Reinventing Memphis

October 5, 2021 is a day Brett Batterson will never forget. That’s when Come From Away opened at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Memphis, marking the return to live performance after 18 months of pandemic shutdown.

“That opening night is one of the greatest nights I’ve ever experienced in my career,” says Batterson, the Orpheum’s president and CEO. “Everybody was so excited to be there, and the audience was just so grateful for Broadway to be back in the Orpheum. The cast was excited to perform for people. It was like a magic stew of emotions that was just wonderful.”

When Jesus Christ Superstar opened on June 28th, it marked the belated end of the star-crossed season that began in March 2020. “It feels really good to have what we call the pandemic season behind us, and we start our new season in just a few weeks with My Fair Lady, followed by To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Located at the western edge of Beale Street, the century-old theater has witnessed a lot of changes Downtown, but nothing like the last few years. It has been a time of both growth and tragedy. “I think Downtown Memphis is starting to see the resurgence, the coming out of the plague. If you come down here on a Friday or Saturday night, there are people everywhere. I don’t think we’ve seen the return of all the office workers that we need for the restaurants to have a lunch crowd, but on a weekend night, there’s a lot of people down here.”

Batterson sees the crowds as a continuation of positive trends the pandemic interrupted. “When I first arrived in Memphis six and a half years ago, I think Memphis was just at the tail end of the low self-esteem problem that Memphis has suffered from since the assassination of Dr. King. Shortly after I arrived, people started making plans and talking about how great of a city it is. Nashville is a tourist trap while Memphis retains its soul and authenticity. That’s the big change I’ve seen — Memphis is proud of itself again, as it should be.”

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