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When Memphis ?made music history Musical explores role DJs played in breaking down racial barriers in the '50s and '60s

More than a few American radio DJs have been tagged with the title of "Father of Rock 'n' Roll."

Among them are Cleveland's pioneering Alan Freed, the legendary broadcaster Dick Clark and Buffalo's own influential George "Hound Dog" Lorenz, who dared to bring the music of artists like Little Richard, Sam ?Cooke and others onto the powerful airwaves of WKBW in the mid-1950s.

But the quirky Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips might have the most convincing case of all.

At least that's according to the creators of "Memphis," the hit Broadway musical inspired by Phillips' life that opens in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday. The show brought home 2010 Tony Awards for best musical, book and score, and its ongoing Broadway run is still raking in profits.

The show's protagonist, Huey Calhoun, is loosely based on Phillips, and the show explores the role DJs like Phillips played in the desegregation of American culture in the '50s and '60s, playing out as a parable about staying relevant in a rapidly changing culture.

Lyricist and book writer Joe DiPietro, who collaborated on the show with composer David Bryan of Bon Jovi, said he was immediately taken with the story of Phillips' revolutionary efforts to play what was then called "race music" for a wide and diverse listenership.

"He was such an oddball and a rebel that he was able to push it through to a wider acceptance, even though it was dangerous, even though everyone thought he was crazy, even though the people around him didn't understand what he was doing," DiPietro said in a phone interview from New York City. "I always think people who push the world ahead are people who ignore the status quo, and that's a hard thing to do."

"Memphis" follows Calhoun from his days as a struggling DJ to his hard-won success, and through a complicated love affair with an African-American singer whom he helps to reach a wider market. But it also chronicles the downside of being a pioneer – of forging a path only to be overtaken and forgotten by those who followed it.

"It takes people like that to change the world a little," DiPietro said. "He actually helped make rock 'n' roll into a moneymaker, and then once the suits came in and realized they could make money from this music, suddenly he was too wild and eccentric, so he no longer had a place."

Huey Calhoun's story is set to music that was designed to stand out from more consciously sophisticated or intellectually driven Broadway fare – an element that has surely aided its popularity. Bryan's songs for the show, like the early rock 'n' roll on which they are based, cling to the traditional structure of pop songs rather than the more ornate compositions of Andrew Lloyd Webber and other popular musical theater composers.

"[This show] is about the birth of rock 'n' roll, and I know plenty of talented theater composers, but I wanted a rocker," DiPietro said. Bryan, who played in a blue-eyed soul band before playing keyboards and co-writing for Bon Jovi, was a perfect match. DiPietro calls him "a musical encyclopedia."

"Theater composers are much more methodical," DiPietro said, whereas Bryan bases his compositions more on a gut feeling, an innate sense of what a riff or groove should sound like.

The show's musical style, as well as its book, is an outgrowth of DiPietro's well-tested beliefs about the populist task of musical theater.

"We've all seen those shows where, they're so well-meaning, and they just fail at a certain level to entertain. And you almost hate the fact that, if you're honest with yourself, you're actually not having a good time because it's so well-meaning," DiPietro said. "I do think David and I are firm believers that shows have to first work for a living."

This conviction seems to have worked, fueling DiPietro's considerable success as a writer of musicals, including the impossibly popular "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," the second longest-running musical in Off-Broadway history, as well as the Elvis-Shakespeare mash-up musical "All Shook Up" and the currently running Broadway show "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and 2008's "The Toxic Avenger," also written with Bryan.

"If you're entertaining, audiences will follow you anywhere if they trust the first 20 minutes of your show," he said. "And if they don't, you can be as well-meaning as possible and you're just going to have a show that maybe some people will like and some people won't."

That, in a way, is the same philosophy promoted by boundary-busting DJs like Phillips and Lorenz – the philosophy that this musical has set out to honor. Their work was always about entertainment opening the door for social progress. And with "Memphis," DiPietro and Bryan are simply following their lead.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

"Memphis"

Opens in Shea's Performing Arts Center ?at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and runs through next Sunday. ?Tickets are $27.50 to $52.50, with more information ?available at 847-0850 or www.sheas.org.