Origin Story

A bluesy Broadway musical explores the birth of rock ’n’ roll

I listened to the original cast recording of Memphis before seeing the nationally touring Broadway musical at The Smith Center on opening night (July 18). The music, as listened to in a vacuum, sounded slick and generic, like rock ’n’ blues polished to an unnatural sheen. I wondered how I would be able to sit through the show.

But that night, when I finally did see Memphis, I was enthralled. The addition of all those other elements of a musical—storyline, sets, costumes, dancing and acting—completed the experience, and made the evening a thoroughly enjoyable one. While this may seem obvious, there are some musicals where the music stands alone.

The story follows the proverbial birth of rock ’n’ roll, wherein a white radio DJ, Huey Calhoun, brings “race music” to the ears of white America. Along the way, he falls in love with the black singer, Felicia, whose career he helps launch. Together, they combat racism through the power of music. Overcoming setbacks, their careers flourish, and they eventually must decide whether to leave their sometimes-hostile Memphis home. That decision determines the show’s final act.

As an audience member, you get to watch the characters’ struggle against bigotry with a sense of smugness, because you’re on the right side of history. Of course racism is bad. Of course there is nothing wrong with miscegenation. Because these events take place so far in the past (early 1950s), it’s easy to feel righteous without ever being led to search your soul for any modern-day prejudices. On the other hand, there is an inherent value in exploring this vital part of our nation’s history.

Despite the flaws in both the music and the storyline (The New York Times describes Memphis as “the Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals”), the performances made this show more than worthwhile. The dancing was outstanding. It was energetic, enthusiastic and full of heart. The actors did an all-around fantastic job. (There are too many highlights to list, but one of my favorites was Huey’s mom, who gave the most soulful warble of them all.) And the live musicians kept it all together. In short, the musical made me like the music. ★★★☆☆

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I know why you come here every week, Dear Reader: to hear about cool live music you might not know much about. I’m here to help. Let’s do this!