First, it's about the story, says Sue Frost. "I have to be engaged," she says, explaining why she is one of a platoon of producers who have brought something a little more risky than usual to Broadway this season. Their project? "Memphis," an original musical, one not based on a movie, play, television series or cartoon. And there are no stars in the leading roles of an interracial couple caught up in the changing music scene of the early 1950s.
The $10 million plus production has arrived — after a nearly decade-long gestation period — at the Shubert Theatre to mostly enthusiastic reviews, particularly for leads Chad Kimball and Montego Glover who have been with the musical since its beginnings.
"I have to feel that it (the story) is relevant," Frost adds. "I have to feel that no matter what it's about, an audience today is going to take something away from it."
And they seem to be taking away quite a bit, judging by the cheering at the end of each performance — a relief for its many producers, who took on a Broadway show during the current, unsteady economic climate. But much of the money was raised for the musical's out-of-town tryouts before things collapsed last fall.
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"It was hard but not as hard as you would think because ... so many people who saw it (out of town) were passionate about it," Frost says. "A lot of the more seasoned (theater) folks said, 'You're coming in. Nobody knows what the economy is going to be. You don't have any stars. Nobody knows what this show is.' It took the passionate people who believe in the show to get us where we are."
Like many show-biz efforts, theatrical or otherwise, "Memphis" began with a phone call.
The caller was George W. George, a veteran Broadway producer of such 1960s hits as "Any Wednesday" and "Dylan," as well as the movie "My Dinner With Andre." He was touching base with Joe DiPietro, one of the creators of the long-running off-Broadway revue "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and other shows.
"George had this idea," DiPietro recalls. "He had been reading about the disc jockeys who were the first white DJs ... to play rhythm 'n' blues for mainstream white audiences in the early 1950s, which really, of course, became the precursor to rock 'n' roll in the mid '50s.
"And how, especially in the South, these guys tended to be the first shock jocks. They were renegades and rebels in what they were doing in a very segregated South. (It was) not only controversial but even somewhat dangerous."
George thought it was a great idea for a musical. So did DiPietro: "Once we had this DJ who essentially was the one white guy hanging out in black clubs, which is what these guys used to do, I thought, 'Let's dramatize it by embodying the music in one singer, an African-American singer with whom he falls in love.'"
The script was written quickly and DiPietro's agent sent it around. DiPietro then got another phone call. According to DiPietro, it went something like this: "Hi Joe. My name is David Bryan. I am the keyboardist for Bon Jovi and I just read your script for 'Memphis' and I see every song in my head and how can I write the score?"
DiPietro asked for a sample. The next day, a CD of a song — "The Music of My Soul" — arrived by FedEx. The tune is still in the musical.
Bryan welcomed the challenge of writing for the theater. His whole world had been writing a pop song "that you wanted to put on the radio. So you've go about three minutes and 30 seconds — which is the Beatles' standard. And it still is."
But Bryan said what appealed to him about the story was that "it wasn't just entertainment for entertainment's sake. It mattered. You're talking racism and about the birth of rock 'n' roll, which I'm interested in."
Now he was faced with writing songs for character and for moving the plot, as well as creating (they share the credit for lyrics) with a seasoned man of the theater.
"You actually can't feel that one is really experienced and one is not," director Christopher Ashley says. "They are such a strong team. ... They are very nondefensive about the material, which is kind of amazing considering how long they have been working on the show. Nothing is set in stone."
"You have an opportunity when you come see 'Memphis' to sit down and come with us on this journey and hear music that you have never heard before," says Glover, who portrays ambitious club singer Felicia Farrell in the show.
"The score is rock 'n' roll, R&B, blues, gospel," continues Glover, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-raised performer who has appeared on Broadway and on tour in "The Color Purple."
"It's a wonderful mix of music that is familiar in its tone to everyone in the country because it's part of our musical history as Americans."
"Memphis" began its public life (with a different director) at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., in 2003, and had a second viewing the following year at TheaterWorks in Palo Alto, Calif. But then development stalled. George's rights lapsed (the producer died in 2007), and the show was picked up by Frost and her producing partners who operate under the atmospheric name of Junkyard Dog Productions.
"I saw the show opening night at the North Shore and it was not anywhere near what it is now but I saw the audience response," Frost says. "They went crazy for it."
The new producers brought on a new director (Ashley), choreographer (Sergio Trujillo) and design team and carefully mapped out a plan to play two out-of-town stops — the La Jolla Playhouse in California and Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre — before coming to Broadway. Time is the most precious commodity in putting on a show, and Junkyard Dog wanted to make sure its production of "Memphis" had enough of it.
"When we began the process of 'Memphis,' the idea was never to put the show up once and let that be it," Glover says. "There was always a spirit of development that surrounded 'Memphis,' knowing that we had something that was really wonderful and really juicy. But we wanted to commit the time and the effort to developing it properly."
"We learned so much about the show and what it needed to be," Frost says. "Every step of the way, we would sit and we would analyze: what's working, what's not working, and how do we want to fix it and how do we want to move forward."
It was invaluable for the performers, too.
"These actors know their characters inside out," Ashley says. "The cast has so much trust in each other and faith in the project, which makes them fearless in a great way. And they have been working on it long enough that there is an accumulation of detail in their performances that I've rarely seen."
Frost believes those great performances helped spur the show's good word of mouth and growing advance.
"We always knew that we had to get it up in front of people," she says. "They had to see it, experience it.
"Sure, you're filled with trepidation. But we saw what the show did in La Jolla and Seattle. By the end of our three-week run in Seattle, a 2,100-seat house, we were turning people away. That's how fast the word of mouth spread on this show."