“Memphis” Wins! Neener Neener!

This weekend, the Broadway musical “Memphis” won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was a triumph I was glad to see, because as I mentioned in this post from January, my brother Charlie is part of the ensemble. He was with the show while it was in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and then at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and was able to stay with it when it graduated to Broadway.

So congratulations to Charlie and the rest of the Memphis cast! Even setting aside the fact that my brother is in it, it was a great musical, and from what I’ve seen and heard, the cast and crew seem like a really great group of people.

Because I have a keen appreciation of schadenfreude, I poked around various news sites to see what the reaction was. I was pleased to note that overall Memphis garnered a lot of praise, even from the media. But I did find a few critics whose tears I could savor, most notably Michael Reidel of the New York Post, who complained about musicals being created for “hick audiences around the country” by “cynical producers who want to make pots of money.” I found this particularly amusing, because hey, news flash Mike: you work for freaking RUPERT MURDOCH. I think you’d best get off that high horse there.

Seriously, though, I was intrigued by the articles which complained that the Tony voters went the safe choice in “Memphis”, instead of choosing the edgier “Fela!” or “American Idiot.” I realize it’s a debate that goes on in the media all the time (mainly after awards shows), but this time I had a stronger connection to it: first in my brother, and second, now that I’m actively working toward the goal of being a creative professional myself, this debate has a direct impact on my own work as well.

I didn’t see the other nominated shows, but if Memphis is more accessible to mass audiences, isn’t that a good thing? As an aspiring writer, my goal is tell a really good story that touches people’s emotions. Isn’t that the very definition of accessibility? What’s the point of producing something edgy if no one wants to see it? Art for art’s sake, I guess. To that I say bah humbug.

I don’t write this post because I take the criticisms of Memphis personally– after all, Memphis won the Tony no matter what certain critics think, and I don’t think a Broadway production the size of Memphis needs to be defended by me. No, I’m more interested in the larger debate on what makes good art (be it theater, writing, movies, painting, music, etc.)– is it edginess? Originality? Accessibility?

For me, this is what art is, and always will be, regardless of what either critics or the dictionaries say: it’s a creative work designed to evoke an emotional response in the viewer/reader/watcher/listener, and to hopefully make them think. Successful art, then, is art which evokes the response it was aiming for (which doesn’t have to be a specific emotion). All other things that we strive for in art, such as originality, are in service of that higher goal. Accessibility, then, is another factor in service of the art: if more people see it and are touched by it, the art, whatever medium it’s in, is stronger as a result.

Anyway, those were just a few thoughts that came to me as I celebrated Memphis’ win. And as I expressed in my earlier blog post about Memphis, I think it’s a great story, even from a writing perspective. Anyone who thinks it was solely about racism was not paying close enough attention: what made it good was that it wasn’t just an outdated morality play, it was a drama involving very real, very believable, and very flawed characters. The 1950’s were just the backdrop against which their personal stories played out.

Anyway, I hope no one interprets this post as sour grapes against the critics who blasted Memphis’ win (well, except Michael Reidel, at whose expense I will continue to enjoy a hearty laugh). Rather, this debate, on what makes creative works like musicals “good”, has a very real and very direct impact on me as a writer, and it’s interesting to contemplate. I don’t think there really is a right answer… I have my opinion of course, and some people will disagree with me, which is fine. But if I ever get a novel published, I just want to spin a good yarn that’s fun to read; to hell with what the critics say. Memphis was the Broadway equivalent of my favorite kind of novel.

Congrats again, Memphis!

The Frozen Apple

Somehow everytime I visit New York City it ends up being in the dead of winter. I hear the temperature occasionally creeps above freezing there, maybe sometime between March and October, but I don’t recall ever seeing it myself.

Anyway, last weekend I boarded a plane about the size of a compact car, along with my Mom and Aunt and flew to NYC. (Okay, it was a actually a typical puddle jumper for a flight that long, but keep in mind I’m used to flying on 777s). We were visiting my brother, who’s a cast member in the Broadway show Memphis– you can see him second from the right in the Memphis poster below. (Click on it for a bigger version.)

Naturally, the main attraction was to go see my brother on Broadway, so we ended up seeing the show twice. The story takes place in the city of Memphis (duh), in the 1950s. The main characters are a white radio DJ named Huey Calhoun, and a black singer named Felicia Farrell. Huey’s goal is to get her on the mainstream radio (not an easy task in the South in the fifties), so needless to say much of the show is about the racism that was so prevalent back then. But it’s also a love story, and maybe even a cautionary tale about the dangers of fame and pride.

I was very impressed with it– and I don’t just say that because of the family connection. I went in expecting a fairly typical musical with a bunch of songs done all 50’s style (which I’ve never been particularly fond of, to be honest). But I was pleasantly surprised– the musical numbers were excellent (I’ve pretty much had the soundtrack playing on repeat since getting home), the actors were incredible (all of them, not just my brother) and the writing was really good too.

Of course, I always analyze everything from a writer’s perspective… I can’t help it. I look at the characters, setting, and plot, even in a work where the narrative is secondary– like a musical, or a very visually-oriented movie (I’ve been meaning to write a post on the movie Avatar). In the case of Memphis, all three were very strong, particularly the characters, who were heroic, brave, and also clearly flawed, even as you rooted for them. The plot had enough twists to keep me interested, and it ended in a way that surprised me, which is always good.

Interestingly, there’s a kernel of truth to the story– aside from the whole setting, which is obviously based on the way things were, the writers probably had a man named Dewey Phillips in the back of their mind as they were creating Huey Calhoun. Among other things, he was the first radio DJ to broadcast Elvis Presley, and he had to prove Elvis was white to his radio audience by asking which high school he went to. (In the musical, a bigshot radio boss told Huey to prove his race on the radio in the same way.) There are other parallels to explore, but I won’t go into too much depth… don’t want to give spoilers.

If you find yourself in NYC anytime soon, go see Memphis. Or if you can’t, be sure to go see the show when it eventually starts touring, which it definitely will.