When I talk to other Theater lovers about “Memphis” I hear a lot of hating, and I honestly don’t understand why. I really enjoyed the musical, in fact, I’ve already seen it twice and I highly recommend it to friends and tourists. The music is catchy, fun, lively, and sticky. There is good character development. “Memphis” is a charming story about a white DJ (Chad Kimball) going against the odds to put a black female singer (Montego Glover) on the pop charts. He not only makes her famous but falls in love as well – of course there is the slight problem that they really can’t get married because it is a bi-racial relationship and they’re in the heart of “Memphis.” I’ve heard criticism that it is just another “Hairspray,” I disagree, especially since the bi-racial relationship and subject matter is more mature and realistic rather than the fluffy high school innocence of “Hairpray.” I’d also like to note that I’ve listened to quite a few interviews and pod-casts about the creation and development of the show which has taken more than six year to make it to Broadway. Most of the cast has been with the show since inception and their passion for the show, the music, the director and entrance to Broadway is evident in their performances. Everyone on the stage is giving it all they’ve got and it’s infectious.
Then you have “Fela!” a show about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary and the man attributed to the creation of Afro-beat. The show chronicles his journey around the world to find his “song” and voice within his Nigerian homeland. Full of political undertones, the essence of this show is the lead Sahr Ngaujah. His stage presence draws in the audience and without him and the phenomenal dancers I don’t think this show would have much to stand on. Ben Brantley of the New York Times said “there has never been anything like this production on Broadway.” The cast encourages audience participation in a unique and appropriate way, the stunning choreography and difficult dancing is awe inspiring. The show really is a dance party and full of energy that I’ve rarely seen in a show. The party continues after the show as well, check out this clip.
The political messages of both of these shows (an underlying “black power”) begs a question – “shouldn’t we be past all of this?” Even with Obama in the White House, any American traveling the world will find that love can’t always conquer all the odds, prejudices still occur, and we still have a ways to go in order to break the mentality and biases inherit with race. What is it going to take? All people, all races, all cultures, all religions being humble to realize that it is up to each of us individually to make the change. To except all, to treat everyone equal, to not tolerate injustice. Really, it takes each and every one of us to reach out to our neighbor and love and serve.
I still can’t decide whether I want “Memphis” or “Fela!” to win the Tony. I think both deserve it and I feel they each brought something to Broadway worthy of celebrating.