The foundational belief upon which most musical theater seems to be built is the power of song to change lives and change the world. In some shows – like the aforementioned La Cage aux Folles – it is through song that characters find their inner voice and the strength to carry on. In other shows – like Rent or In the Heights– song is the vehicle that brings together communities and provides the collective energy to face obstacles. And still in some shows – think Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, or even Jersey Boys – song (or dance) is actually a key plot in the development of characters and the arc of the story that celebrates the transformative power of music.
Into the latter category comes Memphis, this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical. Set in the show’s eponymous town in the mid-1950s, we meet Huey, a simple, eager, and rather goofy guy who can’t keep a job but has the balls to follow his ear into a black-only club where the “music of his soul” stirs his heart and thrusts him into the life of Felicia, a gorgeous singer with a voice to melt the Arctic and crack the racial wall built around the city’s radio stations.
What follows doesn’t shatter any theatrical conventions – a forbidden love affair, the struggle for equality, the discovery by stiff white folks of the “shocking” and satisfying music of their black neighbors. It’s all very Hairspray grown-up and given a more mature, less playful, book and a score that more clearly (and successfully) takes its inspiration from the R&B and gospel genres that it sings about.
There’s nothing about Memphis that’s particularly surprising. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t provide a compelling history lesson about the role of music in moving this country forward in its racial politics. Broadway loves to show how popular culture can make a tangible impact on society and Memphis happily spreads that gospel.