By Walter Rutledge
I believe that anything that is truly memorable in our lives is an evolution and doesn’t happen over night. The Broadway hit musical Memphis, winner of four Tony Awards including Best Musical, started the arduous road to Broadway acclaim over seven years ago. That seems just a little longer than it took to finally complete this commentary.
In March Harlem World CEO Daniel Tisdale forwarded information about an interview with Memphis playwright and lyricist Joe DiPietro and lead performers Montego Glover and Chad Kimball. The interview was a live broadcast live from The Greene Space. The broadcast and interview were part of a month of activitivies commemorating the one-year anniversary of the facility.
The interview was an informative and very friendly discussion about the creation of the musical and featured video excerpts from the production. Throughout the discussion I was impressed by the positive and enthusiastic responses from the Ms. Glover and Mr. Kimball, and with Mr. DiPietro’s gratitude for the success of Memphis. Following the discussion I was offered the opportunity to interview the trio.
We met in the green room and following our introductions it was evident that the energy in the interview had been genuine. Unfortunately I had not yet seen the musical so my questions were general and more related to the historical aspects of race music, the Rhythm and Blues performers of the 1950’s, the charged racial climate in the South, and production elements of presenting a Broadway musical. About five minutes into the interview I felt like the only virgin in a discussion about sex. I could expound on the subject clinically but had no idea of the sheer pleasure derived from the actual experience. I realized it was better to be honest than to remain ignorant so I confessed my theatrical chastity and was immediately offered the opportunity to experience Memphis.
Sitting in the Shubert Theatre waiting for the production to begin we see a mural of the Hernando de Soto Bridge on the entire front curtain. The bridge takes motorist across the Mississippi River and into the city of Memphis. On our journey across, we were transported back to a segregated southern city of the 1950’s. It was a time when social and civil change was in the air; and rock and roll with its raucous rhythm and blues charged origins was on the verge of sweeping the nation.
On Beale Street in Delray’s, a small club below street level, the local Negroes are partying in a fever pitch. The patrons are dancing, the liquor is flowing and the music is electrifying. The proprietor Delray (J. Bernard Calloway) has secured this establishment to provide an outlet for his talented sister Felicia (Montego Glover). The moment we enter the club the energy of the music, the excitement of the dancing and sheer talent of the cast lead by Glover beguiles us.
The revelry is interrupted when an unfamiliar and unexpected guest enters, its Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), white trash from the other side of the tracks. The patrons sensing trouble decide to clear out quickly, but Huey convinces them through song that his intentions are honorable and this sound is The Music of My Soul. Huey is also smitten by Felicia and quickly makes his feelings known.
Without revealing the story we have forbidden love, social class conflict, racism, violence, deceit, blind ambition, disillusionment and reversal of fortune, and that is just in the first act! Memphis unfolds with all of the great theatrical elements that make this tale of Rock and Roll seem Shakespearean. In this American story, instead of two feuding families from Verona, Jim Crow has replaced the Capulets and Montagues.
With a cast of 27 talented performers everyone was a standout. James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby is the big man with the voice and the moves. J. Bernard Calloway as Delray is the loving and protective brother. Cass Morgan’s Mama Calhoun is a complex character whose evolution, over the course of the production endears her to the audience. Derrick Baskin, the bartender Gator, is a man of few words, but when he finally speaks what great words! His song Say A Prayer is the curtain dropping first act closer, which leaves the audience riveted, if not teary-eyed.
The evening, however, belongs to Glover and Kimball. Montego Glover has a powerful voice and a showman’s delivery; it is only reveled by her strong stage presence. Her character is a portrait in the quiet strength and power of the 50’s black woman. “What was most thrilling was introducing a new leading lady to the lexicon,” says Glover.
The quirky Huey Calhoun is infectiously likable, idealistic, rebellious, and self-destructive- a courageous, but sad hero. His panache and bravado is balanced by his pathos. Somehow the cruel winds of fate have destined Huey to be a forgotten big fish in a small pond.
Memphis is a totally satisfying Broadway experience, one I eagerly anticipated sharing with my Harlem World readers. Studying me notes I prepared to write favorable commentary, then suddenly the spring arts season descended on New York. I was inundated with concerts, gallery openings, and theatrical productions with short windows of visibility, when I finally came up for air five weeks had past and I had not shared my Memphis experience. I could have written a glowing review from my notes, but put my pride aside and requested another ticket so I could feel the magic again.
Once we crossed the bridge and entered Delray’s I was swept back into the magic rock and roll world of Memphis, but something was different. Ms. Glover’s post-Tony afterglow gave her a radiance, confidence and sensuality that immediately enveloped the audience. In fact the entire production was tighter and shaper and more exciting.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has the infused popular dance of the era with fresh contemporary movement. Further complimented by an impressive cast of strong dancers Trujillo creates a visually exciting and thoroughly entertaining experience. The multi level set design and expedient trap door exits and entrances complete the fast paced visual canvas.
“Music is something we all share. It is a common denominator. The beat of it, the vibration gets in the body, into your bones. It started in Memphis, then flowed down the Mississippi and out to the rest of the world”, shared Kimball.
The music is the true star of Memphis. With music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and lyrics by Dipietro and Bryan the soundtrack enthralls the audience. Memphis follows the classic Broadway canon of heartfelt ballads, exciting uptempo songs and memorable show tunes coupled with a well-conceived book. In addition to a Tony Award for Best Musical, Memphis received Tony Awards for Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre, Best Orchestrations, and Best Book of a Musical.
The musical depicts the time period without becoming a biographic account, this provides historical credence and allows artistic license. DiPietro explains, “Music and art are universal. The human experience is universal. Culture and art always precede social change. We all want the same things. Hopefully we are speaking to everyone. The villain is racism. Memphis is a story of people struggling to overcome the times. It is a history lesson we didn’t intend to tell but we did”.
Memphis is a timely reminder of a not so long ago chapter in American history. You don’t have to cross the Mississippi River to experience Memphis, just go to the Sam S. Shubert Theatre and hear, The music of my soul. Go experience Memphis!
In Photos 1) Montego Glover and Chad Kimball 2) J. Bernard Calloway and Montego Glover 3) Glover and Kimball 4) Cast 5) Kimball 6) Dancers 7) Glover, Kimball and cast
All Photos by Joan Marcus