NEW YORK — Think of seminal moments in the early history of rock ’n’ roll and your mind likely turns to such instantly iconic television events as Elvis swiveling his unseen hips on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the fall of 1956 or the Beatles’ teen-screaming British invasion in February 1964.
Yet often overshadowed in the public eye but beloved by rock aficionados is the fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session at Sun Studios, overseen by Sun Records impresario and godfather of rock ’n’ roll Sam Phillips.
On Dec. 4, 1956, four fledgling rock luminaries — Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and a then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis — gathered together for an impromptu night of jamming, improvising, hanging out, and playing traditional gospel, blues, and country songs. Phillips’s engineer, “Cowboy” Jack Clements, hit the record button and captured much of the session on tape.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
The spontaneous event didn’t garner instant national attention, though a photograph and accompanying story were published in a Memphis newspaper the next day, headlined with the Million Dollar Quartet sobriquet. Still, this moment of historical happenstance has since become the stuff of rock ’n’ roll legend — the only time when these four friends and rivals all shared a studio together.
To veteran music historian and writer Colin Escott and film writer-producer Floyd Mutrux, the real-life event seemed like a ripe opportunity to create a fictional stage version of what transpired that evening. The resulting show, “Million Dollar Quartet,” opened on Broadway in 2010 to warm reviews, attracting legions of toe-tapping, head-bobbing baby boomers and other rock ’n’ roll fans.
Now, the US tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” which features such indelible rock ’n’ roll classics as “Hound Dog,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Great Balls of Fire,” comes to the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre for a two-week run starting Oct. 8.
“The show catches these four guys at a point when their career trajectories are taking them in different directions. So there was some kind of innate tension there,” says Escott, who along with Mutrux, conceived the show and wrote the book. “It seemed like the Million Dollar Quartet session was a cultural flashpoint that we could use to say something meaningful about where those guys had been and where they were going and about rock ’n’ roll in its infancy.”
The recorded tapes of the sessions were available, but to write the musical’s book, Escott had to take liberties in what was discussed that day and invent various small dramas that could have unfolded among the men. To do that, he had to compress events that had occurred over 18 months into one period.
In the show, Perkins is struggling to produce another hit after the success of “Blue Suede Shoes,” which some people had come to associate with Elvis after he played it several times on national television. “Cash and Perkins had toured Mississippi with Presley just a year earlier, and they all believed themselves to be equals. But Elvis’s career had skyrocketed. So you can see them coming to terms with that,” says Escott, from his home near Nashville. “We tried to faithfully depict what they were thinking as they saw their lives take these very different courses.”
As the session unfolds, Phillips, the visionary producer who sold Elvis’s contract to RCA for $40,000 in order to keep Sun Records afloat, plans to spring a contract renewal on Cash during the session. Meanwhile, Cash is trying to figure out how to tell Phillips that he plans to leave Sun and sign with Columbia. And Elvis, the biggest star of them all, is feeling lost, isolated, and unsure of his next move after his time in Hollywood. Then there’s the brash label newcomer Lewis, who, Escott says, “truly believed he belonged in Elvis’s company.”
The show’s director, Eric Schaeffer, is in New York overseeing rehearsals for the new tour that’s hitting the road this fall. On the first day, he says, he always tells a new cast that they should think about “Million Dollar Quartet” as the story of a father figure and his four surrogate sons.
“You’ve got Johnny, the oldest son, who has to tell Sam that he is moving on, saying, ‘Dad, I’m out of here,’ ” Schaeffer says. “Then you’ve got the second son who’s always been ignored, which is Carl Perkins, who has a rivalry with the third kid, the golden boy who could do no wrong, which is Elvis. And then there’s the little brat Jerry Lee, the eager beaver who came from behind and is always vying for attention. So you throw those four people and their dynamics all into a room, add a little bit of booze and cigarettes to loosen the vibe, and you see the sparks fly.”
In reality, the foursome performed mostly traditional gospel, country, and blues songs, but the artists’ signature hits have been added to the mix.
Schaeffer and musical supervisor/arranger Chuck Mead say that each time they launch a new production or bring in new cast members, they approach it like they’re putting together a new band. With no pit orchestra or chorus on stage, each of the actors does his own playing and singing. So the key to the success of the show, both men say, is to foster an easy intimacy and playfulness among the four performers so that the evening unfolds like a musical conversation. The cast features James Barry as Perkins, John Countryman as Lewis, Tyler Hunter as Presley, and Scott Moreau as Cash.
“Different players have different strengths and find certain things to bring into it,” says Mead, who was frontman of the ’90s alt-country band BR-549. “It keeps it very organic because, unlike most Broadway productions, this actually reflects a jam session. So it has to look very impromptu, even though most of the stuff is all planned out. But there’s that element of unpredictability that still makes it rock ’n’ roll.”
To achieve that illusion of spontaneity, the actors must make the parts their own. “Our show isn’t a tribute show,” Mead says. “It’s theater. So it’s not about impersonation. It’s about interpretation.”
Schaeffer wants the audience to feel like a fly on the wall of the studio, getting to glimpse these moments of musical and emotional connection among this group of early rock ’n’ roll pioneers.
“The show just wants to be real about what these guys were and where they came from,” he says. “Because these are real guys who came from nowhere and started with nothing, but went on to change the course of pop music forever.”
Chris Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.