of emergence, the sacred center. (Okay, I’m overstating a little. But, if you’re a devotee, only a little.) Beale Street is where the true lovers and makers of blues music and its cousin, rhythm-and-blues live, where the purest, realest, and sweetest is. (There was a 2010-2011 cable TV cop series starring Jason Lee, Memphis Beat, which, while not especially outstanding as drama, had the coolest score on television—all current covers or original recordings of blues, R&B, and early rock.) Like jazz, though, this was the music of African Americans, and in the Jim Crow 1950s, that made it both suspect and dangerous to white people. “Race music,” it was called derisively—and ominously. It wasn’t just that it was the music of black people, but if white folks listened to it, it could make them crazy and do evil things. It was dangerous. And out of this dangerous devil music came rock ’n’ roll—essentially when white singers (think Elvis Presley, who used to go to black churches to hear the choirs) began to sing “black” music for white audiences. Memphis depicts the route by which this new sound came out of the Beale Street clubs, almost exclusively owned, run, and patronized by African Americans, invaded the radio waves of the city, forced its way into the record racks of music stores—almost entirely against the will and determination of the middle-aged, middle-class white businessmen who owned them. Why? Because (white) DJ’s like Dewey Phillips, who was an inspiration for the character Huey Calhoun in the musical, began playing the new songs on the radio and the city’s (and then the nation’s) teenagers took to it like a starving man grabs a ham sandwich. These kids took the new music for their own—it was the first real nationwide youth movement at a time when America was inventing the teenager—and demanded record store-owners sell it in their shops and other radio stations play it on their programs, and finally TV channels put it on shows like Bandstand (which soon became American Bandstand on a national sound stage—a phenomenon that’s fictionalized in Memphis) and its clones and copies. This all happened often against the determinations, sometimes virulent, of the white establishment in the schools, churches, town halls, and homes—and it started in Memphis. This history is laid out in Memphis in a softer version than it really was—the racism and violence is shown but soft-pedaled and sanitized—as Huey (Bryan Fenkart), basically a flop at everything he tries (he’s a high school dropout who, he says, can’t even spell ‘TV’) surreptitiously introduces the new sound in the record department of his uncle’s department store and then moves on to take over the airwaves by presenting the music in defiance of his boss’s orders.
(In the scene where Huey hijacks the sound booth at a radio station when the regular DJ, who played crooners like Perry Como, takes a break, the upstart locks himself in the booth and barricades it against the owner, the DJ, and the janitor. Back when my father owned part of KAJI, a year or two after the start of the play, and the station was shifting from easy listening to Top 40 rock, one DJ announced on the air that he’d taken over the station, padlocked the doors, and would be playing the same song over and over. It was a stunt, of course, but no one outside knew that—the station management got into a little trouble because the police were called—and I was reminded of this episode while that scene played out. The song the DJ played, by the way, was a specialty recording called “Chinese Bandits” which was a tribute to a defensive squad on the 1958 LSU football team. The gag song became a regional number-one hit for a short time as a result of the stunt.)
Within this music history-lite is a simple love story—complicated by the fact that it’s interracial in segregated Memphis. Nearly alone among white Memphians in his attraction to the black music, Huey goes into Delray’s, an underground blues club on Beale Street where the singer is Felicia Farrell, Delray’s beautiful sister. At first, Huey goes for the music, but he’s increasingly drawn to Felicia (Felicia Boswell) and, in the face of disapproval from all quarters, including his own mother and Felicia’s club-owner brother, sets out to break through her resistance. Of course, he wins her over and Mama Calhoun (Julie Johnson) and Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) reluctantly drop their opposition. Huey makes Felicia a local star but faces hostility from white folks who see his music and his crossing of the racial lines as a threat. He nevertheless becomes the most popular DJ in town because of his young, white fans, launching a Bandstand-like television music show. He’s courted by the TV producer of a proposed national dance show—“Richard” Clark is the competition for the gig—but when Huey’s offered the job, the New York TV man explains that his show’s dancers, who are all black, will have to be replaced with white performers and he will have to keep his relationship with Felicia, to whom he’s now engaged, on the DL. In true musical-theater form, Huey decides that he belongs in Memphis because Memphis is in him, and he chooses not to go to New York and change his life to suit some . . . well, suits. (And that’s how Dick Clark got to be the World’s Oldest Teenager!)
In both parts of the plot, it’s Huey’s sincerity and commitment that drives the outcome. No one wants him to play that race music, but he does and the kids love it. Delray and the denizens of his club don’t understand why a white kid would cross over to Beale Street to hear their music, but he shows them he truly loves the sound and gets it, so they grudgingly let him hang around. When he promises to get them and their music on the air, they don’t believe him, but when he succeeds, they all latch on to his rising star and embrace his TV show. He even sort of wins over the white record-sellers and station-owners: they resist playing the black music in their stores and on their airwaves, but when the kids start buying up the records and boosting the sales of the sponsors’ merchandise, they avidly go along for the commercial benefit. Delray and Mama Calhoun don’t want Huey to date Felicia—more because it might be hazardous to one or both of them, not so much because they’re separatists: it’s one of the soft-pedaling aspects I mentioned—but he proves his love and they reluctantly back off. So when the DJ forgoes the move to New York City when he learns it means abandoning the people who make the music he loves, we get the impression it’s not because he’s a small-town guy who can’t hack the big-city scene, the bumbler who failed at everything until the music got him: it’s because he’s sincere about not selling out.
If all this sounds a little simplistic, a little too easy, it is. It’s essentially a feel-good story that leaves out all the tension of the real circumstances. (There’s little more than a passing mention, for instance, of the fact that interracial marriages were illegal in most of the South until 1967 when the Supreme Court overturned all the existing anti-miscegenation laws. If Felicia and Huey go to New York, they can be legally married even if they have to keep the marriage quiet; in Memphis, they can’t be married or even live together openly. This gets very little play.) Huey faces one beating by a gang of thugs on the street. In the real world, of course, neither he nor Felicia would be likely to get off so lightly. (The lynching of Emmett Till, who was accused of whistling at a white woman, happened in 1955.) And even in the face of increased sales, I don’t think the establishment businessmen of Memphis would be so ready to put black music and black performers up front this way; I can’t imagine that a Memphis TV station would have ever aired a show with black dancers in the ’50s. It’s a fantasy: Dick Clark shocked America when he integrated the participants on American Bandstand around 1964 after starting out with all white kids on his show. (Black artists could appear, but black kids and white kids couldn’t dance together on national TV.)
Bryan and DiPietro’s music is nice enough, without any truly outstanding number, but I find that in shows about music the way Memphis is that there are two kinds of songs. (I’m not referring here to the distinction between character-based songs and lyrical songs which my friend Kirk Woodward drew in his articles on “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” on ROT on 2 October 2011, and “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011. As a theater score, all the songs in Memphis are essentially character- or situation-based.) There are what I’ll call “story songs,” which help propel the play’s narrative one way or another, and “performance songs,” which are the songs written to evoke (though sometimes parody) singers and musicians in some kind of presentation—in the case of Memphis, usually a cabaret appearance or a recording. In Memphis, the performance songs are meant to approximate the R&B and rock ’n’ roll songs Huey's promoting (or the white-bread music he's trying to overshadow, such as the amusing “Whitey White and the White-Tones’ ‘Whiter Than You.’”). It may have been my own focus, the same reason that I see the love story as an adjunct of the rock ’n’ roll story rather than the reverse, but I liked the performance songs much better than the story songs. That’s not entirely cut-and-dried. Two story songs stood out for the same reasons that I found the performance songs more compelling—they’re more musically interesting and they each have a different dynamic while the other story songs all seem alike (or at least very similar). Both are by Huey: “The Music of My Soul” is the song in which he demonstrates that the R&B the Delray musicians perform speaks to him, too, the song that makes Delray, Felicia, and the Beale Street club-goers accept him as at least a musical soul mate. That song comes early in the first scene; late in the play, Huey explains why he won’t be going to New York City to win fame and wealth in “Memphis Lives in Me.” Both are big production numbers, but the thing that got me is that they both have real character and personality. (It may be no coincidence, then, that “Memphis Lives” is the principal soundtrack for the show’s TV ads. It’s the musical expression of the play’s theme.)
Christopher Ashley directs the production, which runs 2½ hours with one intermission, with a lot of action—or maybe I should call it motion. Under Ashley’s “efficient” direction, the Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley wrote, “‘Memphis’ never rests.” Everyone’s moving almost all the time and with 21 musical numbers, there’s a great deal of energetic dancing choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. I didn’t find much of the choreography distinguished, just active. The cast, however, executes Trujillo’s uninspired steps with immense verve and skill. (In the Washingtonian, Missy Frederick criticized Trujillo’s dances as not being “natural or spontaneous,” and I think that’s accurate. Still, it’s a far cry from the Broadway première of Footloose in 1998 which was a show about dancing with almost none at all on stage!) On reflection after the show, I wonder if all that movement wasn’t Ashley’s cover for the lack of emotional substance. If everyone’s moving a lot, maybe we won’t notice that no one’s getting really involved beyond lip service. The story often comes right up to the edge of an emotional or psychological precipice—musical, racial, social, political—but it never really jumps off. The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood, in his review of the Broadway première, compared the show to “a cover version of a song you’ve heard done better before,” suggesting that not only have we heard the melody and lyrics before, but this version is less sharp, less surprising, less thrilling than the earlier one. Some of the problem might be in the acting (I began to wonder how different the Broadway actors had been in these roles), but I think it was in the script and the direction. As I said, DiPietro’s book takes each potentially fraught element, from the racial tension to the radical musical shift and the social implications that brought, one notch or two back from a high point. DiPietro seems to have opted for a family version of the times, unlike, say, West Side Story, set in another part of the country at about the same time. (When my dad was with USIA in Germany, the agency responsible for cultural propaganda, the U.S. government wouldn’t sponsor official tours of WSS because it showed our society in a violent and unflattering way. My guess is that Memphis would have passed muster easily.) No one really hates in this show—and we know they really could—and no one ever faces real danger. Huey gets beat up, but he recovers fast, suffers no repercussions, and the incident evaporates from the narrative immediately. It’s a textual set piece.
Huey’s almost too silly to be a serious threat or to serve as a hero. (This is where I first began to wonder if Chad Kimball handled the part any more forcefully than Fenkart.) Fenkart, who understudied the part in New York, behaves like a buffoon, not just an incompetent failure. When his Huey walks into Delray’s, after having stood outside listening to the music, he seems surprised that the club-goers look on with suspicion—as if crossing into the black district were a natural act. He approaches Felicia without any indication he knows this is unacceptable behavior and potentially dangerous. In fact, while it might be clear why Huey’d be attracted to Felicia, it’s not at all evident why she’d be remotely interested in him. His record shop and radio patter is supposed to be charming and disarming, but it comes off more as slightly moronic, like the caricature of a DJ of early rock. Even though all the performances are pitched in that direction, giving me the impression that that’s how Ashley directed the show from the start, Fenkart’s Huey seems to be taking it further and it gets hard to believe that anyone, the teens, the businessmen, or Felicia, would take to him.
There isn’t a lot of chemistry between Fenkart’s Huey and Boswell’s Felicia except that the script says there is. On stage, Huey and Felicia seem to get together because the story needs them to, not because the characters are drawn to each other. Boswell, who played Felicia on Broadway after January 2011, performs the character’s songs well, with a dark, husky voice that works very well in bluesy numbers, but doesn’t present much of a personality in the dialogue scenes. When the singer agrees to see Huey romantically, supposedly a momentous choice that goes against every social taboo and her own reservations, there’s no cataclysm, or even a fraught moment. Boswell’s low-key stage persona is more in line with the rest of the company than is Fenkart’s, but since she’s at the emotional center of the drama, it seems less comprehensible.
I’ve already mentioned the way the script downplays the final acquiescence of Mama and Delray to Huey’s suit of Felicia and the ease with which the businessmen of Memphis drop their opposition to Huey’s playing of race music. That’s all in the script, of course, but none of the actors gives any sense that these are momentous decisions. That’s obviously a directorial choice as much as an acting one since it’s universal, but it makes all the characters less real and believable outside a musical-theater world. Remember that this is the time not only of the Emmett Till lynching, but of Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock school desegregation conflict. On the music scene alone, this is when Elvis went on The Ed Sullivan Show and the cameras wouldn’t show him below the waist. But none of that’s part of the Memphis universe, and the characters never acknowledge it.
The actors of the ensemble all execute their parts firmly, though only one breaks out and makes a notable character of what DiPietro wrote. I presume that this is because Ashley kept them all in check or none of them was inspired to go beyond the demands of the part. The standout among the ensemble is Julie Johnson, who mostly plays Mama Calhoun. (She also covers another small role.) As a character, Mama’s dispensable except for one scene. After Huey’s been offered the gig in New York and plans to take Felicia and marry her, she buys into his commitment and enthusiasm and goes on to help convince Delray and his friends with the gospel- and country-infused “Change Don’t Come Easy.” The showstopper is supposed to be “Memphis Lives in Me,” I think, but Johnson kills in her big number: she’s Mama Rose with a soft heart and a little Southern soul, belting like Merman. Mama’s sole reason for being is to do that number, and Johnson nails it. Theatrically, it’s the best moment on the stage.
Physically, the production is top-notch. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are all wonderfully evocative of the time and place (though, in keeping with his other characteristics, Huey is dressed a little like a vaudeville geek) and his dresses for Boswell’s Felicia are downright gorgeous. The two-level sets designed by David Gallo along with his and Shawn Sagady’s projections, atmospherically lit by Howell Binkley, depict the story’s locales and atmosphere nicely and shifted swiftly to allow the fast-moving performance to flow seamlessly and cinematically. Alvin Hough, Jr.’s Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra replicated the sounds of ’50s blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll distinctively, albeit in an appropriately theatricalized form. Along with that oft-repeated motif of the radio dial, the orchestration is perhaps the production element that most propelled me back to my childhood days of listening to these sounds in my bedroom.
Despite the heartening note that Memphis is a relative rarity on Broadway these days: an original musical play that’s neither a retreaded movie or a pastiche of tunes from some artist’s songbook—for which it merits tremendous praise and gratitude—I gather I’m not alone in my criticisms. Charles Isherwood said in his New York Times review of the première, “This slick but formulaic entertainment . . . barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record,” and I recall that most New York outlets more or less agreed. Still, the production won the best-musical Tony over Fela!, a much more ambitious theater piece about the Afrobeat performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. (Fela!, also out on a National Tour, will be making a return to Broadway from 9 July until 4 August.)
Of the D.C. presentation, Nelson Pressley declared in the Washington Post that Memphis “doesn’t do much with the ancient terrain of whites getting hip to black music as rock and roll is born.” Noted Pressley, “It hurts the show that the actual love story feels half-baked.” Calling the play a “gawky musical tale,” Jolene Munch Cardoza of the Washington Examiner lamented, “The whole affair could be infinitely more engaging if it didn't feel so contrived and superficial with its one-dimensional characters and cardboard scenery,” pronouncing Memphis “sweet but not soulful.” Washington City Paper’s Rebecca J. Ritzel thought Memphis was “good—just not great,” and wondered how the play won its Tonys. Her answer was that “there are only so many American Theatre Wing voters who like punk rock and Afrobeat. Or, put another way, American Idiot and Fela! split the liberal vote. Memphis, with its original bluesy pop showtunes, was the conservative show left standing.” Still, Ritzel decided, the musical “does manage to break the musical mold in subtler ways” than its Tony competition did.
In a more positive assessment, Doug Rule said, “Memphis the musical tends to surprise people” and, in a backhanded compliment in Metro Weekly, he advised readers to “take a chance on the show, and you'll likely walk away with an appreciation for the way in which Joe DiPietro tells a shopworn tale.” In Washingtonian magazine, Missy Frederick called the plot “fairly conventional” but praised the music as “bluesy and warm.” Overall, Frederick affirmed, Memphis offers “many of the traditional pleasures of the old-fashioned musical.”
Among the blog reviewers, Joel Markowitz saw the show on Broadway before the tour and, declaring, “It’s infectious!” on DC Metro Theater Arts, he proclaimed that “it’s love at first sight all over again!” On the Maryland Theatre Guide, Jennifer Perry wrote that although “Joe DiPietro’s book is hardly revolutionary,” Memphis is “something that should definitely be seen” and the touring production is “not to be missed,” pronounced Blogcritics’ Michelle Alexandria. Observing that “Memphis has an intentional retro feel to it, which is perfect for this distinctly period piece,” Terry Ponick of DC Theatre Scene dubbed it “an odd show in many respects.” “It’s lively, fast-paced, crisp, and professional in every way,” she continued. “But it boasts the flimsiest of plots and character development.” Polnick, however, caught my own response pretty well, concluding that “particularly for audience members who lived through this era, this production, directed by Christopher Ashley, hits all the right nostalgic musical notes.”
In the end, that was the key to this show, at least for me. Despite all my quibbles and caveats—and I believe they’re serious deficiencies from a theatrical perspective—the way Memphis transported me back to the time and place (well, the time: I’ve never been to Memphis) made it a more-than-satisfying theater experience. I didn’t come out singing the score as I used to in the (really) old days (see my confessional ROT article, “A Broadway Baby” on 22 September 2010), but I left with a broad smile on my face and nice, warm feeling in my gut. It is a feel-good show, after all. You see, even though I know now about all the turmoil and strife of the time, if I’m honest, back when I was 8, 9, 10 years old and listening to my radio and my 45’s, all I knew was that these people were making cool music for me—my music, our music, my friends, peers, and I. And, man, I loved it. I did then and I do now. I never thought of it this way—as I said, I’ve never been there—but I guess . . . Memphis lived in me.