When Memphis started rehearsals in 2008 at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, the world was a little different.
A black man was running for president, "but no one thought he would win," said Adam Arian, associate director of the production of Memphis that comes to the Lexington Opera House this weekend. "There is a song in the show that says, 'Say a prayer, change is coming,' and that really resonated with us."
At the time, Arian had just latched onto the show by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro; he believed in the material and its shot at Broadway. His instincts were good.
Memphis, which had a three-year run at New York's Shubert Theater, from 2009 to 2012, won four Tony Awards, including best musical, and four Drama Desk Awards, including outstanding musical.
Fans of the rock band Bon Jovi might recognize Bryan as the group's keyboard player. With Memphis, he was working on a show that took viewers back to the early days of rock 'n' roll and a flashpoint in the U.S. civil rights struggle.
The story of the musical is based on Dewey Phillips, one of the first white disc jockeys to play black music. In the musical, the character is Huey, who leads something of a charmed life, talking his way into a DJ job and then breaking all the rules: playing black music, encouraging white people to attend black churches and ultimately falling in love with a black woman, the super-talented singer Felicia.
Arian says that the actors coming to Lexington are some of only a handful of people to play the roles, because the Broadway actors stuck around.
"It's a very rewarding show for the performers and the audience," he says. "Each role is so meaty and real, and they are characters that the actors enjoy playing."
The music is a rich mix of rock, gospel, blues and soul, and the story is filled with exhilarating moments and heartbreak as every advance is met with a step back.
"Memphis tackles some painful aspects of American history without too much sugarcoating, giving it the thematic weight that takes it beyond just a good show," Austin American-Statesman critic Cate Blouke wrote in a review of the production in December. "Though the genre calls for lighthearted singing and dancing, Memphis doesn't pretend that American race relations could change with a kiss and a song. Because the songs are exceptional, however, we leave the theater wanting to take both the music and the message home."
It was a message that the cast and crew wanted to send, Arian says. He remembers tears in the audience, and even among people associated with the show, as rehearsals became productions and more and more people saw it. As the country changed more and the show started touring, he says there was a feeling the show was telling the story of one struggle for civil rights as another, the movement for gay rights, was winning victories.
"It's rare to have a show where everyone feels in the bottom of their hearts that they're telling a story that really matters," Arian says. "We're lucky to have people from the top down who believe in the story so much and believe they are telling a story that is important today."