A cheerful and proud cast member of the National Tour of the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Memphis, Julie Johnson graciously spoke with me over the phone from Las Vegas, Nevada where she was performing at the Smith Center – and the stop before this musical hits the Civic Theater with Broadway San Diego.
The veteran singer has enjoyed a wide-ranging career on and off Broadway; she’s had parts in films, television, and sang at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops.
But you may be more familiar with Johnson as the voice of Baby Bop in the popular PBS children’s show “Barney,” where she worked for 20 years. “We taped during the day, and I was able to do theater a lot of times at night,” said Johnson recalling the frenetic pace of her acting and singing career.
The long time-span doing the voice work on “Barney” piqued my curiosity, and I had to ask the Texas native if she worked during the same period when the budding Disney starlets, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, were also on the show.
“Oh, yes! Absolutely! Those little girls were so cute!” Johnson quickly replied, and added that though talented children are easily spotted, not every child will pursue an acting career. “Both of those little girls, and their parents of course aided in that, really did seem to be very focused on their performance,” Johnson observed about the well-known young singers.
Since Johnson wasn’t born in one of the major entertainment markets like Los Angeles or New York, I asked how she got parts in movies and television; Johnson had a part in Robert Duvall’s film “The Apostle,” and appeared on episodes of As the World Turns.
“As a regional actor, you have to diversify yourself as much as possible. I work hard, audition, and follow anything that comes my way that is worthwhile and isn’t detrimental to my family,” said the energetic songstress.
Johnson’s latest stage pursuit is playing the character Mama in the musical Memphis. The play is loosely based on the story of Hughie Philips, a popular DJ on an all white radio station in the 1950s. Philips is the first documented radio personality to take on the establishment by playing black soul music, called “race records,” when segregation was a matter of law, and not just people’s views. Julie Johnson plays the mother of the rebel DJ, and is compelled to explore what has gripped her son’s mind and heart when he starts playing non-white music, and also falls in love with a black woman.
This play takes place during a time when the south was terribly divided. “The entire African-American community in the south was very marginalized and forced to be second class citizens by our laws, not just the attitude of the people,” Johnson remarked.
I asked Johnson why she thinks it is important to keep re-telling stories like the events represented in Memphis.
“You know the saying: ‘The day we forget history, is the day we are destined to repeat it’. Memphis retells a time in our history that reminds us that music began to lead us out of that terrible time period. Because white teenagers started to listen to African-American music as it began to be played on white radio stations, mainstream, teenagers began to question: How can they be so bad, when their music makes me feel so good? (This is a line in one of the big songs in the play). I hope that when younger generations see something wrong, that they question it,” she emphatically remarked.
We then talked about her role, Mama. I asked her if this character represents a catalyst of change in Memphis.
“Mama, I love the role because she is truly the character in the show that plays out changing her heart and her mind. From being someone who in the big song in the second act sings: ‘I was taught to hate them, I was taught to denigrate them, I was taught they are lesser in the good Lord’s eyes,’ she had to desperately try to understand what gripped her son, and what was pushing people to listen to this music. What it did to their soul that they were less fearful!” Johnson commented.
“Fear, and fear of retribution, drove many of the horrible events of the past like Nazi Germany and what is happening in African countries with the wars going on right now. We don’t speak out because of fear of retribution,” said the singer. And then added, ”Mama has a reservation to change her thoughts, but changed for the love of her son. As mothers we do things we never thought we would do for our children.”
Speaking of children, Johnson has a son, Trey. I asked her where he was while she was on the road touring with Memphis.
The dedicated mother said her 13 year-old son is backstage and is traveling with her for a year. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way!” Johnson said regarding her only child. “I am also homeschooling him. It’s his 7th grade, but if he were a freshman in high school I wouldn’t even attempt high school math.”
Both of Johnson’s parents are teachers, and mentioned that she is a “big believer” of public education. “When this is all over, he will have seen 30 states! ” the proud mom added about her teenager’s experience during the National Tour of Memphis.
Then I enquired whether Trey’s talents included singing, and in a motherly tone Johnson replied, “He has a beautiful singing voice! His voice is changing from a soprano to a deep baritone, I think. He also plays the trombone and we have it with us on the road. He’s the only child traveling with the company apart from a two-year old.”
And when Trey isn’t backstage cheering his mother on, this working mother told me, “You might see him selling CDs, DVDs and programs on the show. You can say he has his first job, too! ”
Memphis is playing at the Civic Theater in San Diego, July 24th through July 29. Don’t forget to use the special code SOUL for a 25% discount at check when you purchase tickets using this link!
JULY 24-29, 2012
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission
Rating: Mature Language / for young adults and above
Tue Eve, July 24, 2012 – 7pm
Wed Eve, July 25, 2012 – 7pm
Thu Eve, July 26, 2012 – 7:30pm
Fri Eve, July 27, 2012 — 8pm
Sat Mat, July 28, 2012 – 2pm
Sat Eve, July 28, 2012 – 8pm
Sun Mat, July 29, 2012 – 1 pm
Sun Eve, July 29, 2012 – 6pm
For more information visit http://www.broadwaysd.com/memphis.php
Disclamer: I was given complimentary tickets to see Memphis.