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David Bryan’s and Joe DiPietro’s Broadway Musical, Memphis, is a vibrant, provocative production with entertaining, historically relevant and culturally significant elements and themes woven throughout. Having made its Broadway debut in 2009, Memphis has become an award-winning show packed full of insightful and artistic qualities that many members of society can appreciate (Memphis the Musical).
On the surface level, Memphis is an enthralling and captivating show that engages the audience and engulfs them in entertainment from curtain up to curtain down. Visually speaking, the play is ripe with eye-catching poodle skirts and other nostalgic clothing, neon lighting, bright, urban backdrops and exciting dance routines than span stage right to stage left, creating a stunning image of coordination, skill and aesthetic artfulness with respect to showmanship. The fast-paced motion combined with the explosive, thrilling sounds of soul, classic rock and roll and rhythm and blues creates an atmosphere of passion, intensity, rhythm and irresistibility, which deeply informs the deeper elements of the play’s significance as an impactful, emotional and exciting work of art.
The play’s synopsis is based upon the true-life events surrounding “a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and a black club singer who is ready for her big break” in Memphis during the 1950s (Memphis the Musical). Huey, the DJ, finds himself repeatedly fired and discriminated against for his controversial taste in “black” music, despite his natural business and marketing acumen and his uncanny ability to generate attention and incite interest and response from the audiences he encounters through his positions as a department store stock boy and DJ. Complicating matters is his love interest, Felicia, who is an aspiring black entertainer. Throughout the play, Huey attempts to defeat odds and redefine popular perceptions of race and color in a discriminatory age while attempting not only to make Felicia a star, but also, to make her his girl in an era where mixed racial relationships were controversial and rejected by the majority.
One way in which the play achieves its artistic merit is through the playwrights’ ability to unify the story content of the play with its stylistic form. As stated above, the stage explodes with the stunning, electrifying and exciting visuals created by the set and choreography. This visual element not only serves to interest, entice and entertain the audience, but it also underpins the musical’s central themes of controversy, resistance and incitement. The red-hot intensity of the play’s visual elements reflect, indicate and inform the equally red-hot intensity of the interracial love affair and incendiary antics of the white DJ promoting black music in an era ripe with traditional impulse, mixed politics and racial tension.
Another way in which the play achieves its artistic worth is by its ability to arouse and direct the emotions of its audience. As noted in the brief synopsis above, the musical itself centers upon the controversial issues of race and discrimination. Unlike earlier productions such as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Memphis tackles the issues of race and discrimination from a white man’s perspective. While the issue at hand remains traditionalist, white discrimination against (and rejection of) black culture in mid-twentieth century America, the audience is exposed to it not through the perspective of a black man but rather, a white man (and black woman). This is significant for several reasons. Huey’s character accepts and applauds black culture, which is looked down upon by older, middle class whites (although business owners often recognize Huey’s offbeat tastes in music as a business generator amongst the youth who also respond favorably to their exposure to the new and unfamiliar sounds of 1950s black culture). Although he is white, he appreciates black music and even falls in love with a black woman, and is thus discriminated against and depreciated by proxy. This perspective allows audience members to realize the pervasive effects of racism and discrimination as they occur and effect people outside of the race, class or gender of the group being discriminated against. In short, the white man point of view afforded to the audience through Huey’s character offers a look at racism and discrimination outside of the oppressed’s perspective.
Finally, Memphis is an important work of performance art because of its ability to wrangle different emotions from the audience. One moment, the audience is up on their feet, dancing and clapping to the infectious beats of the music, and by the next scene, our brows are furrowed and our hands are tightly clasped as we watch with frustration how narrow-minded and ignorant racist people can be. Tying these emotions together is the musical’s most important element -- the soundtrack. The songs not only reflect and inform the events occurring on stage, but also unify everyone in the end, forcing characters and audience members alike to forgo our tightly-clung to differences in favor of celebrating cultural diversity and the universal impact music has on all our lives, regardless of age, gender or race.