Original Broadway Cast

Memphis [Original Broadway Cast]

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On August 15, 2002, a new musical opened on Broadway. Set in a large mid-American city several decades in the past, it told the story of a white person enamored with black music who leads a fight for integration centered on a television show and included an interracial romance, all of it set to ersatz rock & roll. On October 19, 2009, another new musical opened on Broadway about which exactly the same things could be said. So, what's the difference between Hairspray and Memphis? Well, for one thing, Hairspray, based on John Waters' 1988 film and set in Baltimore in the early '60s, was a broad satire, while Memphis, "based on a concept by George W. George," as the credits state, and set in the title city in the early '50s, is achingly sincere, even if both stories are utter fantasies. For another thing, and more to the point in a discussion of the original Broadway cast album, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's score for Hairspray was full of letter-perfect pastiches of the sound of pop/rock circa the early ‘60s, while Joe DiPietro and David Bryan's score for Memphis bears almost no relationship to its era. Composer and co-lyricist Bryan, the longtime keyboard player in Bon Jovi, appears to have done no research into the music of Memphis, instead contenting himself with writing a batch of mainstream pop/rock songs that could have come from any time since the Beatles appeared in the U.S. in 1964; at least a couple of them wouldn't be out of place on a Bon Jovi album. Even for a show that is telling a story with little relationship to reality, that seems like a major flaw. Chad Kimball, playing Huey, the rock & roll-besotted white boy intent on integrating Memphis on musical and personal terms, and Montego Glover, playing Felicia, a budding star and his love interest, throw themselves into their performances, as does the rest of the cast. That helps make things a little less silly, but Memphis still registers several rungs below Dreamgirls and Hairspray (and miles below Hair and Rent) as rock-oriented Broadway musicals go.

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