Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TTPMO: Memphis, the musical

If you're going to understand this post, you have to understand that I like musicals. I mean, really like them. I willingly spend money on tickets to musicals. I have a large collection of original Broadway cast recordings. I have strong opinions about Sondheim.

So when I say that Memphis is the worst musical ever, it's not because I dislike musicals or because I don't "get" the genre or whatever.


It's because Memphis is the worst damn musical ever.



Don't believe me? Allow me to explain:


The musical takes place in Memphis (duh) in the 1950s. The plot (such as it is) revolves around Huey Calhoun, a loser white guy who likes "race music." He falls in love with 
Felicia, a singer who is black. Through a series of laughably implausible schemes (more on those in a moment), and on the strength of Felicia's singing and his own...er...well, something positive about his personality that's never fully explained or illustrated, Huey gets a job as a radio DJ and eventually as a TV personality. But then his star fades and Felicia breaks up with him and he ends up back as a DJ.

You may have noticed that this description lacks any sort of dramatic arc or character development. That's because there isn't anyThere's a longer plot summary on Wikipedia, but trust me, it doesn't make any more sense than the one I just gave.

It gets worse.


Writers are often advised to "show, don't tell," which is a pretty solid general principle. A good way to get an audience to understand that a character has a certain trait is to put the character in a situation where that trait can be demonstrated, not merely to have someone state that the character has that trait. If the writers of Memphis ever heard that advice, they either disregarded it entirely or got it backwards, since the majority of the dialogue in the show involves characters telling the audience things about themselves or each other.


To illustrate: 
Felicia's brother runs a nightclub and tends to disapprove of anyone who wants to date his sister. How do I know this? Because he announces it to the audience as soon as he steps onstage in the first scene. Felicia would really rather that her brother weren't so controlling, but overall, she's happy. And how do I know this? Because she announces it to the audience immediately after her brother makes his announcement. 

Making matters worse is the fact that this "tell, don't show" attitude applies not only to introducing the characters, but also to important moments of transition. The best example of this is Huey's mother. When Huey and 
Felicia start to date, Huey's mother does not approve of Huey seeing "that colored girl." As an audience member, I'm thinking, "Great! Here's a chance for the development of some interesting dramatic tension!" Except that nothing more is made of this issue until the beginning of Act Two, when Huey's mother turns to the audience and announces that she's had a change of heart, interracial dating is A-OK, and here's a chipper little song to prove it.

This is far from the only occasion where this sort of inexplicable reversal happens. To cite two more examples: Huey, in Act One, begs 
Felicia to go to New York City with him so that they can get married. But then Huey, in Act Two, refuses to go to New York City with Felicia when she's offered a job there because he couldn't possibly leave Memphis. Wha??? Also, at the end of the show, Felicia visits Huey at his radio station and asks him to come see her perform. Huey categorically refuses. Ten seconds later, Felicia is performing and Huey is right there with her. Nonsensical doesn't even begin to describe it.

As if this kind of whiplash-inducing about-face isn't bad enough, the musical loses whatever credibility it may have had left by completely undermining its main character. Allow me to explain: When the show opens, Huey is a total loser, a good-for-nothing who can't hold a job. (How do I know this? Because a variety of characters announce it directly to the audience. Are you sensing a theme here?)


But what we actually see onstage is Huey succeeding with crazy scheme after crazy scheme. He's left temporarily in charge of the music counter of the department store where he works, and sells a huge number of records by playing "race music" over the store's speaker system --- because the kind of white suburban folks who frequented department stores in the South in the 1950s would suddenly demand an immediate repeal of Jim Crow drop everything to buy a slew of rock'n'roll records featuring black artists based on a single exposure, don't you know. He does precisely the same thing, with precisely the same effect, on a radio show that he guest-hosts. (The accompanying upbeat musical number is titled, without perceptible irony, "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night." Unfortunately, the subtitle was not "Except for All the People who are Actually Black and Who Continue to be Disenfranchised and Victimized by a Racist Populace," which makes me think I should be giving more money to the NAACP.) He pulls this kind of inane, credibility-defying stunt about four times in the first act, all to great effect.

Let's take a moment to sum up what's happening here. First, the show insists, loudly and repeatedly, that Huey is a loser. Then, the show illustrates that Huey has some kind of magical talent for success. Further, the way in which this magical talent manifests itself is utterly unrealistic. This is the very opposite of "show, don't tell." Not only have the writers failed to give me any plausible reason to believe that Huey is a loser, they've spent considerable time and energy in undermining the very character trait that they were so insistent that I believe in. In the process, they've created a world where total losers can actually get rich quick with their ludicrous get-rich-quick schemes. But if that's how this world works, why wasn't Huey able to put said schemes into effect before, hence failing to become a loser in the first place? This situation doesn't ask me to suspend disbelief so much as to take disbelief and hang it unceremoniously from a gallows.


Wait, it gets worse.


As you might imagine, this kind of storytelling makes it really hard for the audience to care about the characters, all of whom are basically one-dimensional caricatures. This point is driven home rather forcefully at the end of Act One, when a gang beats up
Felicia because of her relationship with Huey. Given that nothing interesting has happened in Act One until this point, I took this as a very good sign. (Note to writers: When one of your main characters is brutally beaten and the audience's reaction to this event is "terrific!", you're in trouble.) As the curtain fell on the first act, I headed into intermission with high hopes about a dramatic second-act opener at Felicia's bedside. Huey could be feeling miserable and guilty; Felicia's brother could be simultaneously furious at Huey for being the cause of his sister's injuries and touched by his devotion to her; Huey's mother could wrestle with a similar set of conflicted feelings...

But it was not to be. Act Two opens with a splashy, cheery musical number. It's six months later and Huey and 
Felicia are still together, but she's unable to have children because of the attack. How do I know this? Because Huey announces it to the audience in pretty much those exact words about 30 seconds after the splashy, cheery musical number ends. Then the rest of Act Two wanders along in basically the same vein as before. I should have known that setup was too good to last.

You might not believe it, but yes, it gets worse.


Probably the most frustrating thing about Memphis is its handling of racial issues. Basically, it makes Hairspray (which preaches a similar message of interracial tolerance) look worthy of a Pulitzer. 
I've already given some of the more egregious examples of this, but I've just got to share one more:

One of the men who work's in 
Felicia's brother's nightclub is mute. He witnessed his father being lynched and was so traumatized by it that he's refused to speak since then. (It should not surprise you to learn that this story is told to the audience in pretty much the same words as I've just used.) This would be nothing more than overly dramatic blather if it weren't for the way in which this story is put to use in the show. When Huey enters the club following the afore-mentioned gang beating, carrying a wounded Felicia, the club patrons  blame him for what's happened and threaten to attack him. Then, in a plot twist worthy of an underachieving fifth-grader, the mute character suddenly regains his ability to speak and begs everyone to come together and get along. And they do. Curtain on Act One.

This is the sort of thing that made me want to run out and apologize to every black person I could find. The trouble was that I would have had to run pretty far, since aside from the actors doing their best to breathe some life into this abominable material, there weren't any black people in the theater. That should tell you everything you need to know about Memphis's contribution to interracial dialogue.

To add insult to injury, the music wasn't even catchy. Good music can go a long way towards redeeming some of the sins enumerated here. Alas, no such luck; the soundtrack consisted of an indistinguishable series of peppy songs failing to capture any of the excitement and drive of a genuine '50s beat.


Could it possibly get worse? Oh yes, it could.


Because this steaming pile of pigshit won the Tony Award for Best Musical.



Do you know what that means? That means that it's enshrined in musical theater history with the likes of A Chorus Line and Cabaret. That people whose job it is to judge musicals --- people who should know better! --- sat through this hodgepodge of hokey plot devices, wooden characters, and insipid music, and pronounced it good. In all fairness, I didn't see the rest of the nominees that year, so perhaps they were worse. But it's hard to imagine how that's possible.

Because Memphis is the worst musical ever.

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