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Theater section: Memphis magic

All photos by Joan Marcus

The votes have been tallied, the envelopes have been opened, and a new batch of Tony Award winners have emerged this summer from the new shows that opened on Broadway during the past year.

Among the winners are some surprise hits, a classic revival and other shows that groups are sure to love.

The breakout success of the year was “Memphis,” the surprise winner of the Tony Award for best musical.

“It’s an incredibly wonderful musical based on a disc jockey who falls in love with an African-American singer,” said Scott Mallalieu, president of Group Sales Box Office. “We see the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll and how it had to be interracial. It was a wonderful score and a wonderful book.”

Although the musical deals with actual people who were instrumental in the development of rock music, all of the songs in the show are original. In additional to winning the award for best musical, “Memphis” also took home trophies for best book of a musical, best original score and best orchestration. The show’s lead performers were also nominated in the best actor and best actress categories.

A million-dollar idea

The city of Memphis also scored with “Million Dollar Quartet,” another historical show that deals with the area’s music heritage. Actor Levi Kreis won the Tony for best performance by a featured actor in a musical for his interpretation of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Million Dollar Quartet

“ ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ takes place on an actual day in history, December 4, 1956,” Mallalieu said. “Just through a fluke, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis got together and had a jam session. It’s the only time these guys got together.”

Although all of the songs featured in the show will be familiar to fans of 1950s music, “Million Dollar Quartet” is not simply a jukebox musical. Instead, it tells the true story of the events that brought the four stars together at Memphis’ Sun Studios and follows them through the end of their recording session.

Dennis Martin, director of group sales at Theatre Direct, said the highlight of the show comes at the end when the entire cast performs the songs, sometimes with special guests.

“They have a huge medley at the end, where they just go crazy and rip all these numbers out,” Martin said. “The plot has ended, the story has wrapped up, and they do a huge medley and invite other people to join them. One night, Melissa Etheridge came out on stage and sang with them.”

Another big Tony winner was the revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” which won awards for best revival of a musical. Although there was another revival of the 1985 show just five years ago, this iteration won praise for its star-studded cast and gritty aesthetic.

“‘La Cage aux Folles’ is succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest imagination,” Mallalieu said. “It stars Kelsey Grammer from ‘Frasier,’ and they’re doing it in a sort of rundown way, like what a little dark, seedy club would have been like at the time.”

Another way to spell success
Tony Awards and critical acclaim aren’t the only ways to measure success on Broadway, though. Some of the biggest commercial hits of last season were snubbed by critics but scored with audiences.

Addams Family

“Two that weren’t critics’ favorites but were box office champs were ‘The Addams Family’ and ‘Promises, Promises,’” Martin said. “The critics have issues, but the audiences are loving them at the tune of over a million dollars a week. A lot of that has to do with their star power.”

Perhaps the most anticipated musical to debut last season, “The Addams Family” is the stage adaptation of the creepy, kooky family created by cartoonist Charles Addams, who were also successful on television and in movies in the 20th century. The Broadway musical features perennial theater favorites Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia Addams, respectively.

“Promises, Promises” is an adaptation of the 1960 Academy Award-winning screen gem “The Apartment.” The stage version was penned by legendary playwright Neil Simon and features Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace” and stage and television star Kristen Chenoweth in the lead roles.

“Sometimes what people love is very different from what the critics love,” Mallalieu said. “Our client base is very strong in what they like and what they don’t like, sometimes in spite of the critics.”

A big year ahead
Hopes are high for the coming Broadway season, as several long-awaited shows are set to open this fall and next spring.

La Cage Aux Follies

Theater-lovers are eagerly anticipating “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera.” “Phantom” is one of the most successful and dearly loved musicals of modern times; rumor has it that “Love Never Dies” will be set on Coney Island in the 1920s, with the Phantom having been permanently banished from the opera house.

“It will be 23 years since the original ‘Phantom,’ and expectations are very high,” Mallalieu said. “‘Phantom’ has become a legend in its own time, and Andrew Lloyd Webber is trying to re-create that in a different feel, taking it away from the opera house and putting it in Coney Island. It’s going to be amazing to see on the stage, but it will also have that scary edge to it.”

Audiences are also looking forward to this fall’s premiere of “Spiderman” on Broadway. Developed at a reported cost of $45 million, the show was originally set to debut last year. Highlights will include a score by U2 frontman Bono and a bevy of groundbreaking special effects.

“It’s being directed by Julie Taymor, who wowed us with ‘The Lion King,’” Martin said. “She’s teaming up with the people from Cirque du Soleil to take care of the flying aspect of it, and apparently, there are going to be people flying over the audience. You’re going to see things you’ve never seen before.”

Others to look for
Several new musicals for next year will follow the recent trend of developing a show around the repertoire of 20th-century pop musicians. “Rain,” a tribute to the Beatles, will come to Broadway in October; that same month, “Unchain My Heart” will make its debut, featuring the songs of a soul-music legend.

“It’s a book musical using the score of Ray Charles,” Mallalieu said. “It takes place at his last recording studio. It’s sort of a little teary, because it brings back his mother as he sings the songs.”
Martin is also looking forward to next season’s Broadway premiere of “War Horse,” a dramatic play from London’s National Theatre. Martin called the British production “one of the top five things I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s a story about a horse in World War I, told from the horse’s point of view,” he said. “It’s not a ‘Mister Ed’ thing — the horses don’t talk, but they’re portrayed by life-sized puppets ridden by actors. The puppets each take three people to operate.”

The coming season is also slated to bring a revival of “Godspell.” The first Broadway revival since the original 1970s production, this effort is being helmed by the production team that created “Wicked.”

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Memphis magic

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