As janitor turned singing sensation Bobby Dupree, Will Mann gets the airwaves buzzing in the first national tour of that roof-raising, revolution-starting, rock ‘n’ roll musical MEMPHIS
By Donnie Matsuda
This week, the touring cast of MEMPHIS will rock the souls and touch the hearts of thousands of San Diegans, as the electrifying tale of a white DJ falling in love with a thrilling black singer amid the backdrop of the segregated 50’s returns to the city where it (almost) all began. MEMPHIS had a workshop staging at the La Jolla Playhouse back in 2008 and went on to Broadway in 2009 (directed by La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley), where it won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. It is still playing on the Great White Way, with plans to close on August 5th. Meanwhile, the first national tour has already begun and it kicked off its run in October 2011 at the Orpheum Theatre in (where else?) Memphis, TN. Now, the tour finally makes its way back to San Diego and is being presented for a limited six-day engagement at the San Diego Civic Theatre, courtesy of Broadway San Diego.
Featured in the touring cast is Will Mann, who reprises his Broadway role of humble janitor Bobby, who sings in the washroom until he is given his big break on Huey Calhoun’s rock ‘n’ roll variety show. Mann is no stranger to the stage as he obtained his Bachelor of Music from Oklahoma City University (studying under Florence Birdwell) and has tackled a variety of roles on the regional circuit, such as Coalhouse in RAGTIME, Jesus in GODSPELL, and Richie in A CHORUS LINE. Mann is also no stranger to the touring circuit, having completed first national tours of both BILLY ELLIOT (Mr. Braithwaithe & Big Davey) and WONDERFUL TOWN (Valenti). Recently, he took a break from his rigorous touring schedule to answer my questions about how he got involved in musical theatre, how he connects to the character of Bobby, and what message he hopes audiences take away from the powerfully poignant musical, MEMPHIS.
|Felicia Boswell (Felicia), Rhett George (Gator), Bryan Fenkart (Huey), Will Mann (Bobby) in the national tour of MEMPHIS. Photo by Paul Kolnik.|
DONNIE: Where did you grow up?
WILL: I grew up in Southern California, born in LA County, but was raised in Ontario, California. During the middle of high school, my family moved to Dallas, Texas where they still reside.
DONNIE: How did you get involved in musical theatre? Any special mentor or role models you admired?
WILL: When transferring to Duncanville High School in Texas, I was required to take an art credit and took choir because of my background in church. My choir teacher (Maria Green) required everyone audition for the school musical. My senior year, I played Judd Fry in OKLAHOMA! and became hooked on the stage.
DONNIE: How did you get involved with MEMPHIS? Were you part of the workshop cast when it was developed here at La Jolla Playhouse?
WILL: No, but I was in the final callbacks for it. I auditioned for MEMPHIS for about 2.5 years before I actually booked it.
|Julie Johnson (Mama), Rhett George (Gator), Will Mann (Bobby) & Quentin Earl Darrington (Delray) in the national tour of MEMPHIS. Photo by Paul Kolnik.|
DONNIE: How would you describe the character you play, Bobby? Are there specific aspects of his character that you relate to?
WILL: Bobby is the mediator. He naturally puts himself in the middle to stop conflict. I'd say his joy is what is most infectious about his character. He never misses an opportunity to laugh his heart out, and I think that is what I admire most and relate to the most about him.
DONNIE: Since there’s no movie or book on which MEMPHIS is based, how did you prepare for the show (historical research of the time and place, personal interviews, documentaries)? And how was it working with director Christopher Ashley to bring this story to stage life?
WILL: My parents lived this time in the South, and I feel like growing up I learned so much from them, not only about the racial tension in the country but how music shaped a generation. I mimicked how they talked and how they danced from a very small age. I'm known to a lot of my friends as “the old man,” so I had a lot to draw on as far as portraying someone from that time. Christopher Ashley is a very smart man. I'm grateful to him because he let us be ourselves. We brought our own energy to all of these characters and what you see on stage is the combination of our work and not a replica of what someone did before us. It is rare that directors let this happen with a vehicle that has already proven so successful.
|Felicia Boswell in between her handsome co-stars Quentin Earl Darrington, Rhett George, Bryan Fenkart, and Will Mann at the opening of the MEMPHIS national tour in Memphis on October 16, 2011. Photo by Bruce Glikas.|
DONNIE: I understand this is not your first national tour. How does this tour compare/contrast to the last time you toured the country with the company of BILLY ELLIOT?
WILL: Well, it is very different. The 1st national tour of BILLY ELLIOT sat down in Chicago for 11 months. I literally lived in Chicago for almost a year and most of the cities on its contract were only 1 week long. I was not at all prepared for the travel schedule. My featured parts in the shows are a little more similar. I'm the big guy with surprise talents. Only, in BILLY ELLIOT, it wasn't just dancing - I had to jump rope, tap dance, and play the accordion on top of all the crazy dancing singing and hilarity.
DONNIE: And how does doing the tour version of MEMPHIS compare to doing the Broadway production of the same show?
WILL: I think for me the biggest difference is the comradery. I walked into the Broadway company after they'd already been running for a year and a half and they'd already built their relationships and had homes to go to after work, with real lives. Don't get me wrong - I was welcomed whole heartedly and they were some of the loveliest people in the world. But, with this [tour] group, we started together and learned and grew as a unit. Not to mention when on the road, you not only work together but you live together, too. You don't have your spouse or your best friends here to run away with, so you become really close with your coworkers. Family bonds begin to form.
DONNIE: There’s a lot to take away from this powerful and moving musical. What message do you hope audiences take away from their time in MEMPHIS?
WILL: I hope people realize that what we see as common place today, the things we assume should have always been accepted, weren't so, and not that long ago. I hope it allows us to reflect on the things that we find unacceptable today on a national or state wide scale. I want people to be entertained, but there is also a strong argument for equality here and it still applies today, just with different players.
Things to know before you go: MEMPHIS presented by Broadway San Diego plays at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street from July 24-29, 2012. Ticket prices vary. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit TicketMaster.com, call (888) 937-8995, or visit www.BroadwaySD.com.