The musical “Memphis” opened on Broadway last night, budgeted at $12 million, in the works for ten years, and just, stupefyingly, clueless. It just seemed like “Dreamgirls,” with a dash of “Hairspray,” and no soul.
It wasn’t like the makers of it didn’t give it a good try. Bon Jovi’s David Bryan has been working valiantly for years to see this show open on Broadway. He was toasted last night by bandmates Richie Sambora and Tico Torres, who came to the Shubert Theater for their pal. Also on hand were a smattering of celebs including the great Danny Aiello, singer Freddie Jackson, and Gina Gershon. For verisimilitude, Memphis’s Peabody Hotel even sent their famous ducks north for a day of publicity.
But the ducks were about all that seemed true to the nature of “Memphis.” The story is supposed to be that of the white deejay who started playing black music in Memphis. They don’t say when, but figure the late 1950s. There’s no way of knowing. Even though the show is set in my favorite U.S. city outside of New York, there is no reference to Stax, Rufus Thomas, Elvis Presley, or Martin Luther King. The real radio station that anchored R&B music in this seminal R&B capital, WDIA, is also not heard.
So what? “Memphis” is a big, generic commercial show about nothing. There’s some talk of Beale Street, none of James Baldwin. If Beale Street actually could talk it would have a heck of a lot more to say than this show.
But whatever: the opening night audience, composed of cast family members and tons of investors from all over the place, loved it. They cheered like it was a Yankee game (although not last night’s Yankee game). They didn’t seem to notice that the music bore no resemblence to real Memphis R&B, but to standard Broadway pop rock fare that could be transplanted from many other shows. This is what happened to “The Color Purple,” too: it’s gospel from commercials and TV, not church.
Many opportunities are missed despite a very, energetic cast that is one of the most multi-cultural ever on Broadway. You’d think one of the cast members might have raised their hand and said, “This isn’t authentic.” But maybe they’re too young to know the difference. Ironically, at the big after party at the Hard Rock Cafe, the deejay there was playing Al Green and other soul hits from…Memphis. Go figure.
You see, the real life deejay upon which the Memphis story is based is named Dewey Phillips. He’s credited for playing Elvis Presley first on the radio. He was white, and it was considered heroic ‘ for reasons I still don’t get ‘ to introduce black sounding music to white people.
But the real star of Memphis was Rufus Thomas, the city’s genuine radio hero and music star. He was black. The legendary Rufus was the first to play Elvis on black radio, and was a beloved figure in the city. He had hits like “Walking the Dog” and “The Funky Chicken.” There’s all sorts of things like plaques and parks named for him in Memphis. His daughter, Carla, is still the queen of Memphis soul. His son, Marvell, played keyboards on thousands of hits. His wife was a supporter of Martin Luther King. His youngest daughter, Vaneese, has been featured on this page. Wanna know about Memphis R&B? Let’s start there.
Am I being too tough? Maybe. The intentions were good here: bring this city and some music and racial history to the masses. Check. Check. Check. But it’s so inauthentic. Someone close to the show told me at the party: “The creators didn’t even go to Memphis until they were done and needed investors.” That says a lot. I will tell you that on my numerous visits, besides music, the other thing Memphians are obsessed with is their barbecue. Is it dry or wet, the Cozy Corner or the Rendezvous? And as far I know not one rib was eaten, not one piece of pecan pie was served, during the two exasperating hours of “Memphis.”