Singing the Memphis Blues

Roll back the clock, and step into the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll—Beale Street in Memphis—and the heady days of the 1950s, when rhythm and blues was moving and grooving on the radio dial. This is the world recreated in Memphis, the new Broadway musical at The Shubert Theatre, with music and lyrics by Bon Jovi’s Grammy Award-winning keyboardist David Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley, the action takes place primarily in and around a Beale Street bar and local TV and radio stations as imagined by set designer David Gallo, who made projections an integral part of his visual perspective, with co-projections designer Shawn Sagady helping move the technical side of things to a new level for the Broadway version.

The many scenes in the show created a challenge for Gallo’s scenic design; his solution is a unit set layered with projections to create a photographic sense of the era and enable quick shifts in location. “The sense of movement in the show is very important,” says Gallo. “The set moves at a brisk clip, and the transitions are very smooth.” An underground Beale Street bar has stairs leading down from the street level, which is indicated by a flying bridge upstage. The seedy bar is where lead character Huey Calhoun, a whacky white radio DJ (based on a real Memphis DJ of that era, Dewey Phillips), feels most at home, even though he is in the minority in these clubs on Beale Street, until he finds his place on the radio, bringing the rhythm and blues of Memphis’ black musicians up from the basement (as it were) and into the mainstream.

A live band is on stage throughout the musical, often seen through large windows in a factory wall routed out of Homasote® brick. “Memphis was music city,” says Gallo. “The idea is that there was a band playing behind every wall. We went to Memphis and discovered the details of the old Beale Street are still there. It still feels very authentic; the clubs are still real. We looked at photos from the early 1900s. The neon signs are new, but the places are still there.” Gallo admits that this kind of music is one of his personal passions, which fueled his interest in the show.

While on their tour of Memphis, Gallo and Sagady took hundreds of photos, including the famous Sun Studios—considered the birthplace of rock— and shots of a bridge over the Mississippi River. Two images of the bridge are seen as pre-set projections at the start of the show and the top of Act II to set the Memphis mood. A light-box portal over the stage echoes the architecture of the bridge. Ten different set pieces are automated, including two columns that spin around. The movement helps combat the fact that the main character spends a lot of time in a radio booth, a set piece that comes up from the floor. “The booth is used frequently,” Gallo notes. “I wanted all the props to present a complete experience of spinning records. The show evokes nostalgia for old-time radio and how records were spun.”

The Broadway set, built by Showman Fabricators, and the projection system differ from the previous versions of the show. “Everything is heavily textured,” explains Gallo, whose associate designer, Steven Kemp, looked to discarded building materials to add funkiness to the Broadway version. In the early iterations of Memphis at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, the projection system used Dataton’s Watchout, but this version took on the coolux Pandoras Box media server.

“We were looking for a way to have the scenic automation drive the projections,” says Sagady, who explains the earlier sets had RP screens rather than the upstage brick wall of the set. In the Broadway version, the entire set is the projection surface, with radio station call letters on the columns, images of records spinning and rotating across the stage, newspaper images, and faux lighting layering the set. The scenic elements are dark, allowing the images—which are primarily still images, not video—to pop.

To achieve the realtime movement of the projections tied to the scenic automation, Sagady called upon Lars Pederson at Scharff Weisberg, which led to the use of Pandoras Box, now making its Broadway debut. “The set was shipped from Showman to PRG Scenic Technologies, who provided the scenic automation,” says Sagady.

“We attached our motion-tracking sensors to Scenic Technologies’ winch system for every moving set piece,” says Steve Gilbard of coolux. “Pandoras Box provides a single platform to composite, move, or modify the images from a single control surface. We receive a MIDI show control command to tell us what to expect and track the show. As a secondary process, we follow the movement of the set pieces in realtime.” The images are projected via two Christie Roadster 18K HD projectors.

As for the success of the design, Gallo says, “It all comes from the same place. All of the design elements are integrated; everything is an extension of the same idea.” The costumes by Paul Tazewell do some colorful stepping out on their own, and Howell Binkley’s lighting recreates the early days of club lighting with extra oomph from a rig including Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance, Profile, and Wash units, while the sound design by Ken Travis lets Bryan’s hot tracks come through loud and clear.

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