Paul Newell and Elvis Presley go way back: "I remember collecting Elvis cards as an 8-year-old in 1958. They were like baseball cards, you know, with the slab of bubble gum in the package," remembers Newell. "I had a really good and rare card of Elvis on a motorcycle. I was proud of it."
Not everyone shared Newell's feeling, though. The den mother of his Cub Scout pack said the picture and its star were ridiculous, and that Elvis was a bad influence. The Army was going to "fix" him, she said.
"His life and legacy personify so many dichotomies of America in the 20th century," says Newell. "There will always be something very triumphant, something poignant, and something tragic about Elvis Presley."
It's that legacy that drives Newell's play, Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind. No actor portrays Elvis in the play, but the King—larger than life when he walked (and changed) the earth and even larger in death—is arguably still the main character. The play, set in the present day, focuses on a group of fledgling entrepreneurs with high hopes and big plans for Elvis's humble birthplace. "I became fascinated by the Depression-era shack town Elvis came from and the music there that became such formative influences for the hybrid music we call rock 'n' roll," says Newell, who was inspired by Peter Guralnick's book, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. As the play's tagline describes it, Tupelo investigates the collision of those influences—music, religion, race and money—as a group of small-town Southerners dream of "transforming their backwater into a world-renowned cradle of rock 'n' roll."
Newell does tap Elvis' music for the play, using Elvis' songs during scene changes to comment on the events that just unfolded, an after-the-fact, swivel-hipped Greek chorus. "In one scene, a man and woman get together who shouldn't. So putting in 'Mess O' Blues' over the scene change was fun," he offers. "Or 'Money Honey' after one character sells out another."
Newell doesn't see Elvis as only the glory and excess of his myth. He has come to enjoy Elvis' gospel songs, and says he'd costar in Follow That Dream with Elvis, if anything. "It's the one film where he's more or less an average Joe, not out to prove anything, no hyped-up anger, and he's funny in a natural kind of way," says Newell. "I'd be, I don't know, someone he hung out with. He would laugh at my imitation of Sammy Davis Jr."
Still, his overall favorite Elvis memory remains one of the unfixable Elvis, a megawatt star who could dazzle and inspire the masses, small-town or otherwise. "[I love]in Jailhouse Rock where he kisses the lead woman and says, 'That's just the devil in me.' Then he gives her a smile that says it all," Newell says. "To me, it's the one moment in all of those films where James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn or whoever you can name had nothing on Elvis Presley."
That is, he'll trade you three Tom Cruises for one Elvis.
Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind premieres at The ArtsCenter Thursday, Nov. 8. The plays runs through Sunday, Nov. 11, and again Thursday, Nov. 15, through Sunday, Nov. 18. Sunday shows are at 3 p.m. and all others are 8 p.m. See www.artscenterlive.org for details about special events coinciding with the play, including a gospel night, an appearance by acclaimed Elvis tribute artist Keith Henderson, and a roundtable titled "Southern Writers Love Elvis and Fried Pickles" featuring Lee Smith and others.