See the roots of rock ’n’ roll get planted – not to mention shaken and shimmied – in the Tony Award-winning musical “Memphis.”
The national touring show of the Broadway sensation that won four Tonys, including best musical, in 2010 comes to the Gallo Center for the Arts this weekend for five shows. But more than just a journey back to the birth of a genre, the production tackles the thorny issue of race in the segregated South. And while it is set in the 1950s title city, associate director Adam Arian said much of its message still rings true today.
“I think the base of the appeal is that it is a really fantastic story that illuminates a part of our history that is, first of all, more recent than a lot of us remember, and also really feels relevant in ways that are in the news all the time still,” Arian said in a phone interview with The Bee.
“Think in terms of the ways that African Americans are still needing to fight against disenfranchisement at the polls, or that Clippers guy Donald Sterling,” he said. “It’s a very real, relevant American story. What it does is connect it all to music in a way that is new and very real, but having the thesis that it was when white people started listening to black people’s music, and understanding the soul of it, that white people in American started to realize, ‘Hey, I like black people’s music, they’re cool, maybe we can dance like them, maybe we can be friends.’ ”
Set in the underground music clubs of 1950s Memphis, the musical follows a white radio disc jockey, Huey Calhoun (Joey Elrose), who falls in love with rock music and one of its up-and-coming black singers, Felicia Ferrell (Jasmin Richardson). The story was inspired by real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music on the radio.
Arian has been with the show since it began pre-production in San Diego in 2008. “Memphis” opened on Broadway in October 2009 and took home Tonys for best musical, best book of a musical, best original score and best orchestrations the following year. The production ran until 2012 at New York’s Shubert Theatre and has been touring nationally since 2011. When the current tour ends in June, the show will move to London’s West end for a run starting in October.
The musical features what Arian called a “fantastic score of all-new ’50s music.” The music was composed by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, the latter who lends his rock star bona fides to the show. Bryan is the co-founder and keyboardist for Bon Jovi.
“I was impressed by how well he was writing music that sounded like it was from the ’50s,” Arian said of Bryan. “There is a rocking undertone, and you can understand how it was written by a modern rock ’n’ roll star. But he also brought a huge appreciation for the music of that time, with a little dash of his own more modern rock sensibility.”
While “Memphis” revels in the sounds of the time, it doesn’t sidestep the racism of the era. Huey’s love for the music, and Felicia, is met with much resistance.
“While this is ultimately a story of white and black people coming together and overcoming racism, it is by no means a glossy, sunshiny rewriting that makes it look like it was easy,” Arian said. “I think this show is truthful in the way of how dangerous it was. For Huey to be playing that music meant real physical threats and attacks on his life and the woman he falls in love with. One of the big messages in the show is that when people push the boundaries as much as they did, they risk a lot.”
Still Richardson, who plays Felicia, said it is those very people who risk everything who can make the biggest difference.
“The show gives me hope that when you fight for what you believe in, there is nothing you can’t accomplish,” she said in press material for the production. “It also reminds me that the rights we fight for now affect future generations, so we must stay diligent about the decisions we make. It only takes one person to spark change and to possibly change the course of history.”
Arian said Richardson and Elrose have great chemistry and star power in the lead roles. Elrose brings comedic sensibility and conviction, while Richardson portrays strength and fragility.
Throughout the show’s run, both on Broadway and its national tour, Arian said he is proud how its message has been able stay relevant.
“One of the big anthems from the show is, ‘Say a prayer that change is coming.’ When we started the show, it was Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in the headlines. And when the tour started, it was gay marriage in the headlines. This show is all about the right for two people to be with each other. So that’s a microcosm of how the show is evolving with the times.”