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VOL. 126 | NO. 45 | Monday, March 7, 2011

Major Local Impact Expected From ‘Memphis’ Tour

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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The official word is that “Memphis” is coming to Memphis.

Starting Oct. 15, Memphians will finally get to see the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical as it begins its nationwide tour in the city that bears its name.

The show will run only 15 performances, but for Memphian investors and those who promote the city, the show could have larger-than-average and long-lasting economic potential.

It was almost a given that the show would begin its tour at The Orpheum Theatre, said Pat Halloran, president and CEO. The official announcement will be made at a press conference Monday afternoon.

“It was one of the factors that I was assured would occur if I helped (producers) raise enough money,” Halloran said. “There was never a real question of it not starting here; it’s just that I made sure we had an understanding that it would start here. It just makes sense.”

Halloran raised and invested about $300,000 on behalf of The Orpheum for the Broadway production and contributed another $50,000 to $100,000 on behalf of himself and three Orpheum board members. After the first season on Broadway, the original investors had the first option to invest in the national tour. Halloran raised another $125,000.

“It’s the easiest money I’ve ever raised,” said Halloran.

That’s because the show has made money each week since its debut on Broadway, without touching reserve funds even through the mid-winter months when ticket sales typically slump due to bad weather.

The show won four Tonys in 2010, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, and continues to ride a wave of success. Halloran said he expects the show to take in $1 million a week in spring.

The story is a fictional but realistic account of a young, white music producer in the racially segregated 1950s who stumbles into the black clubs of Beale Street and becomes infatuated with the newly birthed rock ‘n’ roll music he hears and the black singer who sings it. The couple makes it their mission to bring the sound to white radio stations.

The show was written by Joe Dipietro, author of the hit play “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” The score was written by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan.

It premiered in San Diego and Seattle before moving to Broadway. After debuting in Memphis, the show will move on to two long engagements in California. So far, 60 weeks have been booked and more commitments, including about a month in Japan, are expected. Memphis – the city – has benefited from large touring productions before, including “Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked,” but because of the show’s name and subject matter, a larger-than-average regional audience may be enticed.

“I think it’s going to have a huge regional draw like all Orpheum shows do,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I know on the average, of major shows that are here for the first time, about a third of their audiences are from out-of-town, so if that holds true and it’s here for two weeks, that’s 10,000 people coming from out of town.”

The Broadway League, which studies the Broadway theater industry, wrote in a release Jan. 11 that even in the 2008-2009 season when the recession was at its worst, the economic impact of touring Broadway shows on the cities they visited increased.

About 40 Broadway shows toured in that season, visiting 92 theaters. Out-of-towners who came specifically to see touring shows spent $687.2 million nationwide on dining and transportation, while another $807.2 million was spent to produce and run the tours. On average, the economic impact of the tours was 3.5 times the gross ticket sales to each local area’s economy.

But there’s a higher order of impact, which might be hard to calculate in dollars.

“Whenever you have a city as a title of a Broadway show – how many times does that happen?” Kane said. “It’s another way of branding the city through our culture, our music.”

Kane likened the tour to having a billboard advertising Memphis moving from city to city and country to country, which will likely increase interest in the popular tourist sites specifically mentioned in the show, namely Beale Street. That’s good enough for his money. The MCVB invested $25,000 in the Broadway show and about $11,000 in the tour.

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