It took some six years for Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, to wend its way to Broadway. What seemed like a long journey at the time turned out to be fortuitous. When Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan (music and lyrics) began writing the show, they did not imagine that the country would soon have its first African-American president, and that the issue of race would be front and center — again — in the national consciousness.
Memphis is set in a different era, in the segregated South of the 1950s, where a white DJ introduces white audiences to "black" music and falls in love with a black singer. The musical, directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, launches a national tour — in Memphis, of course — on Oct. 14, and over the next year will play in a number of cities where an interracial romance would have been virtually impossible back in the day.
"I think that race is the most important story in America," says DiPietro. "Things are much better now than they were in the '50s, but we obviously still have a long way to go. Memphis is a history lesson, but it also resonates with audiences, which is the best type of history lesson. It will be interesting to see how people react to the show in some of the places we'll be playing."
Memphis began when a producer approached DiPietro with the story of Dewey Phillips, a real Memphis DJ who did, in fact, play rhythm-and-blues and soul music for a white teenage audience in the mid-'50s. "In a way, he was radio's first shock jock," says DiPietro. "David and I thought Dewey's life was interesting and important, but we wanted to make up our own story. We wanted to capture the period. We took bits and pieces from him and Alan Freed and a few other guys and gals of the time." Gals? "Yes, there were some women pioneers, too, though very few." DiPietro, who says he's not a "huge researcher," went to Memphis to visit the Civil Rights Museum and other places, and to walk Beale Street. "It was ambient research," he says. "My aim was to make the lead characters fully rounded people, and I think that going to Memphis really helped me. And what was maybe more helpful than anything was seeing the photographs of Ernest Withers. He took some great pictures at African-American clubs. You look at some of the faces and some of the scenes, and they tell you so much about the time."
Musically, Bryan wanted the score to reflect the era without imitating it. "David's idea was to make the music sound like it could have been written in that period, but to refract it through his modern ears and modern taste," says DiPietro.
What the entire creative team wanted above all else was to entertain. "When you see a show about an important social issue that's just didactic, then who cares?" says DiPietro. "So we wanted to make sure first that we told a great story with great music. And when we do audience surveys, or when we speak to people, time after time they say that what really attracts them is the love story.
"But the show also has many themes. One is that despite our differences, we have a lot in common. I think that's something this nation really needs to hear right now. The show is also about the power of one, how a person can help change the world in a small way."