Memphis in the 1950s was the place to be if you loved rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis was thrusting his way to musical greatness, while African American artists were pioneering a sound that continues to inform popular music to this day.
In Memphis the musical, Hugh Calhoun may be Caucasian, but his passion for the sounds coming out of black America have made him a beloved DJ, despite the waves it causes with the bigots programming his radio show.
In the face of their opposition, Calhoun’s popularity with teenaged radio audiences has cemented his position as the station’s premier personality. But even as his professional life continues to break records and racial boundaries, his personal dalliances with a young black songstress threaten to push his supporters too far beyond their tolerance levels.
Memphis has been playing to sold-out audiences on Broadway since 2009, with Calhoun’s fictional story loosely mirroring the life of 1950s DJ Dewey Phillips. It was Phillips who first played Presley’s premiere single, “That’s All Right,” going on to build a career bringing black music to white ears.
This musical take on Phillips’s life features original music inspired by the ‘50s tunes he championed, as well as some kickass choreography led by hunky gay dance captain Kyle Leland.
Leland was only four months into his contract with the show’s Broadway production when he was offered the touring gig, which started this October. Life on the road can be physically and mentally arduous, but for Leland it’s the realization of years of hard work.
“I always dreamed of being on Broadway,” he says. “But I was so honoured when they offered me the tour, and then dance captain.”
It can be a tricky balance, both performing in a show and making sure your fellow dancers follow the choreographer’s intended footwork.
“The show really does become its own feature,” Leland says. “You learn the piece, and it becomes part of your body, but then the art of performance comes in and you mould it as it moulds you.
“There can be little changes that take place from show to show, but they only really become apparent when you look at it with fresh eyes. But it’s good for the dancers to put their own stamp on it, so there is some freedom there.”
As a classically trained dancer, Leland relishes the intensity and precision required by Memphis’s challenging choreography. His years of study with Alvin Ailey and Debbie Allen (am I the only Fame fan who just squeeled?) certainly prepared him for the daily grind, but Leland also credits the show’s energy for keeping everyone on their toes.
“There’s such a colour and a vibrancy to Memphis,” he says. “I just love the message, the music and the period costuming. It all comes together with a chemistry that is so genuine and refreshing. It’s just a fantastic show.”
Until Sat, Dec 24, 7:30pm
The Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St