See the show
“Memphis” plays tonight at the Lied Center. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-2787 or visiting lied.ku.edu. Randy Adam will appear at 715 restaurant downtown in a special event following the performance, where he’ll be talking about “Memphis” and what it’s like to be a Broadway producer. The kitchen will be open until 11 p.m. to accommodate attendees.
Randy Adams wasn’t looking to become a Broadway producer.
“Nobody goes looking for that,” he says. “No one says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a producer on Broadway.’”
But the 1980 KU alumnus became exactly that, and he struck gold with “Memphis," the award-winning musical, which plays at the Lied Center tonight.
Set in the 1950s, the show is loosely based on the life of radio DJ Dewey Phillips, who is credited as one of the first white radio personalities to play black music on the air. The story follows a white DJ (Huey Calhoun) who wants to change the world, and a black club singer (Felicia Farrell) looking for her big break.
“Memphis” earned four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical, and four Drama Desk Awards. But getting it to Broadway was a long, complicated road.
“George W. George had the original idea, and he commissioned Joe DiPietro to write the book,” Adams explains.
DiPietro, whose other work includes “All Shook Up” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” wanted a rock musician – someone who wasn’t a classic Broadway composer.
“They went looking, and one day they got a call from David Bryan, who was the keyboardist for Bon Jovi,” Adams continues. “He said, ‘I’ve read your script and I can hear every song in my head.’ They didn’t believe him at first. They were like, ‘Yeah, who is this really?’ But it was him, and they asked him to send them a sample song or two. The next day, they got a FedEx package with a CD of music in it, and the rest is history.”
But there was still a lot of history to be made. Adams was the managing director of TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., and in 2002 they were holding a festival of new works. The first reading of “Memphis” was part of it.
“At intermission, the producer of the North Shore Music Theatre company in Massachusetts, came up to us and said he loved it and wanted to produce it as part of his next season,” Adams says. “He said, ‘I’ve got to catch a plane, so I have to leave, but I look forward to seeing the second act some time.’”
The show was produced by both companies and did well, although the early versions needed some work. But despite good runs in both cities, “Memphis” languished, and it looked like it had had what day it was going to.
Three years later, Adams was forming a new company, Junkyard Dog Productions.
“We had the goal of producing an original show,” he says, “but we didn’t want to wait the five years it would take to develop everything from the beginning, so we went back through shows we’d produced before and we came up with ‘Memphis.’ I made some calls, and it was just coming out of option in spring of 2007, so we optioned it as soon as it was available and went to work.”
“Memphis” played in the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle from 2008 to 2009. And then Adams got the call they’d been waiting on.
“They offered us the Shubert Theater on Broadway,” he says.
On Oct. 19, 2009, Adams officially became a Broadway producer. “Memphis” opened to strong reviews, was nominated for eight Tonys and seven Drama Desk Awards (winning four each), and ran until August 2012.
Among his other work, Adams is the president of KU Theatre’s professional advisory board. But, since earning his master’s in Theater at KU, this is the first time one of his pieces has been performed on campus.
“It’s my first Broadway show,” he says. “It’s kind of wild.”