A Q&A with Marleen Magnoni Alhadeff, Catholic and producer of “Memphis,” Tony-Award winning Best Musical of 2010
“We knew we had accomplished what we had set out to — to lift the human spirit and to inspire change”
By Traci Neal
Months after the hit Broadway show, “Memphis,” took home four Tony Awards, including the 2010 Best Musical, one of the show’s producers, Marleen Magnoni Alhadeff, a Catholic, was still somewhat awestruck.
Longtime social justice philanthropists who run a busy charitable foundation from Seattle, Alhadeff and her husband, Kenny, stepped into the world of the arts in 2006 after reading the script for “Memphis” and realizing it had the potential not only to entertain but to educate — and possibly even change — audiences.
Based on the Tony Award-winning book by Joe DiPietro and featuring a Tony-winning original score by Bon Jovi co-founder and keyboardist David Bryan, the show is set in segregated 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, at the birth of both the civil rights movement and rock ’n’ roll.
The show follows white DJ Huey Calhoun who becomes captivated by the R&B sounds — “the music of his soul” — he hears seeping from a black Beale Street underground club. But soon he’s also captivated by a beautiful black R&B singer Felicia Farrell. When Huey tries to introduce both of his loves to white audiences, he faces prejudice, bigotry, and hate. In the end, though, “Memphis” becomes a story about love, tolerance, persistence in the face of obstacles, and the value of sacrifice and suffering.
Alhadeff recently spoke with Catholic Digest about the role faith plays both in “Memphis” and in her own life.
The overall theme of “Memphis” is not specifically a religious one, yet there are a number of faith-related “turning-point” scenes. Why do you think these scenes are important to the overall message?
I think the faith messages are important because the show calls us to address the injustice of prejudice and through that, we also look at the evolution of our own personal journeys, which is the same thing God asks all of us to do. You’re correct in saying “Memphis” is not a religious story, and it was never intended to be designed around religion. However one can never really discuss the evolution of rock ’n’ roll and blues without bringing gospel into the conversation.
What role did your own faith play in working on “Memphis”? How does your faith influence your work as a producer in general?
I really think that my faith drives what I do. When you do your job in life, which is to call yourself to your better self, that’s God speaking to you: How can you improve the world? Where is your calling?
My husband and I have been very lucky to be able to be philanthropic. Our faith drives us in all aspects of our lives. As producers we look for opportunities to tell important stories while we’re entertaining the public, with the potential to educate.
What do you hope audiences will take away from “Memphis”?
At the minimum, our goal is to create the opportunity for civil discourse, to inspire change, and show how we can all be called to become our better selves. “Memphis” does that.
Through the “Inspire Change” program we bring students in to see the show and talk about it. Some of these kids say, “I read about the colored drinking fountain but I never understood what it meant until now.” What I hope happens is that these kids who are chosen — and I believe people are chosen to hear whatever calls to them — that they are able to move forward and say someday, “Theater is what got me started in my passion” or “Theater is what got me on the road” to help teach whatever message they teach. I’d love that. And, of course, I hope “Memphis” is reproduced again and again and becomes a tool to teach. I think it’s important to lift the human spirit in any way we can, and that’s my hope ultimately.
There is a small amount of offensive language — particularly the “N” word. Did you think that would offend audiences?
The “N” word is the most disrespectful, offensive word a person can use. But what it depicts is exactly what existed. I think we need to look at who we are and who we were in order to change. The word was used twice in the show and it was intentional. We’re going to go across America with this and we know that in some cities we will be very well received, in others it will all be a mystery.
Here’s one of the greatest gifts to come out of this, and the same thing happened with “The Color Purple,” which was a black play — it brought African-Americans out to the theater. A third of our audience on any given night is multiracial. So we ask ourselves, Who are we teaching? We’re teaching everyone. Whom did Jesus teach? He taught everyone. One of the greatest blessings of this production is the diversity in the house.
What inspired you to produce “Memphis” and how/why did you get involved?
My husband and I didn’t pursue the arts too heavily. We were more social justice until our last daughter left for college and we became empty nesters. That’s when we said, “Now let’s look at entertainment.” When we go out to the theater, I think God means us to be happy and educated and inspired, so we starting to put money into the arts and this is part of that evolution.
“Memphis” opened in 2009 on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre and by 2010 had won four Tony Awards. Was it a whirlwind?
It’s been a journey, and it was a journey before we even ever acquired the piece in the summer of 2006. That’s when my husband and I joined up with Randy Adams and Sue Frost (to produce “Memphis”). Much of the cast has been with it since the very beginning, and we were too busy with the business end of it, making sure bills were paid, making sure everyone stayed healthy. It morphed on its own in a very organic way. Things happened that were phenomenal, that were kismet. It was like those little dandelion seeds you blow to the wind and you make your wish and hope, and whatever happens to it is out of your hands. Every time we thought we couldn’t do something we were able to do it. We count our blessings every day and keep saying, “Did that really happen?”
Did you ever imagine a Tony for Best Musical (not to mention three other wins and numerous nominations)?
We knew we had an amazing product and we were very proud of what we produced, and in the back of our mind we were watching these audiences and we knew we had accomplished what we had set out to, to lift the human spirit and to inspire change and that was happening before our eyes. …Only God knows how we got here, and we definitely realize that giving back is ultimately the goal in our lives.
The show has launched a marketing effort to churches. Why do you think churches in particular would be interested in the show?
Early on in Seattle, when we had the piece here prior to New York, we knew we wanted to engage the diversity of our community, and we brought in Reverend (Samuel B.) McKinney, from the Mount Zion Baptist Church, and his wife Louise. We received letters from them that were quite inspirational that guided us to the inspiration of, Hey (getting the churches involved) is a natural… the messages of love, tolerance, forgiveness, and change all were topics that came up, which of course are topics of faith.
What do you think church communities in particular can get out of the show?
As our educators and our religious folks have returned over and over again, we began to recognize that we needed to go a step further in developing our outreach to churches. We now have a faith-based discussion guide that really addresses the issues of the show — love and tolerance, forgiveness, fear as the root of bigotry, persistence in the face of obstacles, and the value of sacrifice and suffering. The guide provides prompts for group discussion and uses Scripture quotes for the discussion.
What are your future plans?
The national tour of “Memphis” opens in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Orpheum Theater in October 2011. This is a traveling cast, which is different than our New York cast who will remain in New York, continuing to play as long as the public supports us.
A closer look at Marleen Magnoni Alhadeff
What she’s reading: Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred
Favorite saint: St. Bernadette, “also my patron saint for confirmation”
Favorite prayer: My prayers are personal and driven by Pope John XXIII’s request for relationship with God and personal discernment
Her first play: “If you count the reenactment of the Christmas Nativity in my Catholic School … otherwise I was in ‘Brigadoon’ and ‘Oklahoma’ in high school as a dancer with the Patrician School of Dance”
Favorite musical: “Other than ‘Memphis’ it’s a tie between ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ (the 2008 revival with projections)”
Best advice she ever received: “Live the Golden Rule, nurture a forgiving heart, and strive to be empathetic”
Advice to an aspiring performer: “Live your life with kindness, hard work, integrity, professionalism, and passion. Everything else will follow.”
Mission: Lifting the human spirit
Her charity: The Kenneth & Marleen Alhadeff Charitable Foundation. “Some of what we do deals directly with homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, supporting teachers and diversity, early learning, senior citizens, Alzheimer’s, Seattle’s Children’s Hospital through pastoral and spiritual care, the Northwest School for Hearing Impaired, and the Magnoni Christmas Faith Fund through Catholic Community Services and Jewish Family Services in Seattle. The 5th Avenue Theatre, the Seattle Symphony, PNB, and UW World Dance and other arts organizations are also very vital to our existence.”
Watch “Memphis” at the movies!
For the first time ever, audiences around the country will be able to experience Broadway’s current Tony Award-winning Best Musical in their own hometown movie theater during its Tony Award-winning year. The Broadway production of “Memphis” was captured live during regularly scheduled performances and will be offered to cinemas in the spring in support of the current Broadway production and the upcoming national touring show.