A Thanksgiving Musical

Well, I’m back, after being away over the Thanksgiving holiday. I had a wonderful time in Manhattan hanging out with my old pals from college (still feels weird to describe a group of people that way) and doing my best to enjoy Turkey Day without the usual aunts and uncles around.

One of our strategies for doing this was to go to a couple of shows, which was a ton of fun. Since then I’ve been trying to think of the proper thing to say about them on by blog, and I’m afraid I’ve had trouble coming up with a nice, overarching narrative for a post. After all, “reviewing” them doesn’t do a lot of good, since not many folks reading this have probably seen them at the moment, nor are they considering whether to fly out to New York over the weekend to catch the weekend matinee. But there are a couple things about each of them I didn’t really get a chance to discuss with my friends so I thought for good measure I’d post them here. I’ll focus on the first show at the moment, since I’m still trying to work out my thoughts about the second, but hopefully I will have a change to comment on it as well at a later date.

The first show we attended was “Memphis,”  this year’s Tony Award winner for best musical. It hadn’t really been on my list of “shows I’m desperate to see,” and in fact we wound up at it quite unexpectedly. Nevertheless, it was a riotously good time. The show is full of energy, and it treads a polite line through a potentially difficult subject area. Telling a fictionalized story of one of the first radio DJ’s from the 50’s to play African-American music on “white” radio stations, it makes use of the racial tensions of the era to tell a story without either seeming to trivialize them or falling into the trap of preachy grandstanding. It works because ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, the story is not about overcoming racial prejudices. That does begin to happen in the background along the way, but principally it’s about tracing the life of someone struggling to find what he is “meant” to do, with the thesis that it is only when you are doing the things you’re naturally most drawn to that you can become an instrument for change. Oh yes, and that you should listen to good music or else you will wind up wearing a suit.

It’s really impossible to capture the fun of the show without taking you to see it in person, but if you’re curious, here’s a youtube clip of an abbreviated performance of the opening and penultimate songs as part of a publicity appearance on “The View.” It certainly doesn’t do it justice, but it might give you a sense of how energizing the real live thing must be.

There really are two more things I  must say about “Memphis,” the first being that the set design was one of the most brilliant I have ever seen. The only thing I can think to compare it to in its versatility is the enormously clever rotating stage which was used in the otherwise incomparable “Les Mis.” Over the course of the musical, the five basic set pieces (two pillars, a staircase, a sound booth and a raised walkway at the back) became an underground club, a small suburban home, a back alley, a TVstudio, a department store, a dressing room, a baptist church, and countless, countless other locations, mostly by just rearranging the basic bits and pieces. It gave me the same feeling I get everytime Taco Bell releases a new menu item without ever having to branch out from the seven basic pseudo-foods that they use as ingredients. Only without the mild nausea.

Ultimately, though it was not the versatility of  the set that struck me the most, however; it was the unique, dynamic way they used it so that the motion of the set pieces between scenes actually became part of the action. I have to confess I don’t know too much about current trends in set designing, so perhaps this has been done a lot before and I just haven’t seen enough theater lately to pick up on it. But the effects were really quite magical, with characters rotating in and out of view as the pieces moved, appearing and disappearing through the floor, and sometimes bursting straight from the background. What’s more, since they didn’t always fade to black for scene changes, they were able to replicate almost all of the common “cuts” seen in TV or movies right before our eyes. Sometimes everything would slide off to the side like a wipe, or all the pieces would rotate and pull apart, like a dissolve. Other times the lighting would simply shift to a portion which hadn’t been illuminated before, creating an effect one can’t even see in the cinema. I really loved it watching it, although heaven knows it was easy to miss the staging wizardry amongst all the already spectacular dance numbers and emotionally impacting songs.

The other interesting thing about the performance is that on the night we attended, the role of the main character had been taken over by an understudy, something I failed to realize having not had time to open my Playbill before the musical began.* Without knowing I was supposed to be disappointed by seeing a second-stringer take over for the male lead, I managed to be quite impressed, although whether that speaks more to my relatively lowbrow ability to discriminate between musical theater performances than it does to Mr. Fenkart’s acting and singing abilities I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that it got me thinking about just how odd it must be to be the understudy of a major character in a major Broadway production. The majority of them probably never go onstage as the character they’ve understudied, which must be a supremely strange feeling for them if not just an outright frustrating one. Perhaps, as the American economy reorients itself to a system where many people don’t end up in careers that match their undergraduate education, we should dispatch some seasoned understudies to across the country to teach people how to appreciate the education as an experience and not as an investment they were never able to withdraw.

Anyway, it was a heck of a Thanksgiving, and I promise I’m back for at least the next few weeks until Christmas break (I haven’t decided yet how much blogging I’ll still try to do while I’m home for the holidays). Until then, save up some money for a trip out to visit me. You know you want to, and now I know a great little musical we can go to as well :-).

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*That’s not one of my trademark “capitalization typos.” Rather, as I just recently learned myself, “Playbill” is a proper noun.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to A Thanksgiving Musical

  1. Evan West says:

    One of the things set designers cherish most about their passion is the fact that in modern theatre, just about anything they can come up with in their minds is physically possible to also put on the stage. (Possibly another valuable lesson to spread around) However in most shows that would just be distracting for the actors and the audience and is usually voted down by the director, so I’m glad to hear you got to catch a show so full of every aspect of the art and science of theater.

    P.S
    I really like your description of the set, I can almost completely picture it between your description and the video.

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