Memphis was a huge Broadway hit in 2009-2010, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Orchestrations. It’s still playing at the Schubert Theatre (having run for 916 performances as of 1 January 2012), and a “live on tape” version (a composite of several performances recorded on high-definition cameras in January, 2011) also enjoyed a limited release in movie theatres in mid-2011.
In case you don’t have a trip to New York on your schedule, and missed the brief theatrical run, you can now see the theatrical version on DVD, courtesy of Shout! Releasing. It’s well worth your while, not only for fans of musical theatre, but also for those interested in the art of recording live performances.
Memphis is set in the ‘50s, at a time when clear barriers existed between the white and African-American (or in the parlance of the period, ‘Negro’) worlds. This demarcation existed in music, as well—black performers recorded on “race” labels which were marketed only to other black Americans, while white Americans were listening to the likes of Patti Page and Perry Como.
A white character named Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) provides the bridge between the two worlds, playing black music on a white radio station and also falling in love with a gifted black singer (Felicia, played by the amazing Montego Glover), a relationship much disapproved by both Huey’s mother (Cass Morgan) and Felicia’s big brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway). Huey’s not the brightest bulb, a fact which protects him from realizing the depth of these transgressions, but the black characters understand what is at risk.
There’s serious business behind the spectacle of Memphis, but the show treats the very real racial issues of the period mainly as backdrop for a series of sketches and production numbers, and the script and lyrics (by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan) rely heavily on easy laughs and stereotypical characters. A series of problems are broached, then solved with remarkable dispatch, in a manner that may dismay those who take the issues involved seriously. This approach to the material is not entirely unexpected (it’s a Broadway musical, after all, a genre with its own conventions and boundaries) but those expecting gritty realism should be forewarned to take the show on its own terms.
The music (by David Bryan) is catchy and effective without being terribly memorable, and the choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) is lively and enjoyable even if it doesn’t appear to bring anything new to the table. In fact, “effective” may be the best description of Memphis—the story is clearly presented, the emotions and motivations of the characters easy to understand (even if they sometimes seem too-neatly arranged for the convenience of the script), and there are frequent payoffs in terms of big production numbers. The staging makes good use of theatrical conventions—to cite one, when someone plays a recording, a live performer pops up out of the stage—and the multi-tiered sets (by David Gallo), lighting (by Howell Binkley), and costumes (by Paul Tazewell) provide lots of visual interest.
There’s no challenging the effectiveness of Memphis on stage, but how well does the theatrical experience translate to DVD? Quite well, in my estimation: the recording finds a useful middle ground between simply creating an archive of a live show, and making a movie which bears only a slim resemblance to the stage performance (the recording opens with a dolly shot of the theatre exterior, followed by shots of the orchestra warming up and the audience settling in, and closes with the curtain calls), and the next scene reminds you that you are watching a recording (shots of the cameramen, a succession of views not available from any seat in the house).
The recording of Memphis makes no attempt to disguise the head-worn microphones on the performers (something which would be less obvious in a live performance), and the camera work draws on the visual vocabulary of film and television (crane shots, shot-reverse sequences, close-ups) while eschewing Chicago-style movement and cutting for its own sake.
Needless to say, the performers in Memphis do all their own work, so there’s no need for another movie-musical convention, hiding the faces of stand-ins doing dance steps beyond the ability of the big-name performers. Television director Don Roy King wisely opts primarily for medium and long shots, allowing you to see most of the stage, most of the time, so you can see the blocking and reactions of all the characters on stage, rather than just focusing on the one speaking or singing at a given moment.
All in all, this recording of Memphis strikes a good balance between preserving the feel of a live stage performance and capitalizing on the visual possibilities allowed by a multi-camera setup; the latter serves in part as a consolation prize to make up for missing the excitement of attending a live performance.
The main extra on the DVD is a 15-minute, behind-the-scenes feature with the usual cast and crew interviews as well as a more interesting segment about how the recording was created. Other extra features include the theatrical trailer, introductions of cast members, and a song index.