News Column

Music, segregation of 1950s Memphis comes to Stephens

October 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 19--Joey Elrose didn't know all the songs in "Memphis" but that certainly didn't stop him from pretending.

"I have recordings on my phone of me trying to sing the songs, but I didn't even know the lyrics," he said. "I was just humming along because I was so into it and was hoping to be in it someday."

Today, Elrose, a New York City native, play the lead in the 1950s Memphis, Tenn., set musical. It will be performed on Thursday at Stephens Auditorium.

"Memphis" is about a young white DJ, Huey Calhoun, who loves black music and becomes the first DJ to cross the race line by playing it for the masses. He soon falls in love with a club owners daughter, Felicia, but it's also a forbidden relationship because she is black, and both believe society isn't ready for that yet. Huey's mother rejects the music and relationship.

Huey soon becomes a big hit and encourages more integration with music and for white people to attend black churches. Felicia also soon begins to get some traction on her recording career, but they still struggle with their low-key relationship as well as their rise in fame.

Elrose, an Adelphi University alumnae who had been pursuing theater since high school, first saw a production of "Memphis" via Netflix and was immediately hooked. His more recent past roles pitted him in the musicals"Rent," "Rock of Ages" and "Grease."

While he loves the music, he said there's more to it that will capture the audience.

"I think it's kind of a secret message," he said. "Generally, with a musical, you come in and the appeal at the start is the music. Here it's rock'n'roll of the '50s. But once you get caught up in the story, it's the love story that also grabs you. And then you see how unjust segregated Memphis was in the 1950s and how dangerous it was. That's the lesson there to learn."

Elrose said the show is relevant because of its message of acceptance and dealings with issues going on today.

"I have the line 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," he said.

"Pretend two grown adults. That's what's going on today across America with the LGBT community right now. They're fighting for their rights. And then there's the thought that there are still so many people in the world who saw this time period first hand ... The message is still vital, of social acceptance and equality"

Elrose said he hopes audience members are thinking about these issues and perhaps challenging them as they walk away from the musical.

The story is inspired by former Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who was known for his quirky phrases and fast-talking personality.

Elrose said Phillips did provide some inspiration.

"I'm not judging, but he was out there," Elrose said. "He was a rebel. He would play a song on the radio, but he would talk over the entire thing. He'd sing along and say ridiculous things, especially during his advertisements."

The music, written by David Bryan of rock group Bon Jovi, is a mix of modern pop and rock with gospel, R&B, blues and jazz, which Bryan grew up listening to.

Elrose said his two favorite songs to perform are "Tear Down the House" and "Hello My Name is Huey" with the song "Love Will Stand when All Else Falls" having the best message.

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(c)2013 the Ames Tribune, Iowa

Visit the Ames Tribune, Iowa at www.amestrib.com

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