LPAC’s Cast of ‘Memphis’ Gets a Surprise Visit from Original Scriptwriter, Joe DiPietro

Written by Samara Smukler

ACM Company Manager, Suzanne Dunn, added to this story and provided the photos.

From February 15 to March 3, theatergoers at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (LPAC) got a show-stopping glimpse into the “soul of rock ‘n’ roll.” Memphis, the award-winning musical that dazzled audiences for years on Broadway before moving on to a national tour and West End run, is back for its third showing in South Florida. Third time is certainly the charm for this phenomenal production, as its cast received a special surprise—a visit from Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics for Memphis (with Bon Jovi legend David Bryan). 

DiPietro delved into the conception of the show and its journey to becoming the hit it is today. “There was a book called It Came From Memphis that had a chapter about this guy, Dewey Phillips,” DiPietro recalled, referencing the real-life Memphis DJ who was the main source of inspiration for leading man Huey Calhoun’s character. Huey, a White man (Samuel Cadieux), follows his passion for music—and sharing it with others as a DJ—to the Black side of town, where he meets Felicia (Sydney Archibald), a rising star who DiPietro describes as “a combination of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin” with aspirations of launching a singing career. Huey and Felicia fall in love, but the deep-rooted, overt racism embedded in segregated Southern society threatens to test their relationship—and the dreams they’ve both worked so hard to achieve. “I just loved the whole idea of rock ‘n’ roll, race in America, and how to present it in a way we haven’t seen,” DiPietro said, explaining why he was so compelled to write this story. Radio was still segregated in the 1940s and 50s, and Huey attempts to break down these barriers as he publicizes Black music and its voices. The show’s crucial “I Want” song, “The Music of My Soul,” expresses these motivations—DiPietro and Bryan shaped the song, nearly exactly as it appears in the production today, within mere days. 

LPAC’s Broadway Series cast & crew of ‘Memphis’ pictured with scriptwriter, Joe DiPietro. Photo Credit: Suzanne Dunn.

Memphis boasts overwhelming success and appeal to a wide audience, and while the show’s trajectory was marked with moments of uncertainty, it was obvious to all those involved that they were a part of something special. DiPietro reflected on the very first table read, saying it was “terrifying” to see the cast’s initial reactions to the script. “I knew how the show worked, but I wasn’t sure how other people were going to react. Chris Ashley, the original director, always said that musicals are the most complicated of any artistic medium. There are so many different factors—music, lyrics, book, direction, sound—and if they don’t mesh, that can be difficult.” However, despite needing to “figure things out” along the way, it was clear early on: “There’s a show there.” The “energy of the music, rock ‘n’ roll,” was infectious. DiPietro also cited the characters’ motivations as key, explaining that “It’s very clear that we know what Huey wants, we know what Felicia wants, and the same thing drives them.”

As such, the heart of the show lies not only within the power of music, but also in Huey and Felicia’s star-crossed romance. Simply put, DiPietro said, “For everything else, the show is a love story.” Seeing Memphis at LPAC underscored his convictions: “Watching it today, it strikes me that the whole show is based on a kiss. It turns on the gentlest, most loving thing, and the horror that people can derive from looking at a kiss between two people who others think shouldn’t be together.” That horror is sadly still pertinent to current times, as DiPietro remarked, “People still understand that.” He shared that many audience members still express how Memphis resonated with them, particularly interracial couples. “I had these neighbors in Connecticut, a couple who saw [the show], and said it helped them understand all the pressure they were getting as a gay, interracial couple.” DiPietro added, “Hopefully at some point, those ideas become obsolete.” 

LPAC Broadway Series Director, Michael Ursua pictured with ‘Memphis’ Scriptwriter, Joe DiPietro.

Huey and Felicia’s journey, both as individuals and as a couple, moved fans so deeply that many still want to see a sequel where the two reunite—and some people have even offered to write that story. While DiPietro is no stranger to these reactions (“The first time we did the show, one of the actors’ mothers approached me at a party afterwards, and said, ‘They have to get together!’ he reminisced), he isn’t so sure a full happily-ever-after is in the cards for Huey and Felicia. “At that time, is it realistic for them to get together?” he questioned. “Huey does his own thing; he’s selfish in a way. Felicia achieved what she wanted, and they might not be a good fit [for each other]. If it were a modern story, you could see that working, but maybe not in those days, in Memphis.” 

While Memphis’s central romance was doomed to end, and while the show itself was built on heavier themes—the violent impact of racism and bigotry in the 50s American South and beyond, the dark history of the real-life Dewey Phillips, sullied by substance abuse (“Originally, Huey was very much an addict in our first several drafts”), DiPietro still endeavored to finish the show on a hopeful note. “You feel like they’re both going to be alright. Felicia is thriving, Huey’s going to be okay,” he said. And thus, audiences leave the theater satisfied, with a joyous rock ‘n’ roll melody playing in their heads, lingering long after the curtain has closed. 


Writer: Samara Smukler

Samara Smukler is a recent graduate of the University of Miami, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English (with a concentration in Creative Writing) and Psychology. Her work has appeared in a variety of student publications, including The Miami Hurricane newspaper and Distraction Magazine, the university’s premier arts and lifestyle magazine. More recently, she served as a Senior Editorial Intern for Girls’ Life Magazine, where she interviewed rising stars in the entertainment industry and reported on various topics in the pop culture, entertainment, beauty and lifestyle areas. She is thrilled to combine her passion for storytelling and love of theater as a writer for South Florida Theater Magazine!

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