Memphis Returns to San Diego
The La Jolla Playhouse show that went on to win four Tony Awards (including Best Musical) is coming home—and its director couldn’t be happier
Director Christopher Ashley has seen Memphis 120 times, on stages from La Jolla to Broadway. He’s an expert on the show, which celebrates the birth of rock as well as the romance between a white DJ and a black singer in the segregated South of the 1950s. His favorite part? The final blackout, when an audience fills the theater with what he calls a “roar of approval.” It’s a sound Ashley never tires of. The Pacific Beach resident is likely to savor it again when the musical’s national tour stops at the Civic Theatre.
What’s it like to have Memphis come full circle?
It’s what you dream about. You want your babies to go on and have long, important lives. Memphis was the first show I did as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. That was in 2008. The fact that it has accomplished so much since then is really satisfying.
At last count, Memphis has grossed close to $100 million on Broadway. What’s the appeal?
The music and dancing deliver a good time. It’s very romantic—we’re rooting for the lead characters to get together. Memphis is also about what it takes to change the world. Michelle Obama and both her daughters saw it on Broadway.
How does the tour differ from the Broadway version?
We managed to capture quite a lot from the Broadway production. One of the exciting things about being a director is that you keep learning how to do things better while refining the storytelling.
Where does the tour go?
All around the country. A caravan of trucks carries scenery, lighting, sound equipment, and costumes. The second year of touring, which starts in the fall, is completely booked. Taking the show to London is now under discussion.
Memphis began the tour in its namesake city. What was it like to be there?
Amazing. During the day, we’d rehearse. At night, we’d go to Beale Street to listen to music until the wee hours. It was a case of life imitating art. The only problem was that the food was so good. I even tried fried butter, which I’d never had before. Though I joined a gym in Memphis, I still gained about 10 pounds!