Tonight, Bird and I went to see Memphis. It was part of a Broadway Touring package that Santa Claus brings Bird every year instead of toys. (Um, she still gets toys. Somehow that backfired a bit.) I knew nearly nothing about the show going in. My Broadway loving friends also knew little, expressing that they’d never been interested in the show at all or that they had a friend who said it was just okay. So, I wasn’t expecting much, especially since it was a touring group.
Let me say upfront, I friggin’ loved it. And this is despite some pretty serious issues with the sound. Several of the other people around me agreed that whoever was running the sound board was doing a terrible job because it was distorted enough that we could only make out three out of five words. Enough to know what was going on, but not enough for it to be clear and flawless. There was a song by one gentleman that we agreed we only heard the words “my sister” over and over.
(As an aside, I’m now remembering I had a similar problem with American Idiot. I’m wondering if the acoustics of the theater don’t do well with bands on the stage rather than the orchestra pit. Hmm.)
But the words I could make out, as well as the storyline, really appealed to me deeply. Perhaps it was because I’m Southern but the fact that I was sitting in the South, in a formerly “white theater” just up the street from the former “black theater”, as a member of a predominantly white audience, viewing a show featuring predominantly black performers, yet staring a white male, was a meta experience that deepened and layered meaning onto each scene.
Memphis struck me as different from, say, South-Pacific, in that any racism inherent in the ostensibly anti-racist show is all incredibly self-aware. When an audience like the one I was sitting in is watching certain numbers and those songs are proceeded or followed by lines about cultural appropriation and entertainment fetishization? Well, you know the show knows what it’s doing. It’s not running into accidental racism while preaching about racism. It’s all on purpose.
I admit that I wondered if gay, Southern men of a certain age might really find resonance in this play, in the same way that West Side Story spoke to a subset of gay men in the 1950s-60s. The poignancy of the lines, “Pretend we don’t got none of them crazy laws here in Tennessee, pretend that two grown adults can marry who they like, then would you marry me?” must strike a hard chord.
I was even more surprised to discover that Bird also lovedit. She has declared it her second favorite show that we’ve seen ever, and at this point, the kid’s seen a number of shows. I don’t think she has the cultural awareness or knowledge to really latch on to some of the meta references that I did. She loved the storyline, though, tragic though it is in some terribly real ways.
I think the love story appealed to her. The actors had great chemistry, the choreography of their longing was fantastic, and even though it ends unhappily in that regard, it had been too smart and too real of a show to really end any other way. It had to be done, sad though it was. Even Bird could see that.
The songs were fantastic and I think Santa might be bringing the CD for Bird this year. It was not at all what I was expecting tonight, but I’m so glad that we saw it. It felt really right to this girl who has and will always have Tennessee in her. For better or worse.