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The Many Sides of Memphis The new musical balances considerable sorrow and considerable joy
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Memphis is a feel-good musical, but there’s still a scene where a character gets hit in the face with a bat. For every peppy song, there’s a moment of violence, of families facing hard times, or of lovers wondering if they’ll make it through the night.

Now in previews at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, the show follows Huey Calhoun, a white radio deejay in Memphis, Tennessee who not only plays “race records” for his white audience, but also falls in love with Felicia Farrell, a black singer he meets in a Beale Street nightclub. Huey’s music and his relationship both cause a stir.

According to playwright Joe DiPietro, who wrote Memphis with composer David Bryan, the story demands a complex tone. “Both David and I believe that first and foremost, a show has to entertain, and in real life, neither of us are particularly dark people,” he says. “But we wanted to take these subjects—segregation and interracial relationships in Tennessee in the 1950s, a time when it was illegal for an interracial couple to marry—and deal with them in a way that stayed true to the times.”

He adds that it’s especially important for bad things to happen to Huey and Felicia. “It allows us to explore a relationship between two adults who are in a society that every moment of the day is conspiring against them,” he says. “One of the reasons those darker moments are in there is to say, ‘This is what these people who love each other were up against.’”

But even in its darkest hour, Memphis is buoyed by its score, which pays lively homage to early rock, soul, and R&B. “There’s something in the show about the joy of music driving everything,” DiPietro says. “One of the themes is that the joy of music and art can overcome even the worst parts of society.”

Bryan, who’s also a member of the rock band Bon Jovi, believes in music’s power to change lives. “That’s what rock and roll did,” he says. “It started with slaves in the field, and then it went into the church, and then it broke out, and people were singing about drinking and partying all night long. That was all joyousness. And then in the white world, there was this white, tight America that wasn’t allowed to feel certain things. And then all this feeling came out in rock and roll.”

From a certain perspective, then, Memphis is a metaphor for the struggle between progress and tradition. “We’re big believers that art and music predate social and political change,” DiPietro says. “This music that took over the airwaves in 1955 really was a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement.”

Nobody wants to watch a metaphor, however, so the writers have had to turn their ideas into accessible art. That’s been especially challenging with Huey’s mother, a poor white woman who opposes integration. Though they started the show in 2001, DiPietro and Bryan didn’t give Mama a number they liked until this summer.  A second act showstopper called “Change Don’t Come Easy,” the song lets her be funny and endearing, even when she tells Huey that he’s more liberal than most of the world.

“Mama’s journey is the biggest one, and that’s why that song was the hardest one to get,” Bryan says. “First it was comedy, then there was less comedy, then it was too on the nose. You’ve got to finesse the emotion there. That ride, that push and pull of ‘Wow, it’s funny,’ ‘Wow, it’s serious,’ that’s the goal. That’s what will get you.”


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor