Touring company of the musical Memphis comes to TPAC 

The Other Music City

The Other Music City

Nashville may be known as Music City U.S.A., but it's no secret that Tennessee's other music capital played a critical role in the development of R&B, gospel, rock and even country. That legacy provides the foundation for Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, which arrives in Nashville Tuesday via the national touring company.

With a book and lyrics by veteran playwright Joe DiPietro and music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, Memphis tells the tale of Beale Street's underground clubs in the segregated 1950s, where a young white disc jockey named Huey Calhoun falls in love — with an ambitious African-American singer, and with rock 'n' roll in general. 

"The lead character is based on several DJs," DiPietro says, "but mainly Dewey Phillips, the first Memphis DJ in the center of the radio dial. It's a passionate love story set against an epic time in our country — a time when both music and society weren't integrated."

DiPietro, who has enjoyed success on Broadway previously with 2005's All Shook Up (an Elvis musical), has also done well with off-Broadway pieces such as I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Over the River and Through the Woods and The Toxic Avenger. In spring 2012, the busy writer opens a new show, Nice Work If You Can Get It

Unlike some pop stars, Memphis was no overnight sensation. First presented regionally in 2003, the musical's commercial momentum was interrupted by the death of its producer, George W. George, who also conceived the piece. In the meantime, DiPietro and Bryan went ahead with The Toxic Avenger project, a smaller show with a satirical slant. It ended up opening in New York before Memphis. (For followers of the cultish Avenger, that show is scheduled for remounting next spring at Houston's Alley Theatre with designs on a return New York trip and possibly a national tour.)

While both creators are New Jersey-born and -bred, their partnership was happenstance, says DiPietro, whose agent had sent his original Memphis script out in search of composers. "Rent had made it cool for rockers to write a Broadway show," says DiPietro. And the Juilliard-trained Bryan was ripe for the gig.

The score of 20 songs reflects the confluence of styles that characterize Memphis' musical importance. Big driving numbers include the opener "Underground" and the group anthem "Everybody Wants To Be Black on Saturday Night," plus there's the stirring R&B ballad "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls" and the climactic, hymn-like "Memphis Lives in Me."

Filled with spirited dancing and soulful singing, Memphis ultimately relates a message of tolerance and harmony. Yet the show also deals frankly with the racial realities of the time and place, and some of its subject matter may be considered mature in nature.

The show is under the direction of Tony nominee Christopher Ashley (Xanadu), and the choreography is by Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys and The Addams Family). Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell are the principal stars.

For tickets, call 782-4040 or visit tpac.org.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com. 

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