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Love, race and music: 'Memphis' explores volatile '50s

| Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

Collaborators Joe DiPietro and David Bryan spent 10 years taking their musical "Memphis" from first draft to its opening on Broadway in 2009.

Their perseverance paid off when the show, which begins performances Tuesday at Heinz Hall as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh series, won four 2010 Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Original Score (Bryan and DiPietro), Best Book (DiPietro), and Best Orchestrations (Daryl Waters and Bryan). It continues performances on Broadway.

Both DiPietro and Bryan were already seasoned professionals.

Many know Bryan as a Grammy Award-winning keyboard player and a founding member of the band Bon Jovi.

DiPietro's resume includes the Broadway musical "All Shook Up," Off-Broadway musicals such as "The Toxic Avenger" and "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and the comedy "Over the River and Through the Woods."

Nevertheless, the musical's extensive development period was an advantage, DiPietro says. "It was a wonderful thing for the show, because David and I kept getting to be better writers," he says.

What kept them working on "Memphis" was its story that was close to both of their hearts, DiPietro says.

"We just loved it," he says. "You have to love a show to work on it."

Set in the 1950s in the smoky halls and underground clubs of Memphis, the musical focuses on a young white DJ named Huey Calhoun who falls in love with rock and roll and an electrifying black singer during the time when racial segregation was in force.

"The story of race is the story of America ... and (our story shows) how music helped open doors and bring us together in ways it had not before," DiPietro says.

DiPietro and Bryan developed their original story of love, turmoil, cultural revolution and rock 'n' roll from a concept by the late theater producer George W. George.

They based their central character Huey Calhoun on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who, in the '50s, dared to play recordings by black musicians alongside those of white artists.

By ignoring the ban against playing what was termed "race music" on mainstream stations, Phillips helped foster the social and musical revolution that was beginning to spread across the country.

"It was a great character to work with," DiPietro says. "Dewey Phillips was the first DJ to put race music in the center of the dial where it had the furthest reach. His personal life was more troubled (than Calhoun's), so we made up the love interest to represent the music and dramatize the racial stress of a time when it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry."

DiPietro knows that many leave the show assuming that the fictional Huey Calhoun was a real person and that the musical is biographical not fictional.

"Everyone tries to figure out how much is true," says DiPietro, who points out that there are plenty of easily accessed websites to set them straight.

But, he adds: "I don't think that matters."

In some ways it's almost a compliment. "The success of a musical is to create a world you believe in. We tried very hard to do that with 'Memphis'. "

A decade of change

The 1950s were a decade of legal, social and artistic change for African Americans as well as everyone else..

Here are some significant events from the period.

• 1950: Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first black to win the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Annie Allen," and Juanita Hall becomes the first black Tony Award winner for her role as Bloody Mary in "South Pacific."

• 1951: Mary White Ovington, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), dies.

• 1954: The Supreme Court unanimously decision on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that segregation in schools is unconstitutional.

• 1955: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to yield her seat at the front of a bus to a white passenger.

That same year 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till is brutally beaten and murdered by white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

• 1956: After a year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., led by Martin Luther King Jr., desegregation of buses is ordered in Alabama.

• 1957: Nine black high-school students, who would become known as the Little Rock Nine, are unconstitutionally prohibited from attending Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. President Eisenhower sends federal troops to escort the students to class.

• 1958: A Supreme Court decision in the lawsuit Cooper vs. Aaron overturns a district court decision that would have enabled the Little Rock Central High School to postpone desegregation due to continual threats of violent acts.

• 1959: "The Hate That Hate Produced," a documentary film about the Nation of Islam, brings Malcolm X to public attention.

In March, Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" becomes the first play by a black playwright to be produced on Broadway.

Also that year, Berry Gordy founds the Motown Record label.

Source: iTheatrics.com for "Memphis the Musical" educational guide

Additional Information:

'Memphis'

Presented by: PNC Broadway Across America • Pittsburgh

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Dec. 29, 8 p.m. Dec. 30, 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 31 and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 1

Admission: $26-$68

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900 or website

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