Here’s the Deal with Memphis the Musical

So Memphis won the prestigious Tony Award for Best Musical yet many people have still never heard of it. Granted, the people I have been talking to might not keep pace with the ever-changing Broadway scene, though they would have ignored quite a few city bus posters and cab videos to completely miss Memphis’ debut on Broadway back in October.

The musical is set in Memphis, TN (shocker, I know) in the 1950’s and follows the story of a white radio D.J., Huey Calhoun, that explores and promotes the black nightclub scene while falling in love with a talented black singer, Felica.  The story that unfolds follows a somewhat formulaic path (think Dreamgirls or Hairspray), but is nicely paired with a ridiculously energetic cast, innovative set and fresh choreography.  Overall, the show is entertaining, but critics still seem to hate it despite its recent Tony nod.

The first problem I see is that the show was written by a bunch of white guys about black people (for mostly white people to see). This might explain why some of the music comes off more as pop than soul, which is what it was aiming for. Regardless, I think that David Bryan (Bon Jovi’s pianist) managed to pull together blues, gospel and rock in some coherent fashion and that alone is a feat. Sure, the soul wasn’t as potent as it should have been, but I wouldn’t be as harsh as NY Times critic Charles Isherwood was in calling Memphis the “Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals.” Burn.

My main beef with the show was actually the accents, or lack thereof.  The cast members didn’t seem to make much effort to speak with the endearing Southern twang.  A few y’alls and aint’s sprinkled in there could have gone a long way.  Huey Calhoun started the show with a drunken drawl that wasn’t exactly Southern, yet never disappeared as he sobered up. (Ima get youuuu on the radioooo!)

So how did this show win Best Musical? First, let’s not forget that it still succeeded in entertaining an audience— as far as I know nobody has demanded money back.  Secondly, it was the only musical nominated that had an original score, which is a heavy factor for Tony voters.  We have entered the age of Broadway revivals and musical adaptations (American Idiot, Fela! and Million Dollar Quartet all use pre-existing music), presumably because few writers have access to enough funding during this economic downturn  to create entirely new shows.  The show isn’t epic, but its high and colorful energy tops everything else that is currently playing and deserved the Tony.

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