The national tour of the acclaimed Broadway musical “Memphis” stops in Louisville next week. It’s the story of radio DJ Huey Calhoun, who becomes a sensation in 1950s Memphis for playing Black musicians on mainstream (white) commercial radio.
Huey becomes a folk hero for his influential radio and television shows while his girlfriend, Beale Street club singer Felicia, tries to become a star in her own right. They both face uphill battles — Huey’s limited education and reckless public behavior, the threat of violence, intolerance for their interracial relationship and the entertainment industry’s layers of timidity and hypocrisy.
Huey is loosely based on Memphis radio DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to integrate the segregated Southern airwaves in the early days of rock and roll, when Black musicians were relegated to specialty stations at the ends of the dial, while white musicians dominated the mainstream commercial stations.
“It’s a perfect example of how cultural change can lead to social change,” says producer Sue Frost. “[Phillips] was a white guy in the Fifties who fell in love with what was called race music at the time. He ventured into the clubs on Beale Street, where white folks weren’t supposed to go. He pulled this music and put it on the airwaves in the center of the radio dial.”
The Broadway production won four Tonys in 2010, including Best Musical, book and score. The show features original, Tony Award-winning songs by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, as well as choreography by Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys”).
Frost says the decision was made early in the show’s development to write original music, rather than use rock and roll classics to create what’s known as a “jukebox musical.”
“It’s through a filter, a present-day filter. It’s not true rock and roll, some of those chord progressions you wouldn’t have heard then,” says Frost, who calls Bryan’s compositions “evocative” interpretations of early soul, rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
Here’s a clip of an early number from the show, “Music Of My Soul,” from the Broadway run: