When the musical Memphis first opened on October 19, 2009, many thought it would be gone by January. “We had a lot of people tell us that we couldn’t do it [on Broadway] because it was a show nobody had ever heard of with no one anybody had heard of,” says producer Sue Frost. Set in the 1950s about a white radio DJ who wants to get black music to the middle of the radio dial, Memphis is an original musical—not based on a recognizable commodity like a movie or a band’s catalogue. In its opening week on Broadway, even after positive reviews, Memphis made $528,902—42% of its potential gross—but the producers weren’t expecting an overnight success.
Frost knew from the musical’s previous runs in La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre that Memphis was a crowd-pleaser. “The goal was to stick around long enough for people to find us,” Frost says. The gamble paid off. Word of mouth spread and in June of 2010, Memphis won Tony Awards for best musical, book of a musical (Joe DiPietro), score (David Bryan and DiPietro), and orchestrations (Daryl Waters and Bryan). The unknown leads, Chad Kimball and Montego Glover were also nominated.
Now Memphis is not only being represented on Broadway, currently starring Rent’s Adam Pascal and Glover, but also in a national tour starring Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell and a DVD release. The tour kicked off in October in Memphis and is booked through August 12 (including stops in San Diego and Los Angeles). The Broadway production was filmed in January 2011 and shown on 530 screens nationwide in April of last year—the first time a show was filmed live and released in U.S. movie theaters while still running on Broadway. The DVD was released on January 24 of this year.
In addition to continuing to build an audience for the show, the producers also believe in spreading Memphis’ messages about tolerance and change. March is Theatre In Our Schools (TIOS) month as designated by the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE), and through a program called Inspire Change, Memphis invites students from arts-poor schools in New York and New Jersey, who wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to see live theater, to see the show and attend workshops and discussions with the actors. Memphis is also sponsoring the TIOS student video contest, in which kindergarten through twelfth graders submit videos related to the theme of how involvement in theater can make a difference in the lives of students. The grand prize winner will receive two tickets to the nearest show as well as backstage passes.
The show is also being featured in a national promotion called “Be A Star on Broadway,” sponsored by Land O’Frost. Families can submit videos performing one of five songs, including “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” from Memphis. The grand prize package includes a VIP Camp Broadway experience and four tickets to Memphis on Broadway.
Over two years after opening on Broadway, with the support of an international fan base and creative marketing strategies, Memphis has become an entertainment brand of its own.
By Linda Buchwald
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