Of all the shows to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in the current century so far, this is easily the weakest…even such unworthy recipients as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Spamalot, Jersey Boys and Kinky Boots were all more respectable than this. This is another second-rank show to rip off Hairspray, only this one rips off the serious elements of Hairspray and was probably inspired more by the mediocre film version than the Broadway show.
It’s the story of a white radio DJ, a black female singer, and their forbidden romance during the dawn of rock’n’roll. The book plays like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, an appallingly melodramatic cliché with stock characters and shallow treatment of the issues it tries to address. Also, the leading man is the most annoying and unappealing main character we had seen in a Broadway show since The Drowsy Chaperone‘s ‘Man in Chair’. He’s portrayed as an ignorant, juvenile and hypocritical redneck stereotype, complete with some incredibly irritating verbal tics that are offered as a subsitute for actual personality, and we’re expected to forgive all of that just because he’s not racist. This show contributes yet more to the mounting pile of evidence that Joe DiPietro really shouldn’t be allowed to write Book Musicals.
The songs, including the emotional ballads “The Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives In Me” for the leading man, the proto-Motown pastiche “Someday”, the lively “Everybody Wants To Be Black on Saturday Night”, the bluesy power ballad “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls”, and the stirring finale “Steal Your Rock ‘N’ Roll”, are pleasant enough, but they’re also quite generic, not really showing us anything we haven’t seen before in a hundred other shows. The music was written by the keyboard player from Bon Jovi, and beneath its thin veneer of period pastiche, it pretty much sounds like a Bon Jovi album…lively, melodic, and emotional, but also conventional and kind of trite. The thing is, that formula actually works really well for middle-of-the-road Rock music, but it isn’t nearly as effective for expressing the emotions of an ostensibly serious story, and just makes the book seem even more shallow.
Also, apart from one genuinely dramatic number in “Colored Woman”, they’re essentially Pop tunes, often only loosely integrated into the story and offering little or no real dramatic resonance. If this inane potboiler melodrama was really to be told as a musical, it needed music powerful and honest enough to give the whole thing some actual depth, and this assemblage of vaguely pastiche-flavored Pop-Rock cliches just doesn’t cut it.
Also, as someone who actually knows something about the music of the time, I have to point out that the show misrepresents music history to reinforce the point it’s trying to make. It takes place in the mid-fifties, but it suggests that the music of the era consisted only of R&B by black singers and white Easy Listening acts in the vein of Perry Como. Seriously? This was the era of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums—trust me, there was plenty of great jazz, real jazz, being sung by white singers at the time. This arbitrary dichotemy of “old music” and “new music” comes across as false and annoying at the best of times, but in combination with the authors’ dishonest presentation of music history and complacent confidence that their audience would be ignorant enough to swallow it, the result becomes downright reprehensible.
I suppose I can understand how this show got to be a hit, even if it didn’t deserve to be. After all, the fact that those Lifetime TV movies are still being made indicates that there is an audience for this kind of melodramatic drivel. And I suppose the score is enjoyable enough for what it is…frankly, it had better and more consistent music than Rock of Ages the year before, and every song in that show had already been a popular hit. Also, I will admit that the dancing in this show is legitimately terrific—it really is the best thing about the show, and all the numbers play much better in performance than they sound on the cast album. What really enrages me is that this piece of pandering trash won the Best Musical Tony that year. Granted, there was less competition that year than there would have been in most of the surrounding seasons, but even so, Fela! and American Idiot were both twenty times the show Memphis was, and it was a slap to the face that they both lost to this exercise in stifling mediocrity.