Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1950s was a contentious time in the U.S., and the same can be said for the music business. With "white music" and "black music" and separate radio stations for each, there wasn't a whole lot of "gray" area.
That sets the scene for the Broadway musical "Memphis," which opens in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. This was a first attempt at Broadway for David Bryan, keyboardist for the popular hard rock band Bon Jovi. Though Bryan was a newcomer to the theater scene, his musical (Joe DiPietro, book) went on to win four Tony Awards in 2010 — Best Musical, Best Composer, Best Book and Best Orchestrations.
"Memphis" is filled with blues, rock ’n’ roll and energetic dance numbers. It is based loosely on the life of radio disc jockey Dewey Phillips — a white DJ and one of the first to play "race music" on the radio. He is also credited with being the first to play a record by a 19-year-old up-and-comer named Elvis.
In "Memphis," that DJ is Huey Calhoun, played by Joey Elrosein in the current national tour. "Making this incredible score come to life is amazing," Elrose said during a previous interview.
"It's a great mix of rhythm and blues, gospel, pop, jazz and rock," he said. "The grittiness built in is a lot of fun to perform, and digging into the great lyrics is so freeing and energizing."
Calhoun can't seem to ignore the bluesy tunes coming from the underground clubs along Memphis' Beale Street, and he stumbles into one and begs to stay. A sultry black woman named Felicia catches his eye and his ear, and he's determined to get her on the radio.
"Singing this music is like eating warm apple pie with a scoop of ice cream; it's just good for the soul," said Jasmin Richardson, who plays Felicia, in another interview. "The opening song, 'Underground,' has this grittiness that sets up the rhythm of the show — it's definitely one of my favorite songs."
"My favorite song is 'Tear Down the House,’ ” Elrose said. "It's a great ensemble number, and I get to dance, too. The choreography is a lot of fun, and the reason behind it is rebellious."
The two actors may differ on their favorite moments in the high-energy musical, but they agree on the importance of the show's message of tolerance and equality.
"I love getting to share this message with hundreds of thousands of people," Elrose said. "People will naturally love the music, but I think the message is what stands out."
"This story is just so necessary to tell," Richardson said. "It makes you laugh and makes you slightly uncomfortable, but above all else, it makes you think. Telling this story every night is an honor, but doing it with people that I love and respect is icing on the cake."
"I love my scene work with the character Felicia," Elrose said. "Jasmin (Richardson) and I have great chemistry onstage and are always in the moment together. It makes those scenes so fun and exciting to be a part of."
"This show gives me hope that when you fight for what you believe in, there is nothing you can't accomplish," Richardson said. "It also reminds me that the rights we fight for now affect future generations, so we must stay diligent about the decisions we make."
"The best part is getting to share the love, experience the love and teach the love," Elrose said. "I hope that our audience leaves with a great song in their head, a great smile on their face and a great message in their hearts."
If you go ...
What: "Memphis," Broadway national tour
When: May 27-June 1, times vary, matinees available
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $32.50-$60
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."
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