Preview: Memphis the Musical

Heather Gross, Columbus Alive

Weirdly enough, advertising is at least partly to thank for rock 'n' roll's existence today.

Before the 1950s, radio stations geared toward white listeners wouldn't play music by black artists. Dewey Phillips, a white deejay in Memphis, helped change that. He played rhythm and blues for white people, and his audience loved it. Attentive listeners were exactly what advertisers wanted, so even though playing music by black singers was controversial, station owners were willing to do it to make more cash. It was businesses' sponsorships that made all the difference and exposed white America to the fresh sounds coming out of clubs in western Tennessee.

The musical "Memphis," which makes its Columbus premiere this week, is loosely based on Phillips' story. When the show debuted on Broadway in 2009, audiences swooned over its soulful early-rock score composed by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, its electric choreography and its story about that influential white deejay falling in love with a black singer.

"It has great heart at its core, and it has some grit to it, too," said William Parry, who plays station owner Mr. Simmons in the touring production. "It talks, I think effectively, about what was going on racially in America at that time."

In the show, the young deejay's name is Huey Calhoun. Huey and those around him endure persecution and encounters with bigots as he attempts to share the music he believes in and be with the woman he loves.

"Huey has such a great passion for this music," Parry said. "He has a wonderfully naive and kind of infectious drive to get it on the air, to play it for people, to share it with people. He's not trying to change the world; he's not trying to bring people together. He's trying to share with people this passion he has. But in doing that, he makes a big difference. He makes life richer for people."

Ohio Theatre

May 29-June 3

39 E. State St., Downtown