New Song of the South

Special Features   New Song of the South
 
Joe DiPietro's musical, Memphis, explores the racial tensions underneath the birth of rock 'n' roll.
Joe DiPietro
Joe DiPietro Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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It's inspired by real people," Joe DiPietro says. "It's essentially the story of the first white disc jockey to play rhythm and blues for white teenagers in the South, starting in 1950. It's very much about the birth of rock and roll, and the heavy African American influence on rock and roll. And it's also about how white people co-opted black music."

DiPietro is talking about a new musical called Memphis, for which he has written book and lyrics, and which begins performances this month at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. The director is Christopher Ashley, La Jolla's new artistic director, who also helmed Xanadu on Broadway. Memphis is co-produced by The 5th Avenue Theatre of Seattle, where it will head early next year on a hoped-for Broadway track. Music and lyrics are by David Bryan of Bon Jovi.

DiPietro, who also wrote the book and lyrics for the long-running Off-Broadway hit I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, says the idea for Memphis came from the late producer George W. George. "He called me with this idea, and I immediately thought this untold story was worth doing. It was really dangerous for the deejays to do this in the Deep South in the '50s," when segregation was at its height. "These guys loved this music and believed it could and should reach a big audience."

The musical focuses on one deejay, a character named Huey Calhoun. "He's a larger-than-life personality and he develops a big listenership, so he's very able to bring this music to a large public. The station owners don't understand it, but when it gets on the radio people listen to it." The owners wind up making money, "so they become more receptive." Yes, there's a love story, too. "Huey discovers an African American singer in a club and falls in love with her and helps get her on the radio for the first time." They try to make their interracial relationship — which was illegal then — work as both careers evolve.

An interracial relationship in a musical goes back at least as far as Show Boat in 1927, and also to South Pacific, which is having a hit revival on Broadway. Such relationships are "very much in the public consciousness now, with Barack Obama. We didn't plan on that when we started writing. But from a dramatic point of view, you always look to create an obstacle to the main couple's love. And racism — any form of 'ism' — is always a very strong obstacle."

The music for Memphis, DiPietro says, "is of the '50s, but funneled through David Bryan's modern ears and modern sensibilities. It's very influenced by that period, and it's got a lot of blues, gospel, jazz and early rock."

An earlier version was first presented in 2003 at the North Shore Music Theatre outside Boston, and then at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, California.

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, with music by Jimmy Roberts, closed in July after a 12-year run in Manhattan. It was DiPietro's first show. "When you have a show go up, you think maybe it will run a year or two. A 12-year run was an off-the-map dream." Closing is never a happy occasion, he says, but with I Love You, "it's like when a person who's 102 dies. Yes, he died. But you can't have a much longer life than that."

And, he says, "I'm also focused on the future — Memphis and other things. A writer — any creative person — needs to constantly move forward."

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