Together and with The Power of We, we can start a revolution. One Soul at a time... ~Jon Bon Jovi *** There's a Story on every street corner, my friend. All you have to do is open your eyes... ~Richie Sambora

Opening Night...

Monday, October 19, 2009

It's October 19. Opening night for Memphis on Broadway. From all reviews it has been a smash. I hope I get a chance to see it.

The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tennessee had this to say:

How do you capture the city of Memphis in a Broadway musical?

Is it even conceivable that someone -- especially someone who has never lived here -- would be brave (or foolhardy) enough to grapple with the city's complex history of race, its legacy as the hometown of rock and roll, its bluesy shades of pain and poverty, and derive from all of that a feel-good musical delicate enough for a place whose nickname is the Great White Way?

Isn't a Broadway song about Memphis music like expecting Corky's-style ribs out of a microwave?

Wasn't Memphis music covered in Velveeta once called Pat Boone?

Tonight in New York City, the country's top theater critics will take their posts in Broadway's 1,400-seat Shubert Theatre to judge whether the latest original rock and roll musical lives up to the name on the marquee: "Memphis."

The creators know they're playing with history. They're playing with the soul of America. No doubt, they're also playing with fire.

"Everything about it is a risk," says playwright Joe DiPietro. "It's not a famous title. It's not based on a movie. There was no talk about bringing in stars. And it cost $12 million to put on."

At least DiPietro and collaborator David Bryan have a good grasp of reality.

But they also have a darn good feeling about the show.

Since work began on it more than six years ago, "Memphis" has kept moving forward on the strength of its reviews and a wave of standing ovations at each of its four coast-to-coast tryouts, from Boston to Seattle.

Not too shabby for a couple of guys from New Jersey who've spent as much time in Memphis as any veteran rock-and-roll tourist.

Back in the late 1990s, DiPietro started with the notion of a script about the pioneering deejays of early rock radio, the ones who were the first to cross the color barrier on the largely segregated airwaves.

DiPietro already had a couple of successful Off-Broadway shows under his belt. His first hit musical about relationships, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!" was described as the "Seinfeld" of musical comedy. His play about a quartet of beloved grandparents, "Over the River and Through the Woods," earned him rave comparisons with Neil Simon.

Before he got too involved with his deejay project, however, Elvis Presley Enterprises called. Could he write a musical using the Elvis catalog, a la "Mamma Mia!"?

While in Memphis doing research for the short-lived Broadway musical "All Shook Up," he took in the vibe of the city.

"It's a town that you have to feel," he says. "The history is easy. You can look that part up on the Internet. You have to be here to feel what it is."

What ultimately stuck with him the most was the legacy of Dewey Phillips, the fast-talking disc jockey who broadcast his popular nighttime radio show on WHBQ-AM from the mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel. In 1954, he was the first to air an Elvis Presley record.

DiPietro started with a Dewey and ended up with a Huey, a fictionalized version of the groundbreaking personality whose real-life story turned out to be a bit too tragic for uplifting Broadway fare.

"The key to the show came when we thought: 'Wouldn't it be great if he fell in love with a person who embodied his first love, which was African-American music?'" DiPietro says. "Once we found that, the story became a very personal one."

"Memphis" evolved into a love story with a twist, as Huey falls for a young black singer on Beale Street despite the racial taboos of the segregated 1950s.

The day composer David Bryan read DiPietro's script, the music it inspired came out of him so fast that he jumped off his stationary bike near the swimming pool and rushed into his home recording studio.

Bryan, the keyboard player for the rock group Bon Jovi, was a virtual stranger to musical theater. At that time, he professed to have seen two stage shows in his whole life: "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Arsenic and Old Lace," both shows his parents dragged him to as a kid.

"I heard the entire musical in my head," Bryan says. "I heard a nine-piece band. I heard all the characters. I got the drum machine, piano, organ, guitar, bass, put down all the background vocals, burned a CD and FedEx-ed a song to Joe the next day."

DiPietro was stunned. "I thought: This is fantastic! Here's the guy I want to work with. I hope he's not crazy."

Bryan never thought that "Memphis" should be a period piece.

"I didn't want to write a '50s musical," he says. "It's me looking through modern eyes, looking back. There was a great special on PBS, the difference between Soulsville (in Memphis) and Hitsville (in Detroit). Soulsville's music was just nasty. Donald 'Duck' Dunn laying down that nasty bass. The Memphis Horns. It's the basis for modern music. It really begat rock and roll."

One tune that stops the show, "Memphis Lives In Me," is more than a little reminiscent of Marc Cohn's hit, "Walking in Memphis," the way it paints a vivid picture of the city. Could it be a standalone hit? Bryan wouldn't have any objection to that.

"David writes songs for the radio," says actor Chad Kimball, who has played Huey since the first production of the script. "It's hard for me to be objective about the music any more when the crowd is jumping to its feet every night. I think the show really grabs people, holds a mirror up to them."

Likely, the success of Broadway's "Memphis" won't rely on authenticity at all, but on the almost mythological romance that has built up around this iconic American city.

Even much of the cast has adapted their roles to the idea of Memphis, as opposed to the reality.

Kimball was born and raised in Seattle. His first visit to Memphis was during a promotional trip for the show last August. Montego Glover, who plays his love interest, is from Chattanooga and has visited more frequently. Aside from a handful of investors from Memphis, the lead producers are New Yorkers.

The yet-unanswered question of the show's ability to market Memphis' unique atmosphere hasn't stopped the city itself from jumping on the "Memphis" bandwagon.

"We're going to be there in force on opening night," said Kevin Kane of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The Peabody Ducks will even be at the after-party. We're hoping for a very successful run of the show.

"There is a marquee one block off of Times Square that's lit up every night with the name 'Memphis.' There's no way we could ever buy that kind of positive publicity."

I need to get my butt back to NYC to see this show. Either that, it needs to tour and come to my hometown!


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I am and always have been a Bon Jovi fan. This blog is just my obsession taken a step further, my imagination in high gear if you will. I love to read and decided to see what would happen when I took that love of the written word and ramped it up a bit.

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