'Memphis' worth a trip to the city
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News
January 22, 2011

As we honor Martin Luther King,Jr. this week, I recall an entertaining and inspiring Broadway musical I saw a few weeks ago. It is "Memphis," which won the Tony Award last year for the Best Musical of 2010.

I learned this week that performances of the musical at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th St. are being filmed this week and will be aired in theatres nationwide this spring. The reason is to bring the musical to a broader audience and to promote its national tour.

Meanwhile I also read that there have been discussions to make "Memphis" into a Hollywood film, and that Justin Timberlake, a Memphis native, has expressed interest in playing the musical's main character, Huey Calhoun, who is based on the real life of 1950s DJ Dewey Phillips.

"Memphis" tells the story of this white DJ who fell in love with black music and fought all odds to introduce the music to a white radio audience. Calhoun drops in at the Beale Street club, where he calls the black music -- "the music of my soul" and finally succeeds in getting his own DJ spot on the radio where he introduces this "rock and roll" to his white audience.

This was a time in this country when the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated the public schools and Martin Luther King went to Montgomery to lend his support to the bus boycott, which led to King dedicating his life to civil rights. King and his followers' efforts led to President Lydon B. Johnson's signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed the next year by the Voters' Rights Act, giving all people, regardless of color, the right to vote.

The 50's DJ Alan Freed is said to have coined the term, "rock and roll," which is deeply seated in the "rhythm and blues" of black music. While our history keeps the spotlight on many aspects of the Civil Rights Movement: the anger, the violence, and the bloodshed, which reached fervor pitch with the death of four little black girls in the basement of a church in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, I find a joyful respite in watching "Memphis" live on a Broadway stage. Nothing brings people together better than music.

Two New Jersey natives combined their creative talents to produce this Tony-Award winning "Memphis.". They are David Bryan, the keyboardist with Bon Jovi, who wrote the music and Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics. There are two heart-stopping songs that grab my heart; `"Music of My Soul," and "Memphis Lives In Me." They are heart-wrenching in their message with Bryan's accompanying music that no speeches or protests could better get across than in the importance of being free:

There comes a time when muddy waters run rough

There comes a point when a man has had enough.

In the "Music of My Soul," the DJ, portrayed so beautifully by actor/singer Chad Kimball, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, describes how he grew up in a household where "the only thing my daddy taught was white should stay with white." The DJ goes on to sing how the music broke down all his senses and "yet, made me feel so whole. See I was lost until I found the music of my soul."

I really can't explain what has drawn me to this musical. In fact, my buying the ticket to the show was a spur of the moment decision. And what a serendipitous one it turned out to be. In a New York Times review of "Memphis," the day after it opened, theatre critic Charles Isherwood wrote that Bryan's music "evokes the powerhouse funk of James Brown, the hot guitar riffs of Chuck Berry, the smooth harmonies of the Temptations, the silken, bouncy pop of the great girl groups of the period."

Historically, I have come to learn in reading about the musical that the real DJ Dewey Philips was the first to play an Elvis Presley record on the air. Of course, we all have come to know that Memphis is also the city where King was assassinated in April 1968. He had come to the city to support the sanitation workers who had gone on strike.

As we remember King this week, let us remember one of his most powerful statements in which he looked to the day in which people would be judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Rita Papazian is a freelance writer who has covered Norwalk extensively.

Copyright 2011 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.