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Memphis lives in me (Thoughts on closing) August 24, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Michigan, musical theater, Musicals.
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This isn’t a review. And it isn’t a random entry. This is truly an article about what “Memphis” means to me.

Yesterday, we played our final performance of MEMPHIS the Musical at The Croswell Opera House in Adrian, MI. It was a show that earned rave reviews (two were published right here!) and almost instantaneously became the major theater event of the SE Michigan/NW Ohio theatre scene. It was called “moving”, “electric”, “triumphant”, “joyous”, “energized”. But it also garnered the type of comments that meant much more: “dug deep into the talent pool so underutilized in this area”, “ spiritual”, “inspiring”.

Not familiar with the show? Well, it is about the birth of rock and roll, based on the black rhythm and blues roots of Memphis underground clubs, and how that sound eventually made it into the mainstream, primarily by way of teenagers and younger listeners who craved that type of upbeat dance music. It led to things like “the generation gap” and took place many years before the 50’s created in “Grease” or the early 60’s of “Hairspray”.

I had the honor of playing the supporting part of Mr Simmons, the radio station (later television station) owner — a great comedic part, and a risk-taker: sure, he was out for money, but he was a businessman who was open-minded enough in 1951 to hire a DJ that spun “colored music” (also known as “race music” at that time), and even permit an all-black television program down the road. When things spin out of control in Act II, he is astute enough to recognize that he needs to get his black performers “home, where they will be safe”.

But there is a secondary storyline — that of white disc jockey Huey Calhoun and his pursuit of black singer Felecia Farrell — and the racial tension that ensues in both the white and black communities when they fall in love with tragic consequences.

You would think that would be enough to keep you entertained, right?

Well, there is an even deeper level of what happened in Adrian this summer — and it was the miracle of a fully integrated cast at Croswell. 19 black cast members. An equal number of white. And that was a small miracle and one that seems like it shouldn’t be something we need to celebrate in 2015 — BUT WE DO.

While I consider Croswell the theater nearest and dearest to my heart I also do shows primarily in Ann Arbor. I’ve never done a show that had an integrated cast in this area. Years ago we did Big River at Ann Arbor Civic Theater with 4 black cast members (it needed about 15). On occasion I’ve gotten one or two diverse auditioners at shows I direct — in Ann Arbor.

Imagine the feat that took place in Adrian with Memphis. When the show was announced last fall, many people raised their eyebrows and thought, “what? where are they going to get that cast?” I hate to admit I was one of those people. In fact, I went up to the artistic director that night and asked her that same question.

But what happened was that people “believed”…starting with Jere Righter and the Board of Directors — they believed they could do it. Director/Choreographer Debra Calabrese believed she could get the cast. She used that belief to round up some of the most talented dancers in the area. Some were local to Adrian, others came from Toledo, in particular from schools of dance and fine arts. While those of us who had already been cast sweated out hearing if the show was on for sure, these people who believed were out there making the impossible happen.

We had an all-cast meeting early in the summer — and that initial meeting set the tone for what was to come. One by one, in groups, and in carpools, the cast arrived. Most had never been to Adrian before, let alone inside the Croswell Opera House. Some had never even been in a musical before. I looked around and found myself surprised and bewildered — there we were, one of the most diverse groups of colors, sizes, shapes, and ages.

Slowly people started talking — we introduced ourselves. We laughed. We sang a round of the curtain call song with our musical director Dave Rains who smiled and said “yeah, that will work”.

And we started to believe too.

The skeptics around SE Michigan were starting to become more vocal when I told them the show was coming together in a way beyond any of our dreams. It couldn’t be. Really? “I heard you’re using offstage singers” (yes, but so do other shows across America). “I heard your lead hasn’t even arrived from NYC yet” (yes, but when she did, the remarkable Tatiana Owens knew every single line of dialogue, blocking, and music). “I heard your spending a lot of time in dance rehearsals” (Well, duh, its a heavy dance musical). “I heard you have two separate casts” (no — we had an integrated cast of black and white performers who were all at rehearsals together every night – it was true that there are numbers that feature only the black cast, and others that feature only the white cast, but many of them featured both).

But the excitement was mounting. Tati arrived, and was instantly welcomed and enveloped by the cast. The show was becoming one big moving cog-and-wheel machine: scenes were landing with the correct emphasis on jokes and balanced with seriousness; dances were taking a shape that I have rarely seen on any local stage — when you have some of the finest dancers available, you can do some of the finest choreography — and they were, and it was.

But something else was happening — this integrated cast was becoming a tight, cohesive family. Black and white. Arriving early every night so that there was time to socialize. Lingering after rehearsals to chat in the parking lot. Grabbing meals together. Texting non-stop. Supporting each other on Facebook during the day — looking forward to the next rehearsal.

And everyone believed in this show, and this cast, and the quality. There wasn’t a single person who thought that this was not going to work (or if there was, I was certainly not aware of it).

By the time we got to tech week, we knew we had a hit. The emotions were flowing just right. The invited dress audience was ecstatic. The rest is history — the reviews were stellar, the ticket sales took off and the box office was swamped with calls and online orders and the sellouts followed. There was an outpouring of “Memphis-love”. I joked that my favorite thing was getting home at the end of the night and reading my Facebook feed each night after a show, which had exploded with Memphis posts.

And the audiences were just as diverse as the cast — certainly not 50/50 like the cast itself, but far more diverse than any other audiences I can ever remember at Croswell…and the energy was palpable. I could feel it from the stage. The cast thrived on every audience gasp, and ooh, and ah and reaction to kisses, and broken records, and by the second act it was simply electric in the house. Older cast members shared stories of discrimination and human rights. An older white man in the audience told our director that “he had no idea he had made it so difficult for people back then”.

Absolutely nothing creates that type of energy but live theater. It is why I have been involved with theater since being a young kid. I’ve directed 45 musicals, and I’ve probably been in about an equal number, and I’ve never felt what I did during Memphis, both onstage, and afterwards each night. Audience members stayed and wanted to meet the cast after the show. Audience members stopped us in the parking lot on our way to our cars to take selfies and talk about the show. Adrian was abuzz — reports came from people talking about the show at their hair stylists, at their nail salon, at the library, at Adrian College, and Sienna Heights, at Sauce restaurant. The two topics that dominated Adrian life were the new Buffalo Wild Wings opening near “the mall” and Memphis.

This is a good a time as any to thank the many many audience members that came and supported the show and were moved and told their friends and brought them back to see the show a second time. It is time to thank every single merchant downtown and around the area that displayed a Memphis poster in their windows. Its time to thank people for making everyone feel welcome. And it is time to thank Croswell for supporting something that will hopefully keep diversity alive and well on its stages and audiences.

If there is something I wish comes of this experience for everyone is that those young folks who are growing up in Adrian and thinking that they are somehow different and not welcome — stop, believe, know that you belong, and come audition for future shows. Discover your talents. Discover your uniqueness. Be a part of this big, organic thing that is theater and live performance.

There were more tears backstage on closing night (they actually started the night before already) than I have witnessed at other shows — and that was a tribute not just to the feeling that had been created on stage, and with the intensity of the rehearsal/performance process — but also because this big diverse family was performing together for the last time.

After the show, the tears flowed for real. Cast met audience a final time. Some lingered over a meal and drinks with friends, others went home. I met with a best friend and we couldn’t stop talking about the show. When he later posted a clandestine 10 second clip of the curtain call online, I watched it over and over, probably 20 times. I was having a hard time letting go as well. I felt I didn’t have closure. I wanted to keep these people in my life every single night.

I have 40 new friends, and I can’t wait to see what they do next — be that in Toledo, Ann Arbor, Adrian, or wherever. I can’t wait to see these folks again. We took a spiritual journey together. Cast, crew, orchestra, artistic staff. I know I will work with many of them again.

I believe this is the start of something wonderful.

 

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