The Boy from ‘Memphis’ By Isa Goldberg
With racial issues as a recurring element throughout many new productions this season, the Obama presence is everywhere on Broadway. “Race”, David Mamet’s new play, the revival of the old-fashioned musical “Finian’s Rainbow”, the first 90’s musical to be revived on Broadway, “Ragtime”, and Bill T. Jones’ biographical show, “Fela”, about the Nigerian singer and political activist.
In “Memphis”, one of the season’s new musicals, a white DJ falls in love with a black singer. It’s the beginning of the rock and roll era and a time when racial lines were being drawn clearly. While the production doesn’t carry a lot of Broadway wattage, it has a soulful score by David Bryan of Bon Jovi and an effervescent young star, Chad Kimball, who plays the role of the DJ with rock star flamboyance.
Try telling that to Kimball, and you may find him blushing or simply refraining – as he did when I spoke to him. “My dad is Scandinavian”, he explained, “and very reserved. So when people compliment him, he kind of hems and haws. But my mom’s Mexican. On her side of the family it’s all about the passion.”
It is this kind of passion that comes alive in “Memphis”.
Huey Calhoun, the character you play has received a wide range of responses from the theater community. In USA Today, Elysa Gardner described him as “buffoonish”. The critic at Theatermania, wrote that you make an “unappealing character someone to root for”. To what do you attribute the extremes in those critics’ reactions?
I think Huey is buffoonish and he is aggravating. At the same time, what’s charming about him is that he’s not a slick leading man type, which is why people respond to him. Watching Huey is like holding up a mirror; he is a kind of everyman.
But I take the comments about his buffoonery pretty lightly because the audience really gets him.
I personally find the character incredibly charismatic from his lowly beginnings through his enormous success, and even in the end when he takes a fall, it’s filled with pathos. What drives the character?
In the beginning it’s partly ignorance and partly, ‘to heck with everything. I’m going to do what I want to do.’ It’s an American dream sort of attitude where everything is possible. And even though those racial barriers were very prevalent, I think the music just does something to him psychologically that makes him feel like it doesn’t matter.
Do you see yourself in the character, or is this about acting and the tools an actor uses?
I’m definitely using the techniques of acting. The wonderful thing is that I’ve done so many different incarnations of this role over the past six years. We started doing the show in 2003, then we went away and lived our own lives and did our own things. So this idea of us growing up and feeding our experience to our characters is definitely a point worth making.
It’s interesting, because when you talk about it out loud, the words can’t really describe what the soul is thinking. I get out there and I feel like I’m so blessed to have a wonderful creative team that allowed us a lot of input.
Really? Was there a sense of collaboration between the playwright, Joe DiPietro, the director, Christopher Ashley, and the actors?
They were very collaborative. They realized that we had been living with these characters for so long, that they’d come in with a new scene and ask, ‘is it worth going in that direction?’.
There have been drafts where Huey has not been liked at all. And then there was a draft where Huey was liked a little too much. I think this one finds a nice in between. Who hasn’t had the experience, where they think of doing something grand, but have to step back.
I’ve read that the character is based to some extent on a well-known Memphis DJ of the time. To what extent if any did you draw on biographical material in building the role?
There was Dewey Phillips and also some other DJs at the time like Alan Freed, but Dewey Phillips was like the firebrand of the Memphis disc jockey world. He was, in fact, the first DJ to play “race music” — what we call rhythm and blues. He played black music on the white radio dial and right in the center where the frequency was strongest. I heard a 30-second recoding of him about 6 years ago and I thought I can’t listen to it anymore because I’m a mimic at heart and I don’t want to mimic him.
There really isn’t too much archival information about him. He did have a TV show but it was nothing like Huey’s TV show in “Memphis”. It was just Dewey in the radio studio DJ booth with a camera and a TV and he looked at himself in the camera and he looked back to the TV. He seemed incredibly confused. He was kind of crazy and died in his early 40’s due to amphetamine addiction and alcoholism.
A lot of people don’t know that he was the first guy to interview Elvis Presley. And he tricked him. He told him the microphone was off. And they rapped a little bit back and forth, but it was on the air.
So regardless of the history, can I take it that Huey is less of a biographical character, and more of an artistic creation?
Yah. That was the magical thing for me. Sometimes you read a script and you get a sense of it right away. I remember auditioning for it before I knew what it was about. I had heard a couple of the songs and I loved it. I had read the sides, and they had given us a synopsis.
So after I won the part, I went home and looked at the script and realized I’m on stage the entire time with the exception of four minutes. So I looked at my mom and I said, “what am I going to do?”. But when I got to rehearsal, Huey just kind of fell out of me and onto the stage.
One of the amazing things about the show is your boundless energy. How do you keep it up for so long…the energy that is?
I feed off of everybody. The energy is coming in every which way. Chrisopher (the director) and Sergio Trujillo (the choreographer) did a great job of making it kind of seamless, so that it all moves fluidly. But once I get shot out of that cannon, I’m having a blast. It is absolutely a joy to do, and I do drink ice coffee.
Is that what’s in the liquor bottles that Huey drinks from on stage?
That is actually just water. Sometimes I come off and I’m just so parched, I’m trying to find every single moment I can to drink some water. So I said, “Can we give him a flask in the second act?”.
What do you think it is about this show – with no big names or big bucks behind it that is drawing audiences?
We’ve always gotten that reaction – this wellspring of excitement, people leaving the theater tapping their toes and humming in their throats. That’s what these big Broadway musicals used to do.
I remember the last week before we opened. I’ve been in some clunkers, but typically the last week is very frenetic. People are anxious and paranoid. But our producers and our creative staff were so calm. I think because we had the experience of past audiences the only worry was whether or not the reaction would be the same in the big old city of New York.
You seem like such a natural for the music of “Memphis”. What kind of music did you grow up on?
I grew up singing hymns in church. Nothing like gospel, I’ll tell you that. But when I was in high school, I joined the jazz choir and we did a lot of blues stuff and I loved it, just loved it. I kind of emulated it a bit here and there. When I got the “Memphis” music and was singing it, it just fit me like a glove. I loved the deep beat and the rhythm and blues aspect of it.
I understand you have an album coming out. What’s on it?
The concept is Chad Kimball sings this season. And we’re hoping to do everything on Broadway this year, not just the new shows, along with songs from my favorite shows which include something from “Next to Normal” (one of my all time favorite musicals). Of course, the arrangements are going to be very different.