At the Tony Awards ceremony in June 2010, the journalists who cover Broadway theater mingled in the pressroom predicting the likely winner of the evening's best musical. The assumed front-runner, "Fela!," was the inspiring true story of the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.
But as the ceremony wore on, there was talk of an upset (at least, for the critics). The big-budget musical "Memphis" had opened the previous October at the Shubert Theatre to generally positive reviews, though short of universal acclaim. After eight months, it was limping along at the box office. Producers worried that its days were numbered.
But then, the show took three big prizes. Playwright Joe DiPietro won the Tony for best book of a musical. His story of a young white man who falls in love with a black woman in the segregated Memphis of the 1950s had champions among the Tony voters.
He, along with composer David Bryan, earned a second award for best original score. Bryan, the keyboard player for the rock band Bon Jovi, tried to channel the spirit of 1950s soul, R&B and gospel into songs played by an onstage band with the driving momentum of contemporary rock.
Bryan and Daryl Waters also collected the award for Best Orchestrations, which again testified to the strength of the music.
It was now a question of whether "Memphis," which had been nominated in eight categories total, would come through with the all-important win as the best musical of the year.
"From a survival perspective, we had to win that award," says producer Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog Productions. "From the beginning, we were working against perceptions of what a musical called 'Memphis' would be about. Some people thought about Elvis. Some people thought about civil rights. Really though, it's a show about the American spirit."
The Tony for Best Musical brought an uptick at the box office. After more than 800 performances, the $12 million production is still playing on Broadway. Its success there paved the way for a national tour of the show, which runs tonight through Oct. 23 at the Orpheum. Soon it will begin a cross-country journey that has already been booked for nearly two years.
Actress Felicia Boswell, originally from Birmingham, Ala., was cast as Felicia, a nightclub singer on Beale Street smitten by a fast-talking young white man named Huey.
"This is a necessary story to keep telling people," she said before a recent rehearsal. "Rosa Parks is a cousin of mine, and in a lot of places, prejudice is still alive."
Bryan Fenkart, who has been the standby for Huey on Broadway and assumes the lead on the road, adds that it's also a balancing act.
"There's this burden to do justice to the time period it's set in, but at the same time you can't make a musical too heavy," he says. "You're telling a story that ultimately makes people feel good."
"Memphis" is an amalgam of different ideas, musical styles and historical themes that have evolved considerably since the first concept production in Beverly, Mass., in 2003.
The character of Huey Calhoun is loosely based on the tragic figure of Memphis radio deejay Dewey Phillips, who was among the first in America to play "race records" on commercial radio alongside white music. As his popularity waned, Phillips leaned more heavily on drugs and alcohol. He died in 1968, at the age of 42.
One early version of "Memphis" has Huey dead in the end.
"We quickly realized that wasn't the way we wanted to go," says Frost, who added that the strong collaborative spirit in the production team allowed the show to keep evolving. "What needed to come across was this story of positive, caring people changing the world for the better even if they personally don't have it all that easy."
The show also draws from Memphis' past as both a crucible for musical styles and a flashpoint for the growing civil rights movement.
Quentin Earl Darrington plays club owner Delray, Felicia's brother.
"For me, anytime you can be in a show that has something to say and is relevant reminds me that I'm in the right career," he says. "On a social level, we've got to be reminded that history shouldn't be forgotten. On a personal level, each of the characters have a strong sense of identity, which sometimes gets them into trouble."
Producers hope that when locals see "Memphis" performed in the city that inspired it, everyone will walk away with a sense of pride.
"When we first came to visit this city a few years ago and met people here, we knew that if we weren't being authentic, people were going to say something," Frost says. "But I remember being in the Orpheum lobby and watching locals listen to the song 'Memphis Lives in Me' and seeing grown men cry. That's when we knew we had the genuine article."
Preview performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Opening night is 7 p.m. Sunday. Additional shows are Oct. 18-23. Tickets are $25-$120. Call 525-3000.