Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Memphis" at the Kennedy Center: social progress in rock


Tonight, I attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Memphis” at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington DC.  It runs through July 1.

The music was composed by David Bryan; the book and lyrics are by Joe Di Petro, and the “concept” comes from George W. George (pun?).

The story is a loose "fictional" biography of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, and his introduction of black music in the 1950s, against a lot of segregationist opposition.  In the adaptation, the disc jockey is named Huey Calhoun (William Parry).

The music, for my ear, is not as “tuneful” or catchy as that of the obvious comparison, “Jersey Boys” (Jan. 5).  The most familiar number is the finale “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll”.  There’s a song near the end of the first act, “She’s My Sister”, that says a lot about blood family loyalty in this era.  There’s another risqué title, early: “Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night”. 

The musical, particularly toward the end of Act I (of 2), tends to have more spoken dialogue than other musicals of this type.

The first act deal with the old record business and radio.  The stagecraft, in fact, opens with an image of an old radio dial.  Toward the end of the act, it celebrates by flashing newspaper headlines (in video) about the popularity of “Negro” music.  There’s a scene where a 45 rpm record is dropped – but in reality 45’s were plastic vinyl and did not break (I had some myself in the 50s). The second act deals with the introduction of television, with a black-and-white image of the stage action, as it would have looked on 50s TV, shown above as live video.


The Millennium stage (at 6 PM) offered a free performance of “China Red: Light Dancers of the Paper Cut”, by Quetzal.

As for the old vinyl record business -- does anyone remember Record Sales, The Discount Record Shop, and the Disc Shop (and Swiller's and Giant Music in northern VA), all icons of the Washington DC record business in the early 60s?


Update:  July 6, 2015

"Memphis" is playing at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, in the Gayborhood. 

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