'Million Dollar Quartet' comes to Memphis, where it all happened

Cast members of “Million Dollar Quartet” were recruited for their ability to play instruments like the musicians they depict: Martin Kaye (from left) as Jerry Lee Lewis, Kelly Lamont as Dyanne, Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley, Christopher Ryan Grant as Sam Phillips, Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash and Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins.

Photo by By Joan Marcus

Cast members of “Million Dollar Quartet” were recruited for their ability to play instruments like the musicians they depict: Martin Kaye (from left) as Jerry Lee Lewis, Kelly Lamont as Dyanne, Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley, Christopher Ryan Grant as Sam Phillips, Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash and Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins.

History comes face to face with creative license on Tuesday when the Broadway tour of "Million Dollar Quartet" finally brings its re-enactment of rock and roll's most legendary jam session to the Orpheum.

If the musical had actual legs, it could walk eight blocks east up Beale Street, swing a left on Myrtle, cross Union Avenue and step directly into Sun Studio — a far more modest space than the Sun Studio replicated on the Orpheum stage.

Little has changed behind the storefront where producer Sam Phillips started his Memphis Recording Service, whose motto "We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime" beckoned aspiring musicians of all stripes to make low-budget recordings.

A large photograph now hangs on the original white acoustical tiles, depicting four of the studio's most famous alumni gathered at a piano on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1956.

On that day, Carl Perkins (of "Blue Suede Shoes" fame) was recording new music. A hot young piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire") had been hired at $15 a day to spice up things. By chance, one of Phillips' new discoveries, Johnny Cash ("Walk the Line"), stopped in. The session took a detour, however, when Elvis Presley, whose contract Phillips had recently sold to RCA, dropped in for a casual visit, bringing along a showgirl he'd met in Las Vegas.

A reporter from the Memphis Press-Scimitar, Bob Johnson, described the musical encounter in the next day's newspaper under the headline: "Million Dollar Quartet."

For years, the article was the only published account of the meeting. But after Elvis' death, Phillips revealed that he had put a microphone in the room and let the tape run, an act that could have gotten him sued had Elvis' record label found out about it.

That recording inspired the musical that has been playing almost continuously in Chicago since September 2008, and in New York City (both on and off-Broadway) since April 2010.

Colin Escott, who wrote the script along with Floyd Mutrux (director of the film "American Hot Wax" about the Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who coined the term "rock and roll"), admits that "Million Dollar Quartet" was never intended to be a historical facsimile.

"We wanted to depict this moment as a cultural flash point," Escott said. "It's sort of the Phillips version of the story, a David vs. Goliath story. If Elvis had first shown up at RCA, or Johnny Cash with his 'boom-chicka-boom' sound, they would have been completely ignored. They weren't making the music that the big labels were looking for. Or (their music) would have been dressed up with violins and turned into pop. But Phillips heard something new and raw. He took a chance on them."

Escott's respect for the source material runs deep. Indeed, he's a historian who wrote the book on Sun Studio, "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'N' Roll." He also wrote the liner notes to the 2006 remastered CD The Complete Million Dollar Quartet, in which he calls the original session "a catechism where rock and roll came from."

The foursome sang a wide range of tunes that day, from gospel to R&B to country. Cash can't be heard at all on the recording, leaving some to speculate that he may not have been present the whole time, or he was out of mic range.

Escott said the tunes chosen for the musical appeal to a broader audience.

"We wanted to have the quartet sing the songs that people associate with them," he said. "It would be a very different show if it were written just for me."

A major challenge for producers is finding actors who not only look and sound like the icons, but who can also play instruments live — guitars for Perkins, Presley and Cash, and piano for Lewis.

Producer Gigi Pritzker says they are constantly looking for potential replacements.

"It's so important that these guys be musicians," she said. "We ask everyone who auditions if they've ever been in a band. That experience is really important. Maybe they're not always the greatest actors, but you can't fake good musicianship."

Levi Kreis, who played a ferocious honky-tonk piano as Jerry Lee Lewis on Broadway, won a Tony Award for his efforts. On the tour, Martin Kaye portrays Lewis, Lee Ferris is Carl Perkins, and Christopher Ryan Grant is Sam Phillips.

Elvis is played by Cody Slaughter from Harrison, Ark., winner of Elvis Presley Enterprises' 2011 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Contest.

Derek Keeling, a singer/songwriter who played Danny Zuko in Broadway's "Grease," originally auditioned for Elvis, but got the part of Cash after producers heard him sing bass.

"I watched hours upon hours of Johnny Cash videos," he said. "I read his autobiography and listened to his music. What's hard is boiling down a career that spanned 50 years. People know him for a lifetime of music, so I can't just re-create vintage 1950s Johnny Cash. I kind of try to split the difference between young and old Johnny Cash."

Pritzker said that authenticity is key in show.

"We don't stretch the truth too far," she says. "It's true that not everything in the show happened that day. But everything the characters talk about are a factual part of who they are."

Escott, a native of England whose first trip to the United States was to visit Sun Studio in 1970, said he wanted the show to bring attention to the magnitude of what transpired in Memphis in the '50s.

"I want people to know how rock music was created," he said. "It could only have come from the South and from these guys. They were absorbing everything and creating something truly unique, a sound that tied in perfectly to the hormonal rush of teenagers. This was really the first super group of rock."

'Million Dollar Quartet'

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Feb. 17, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 18 and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Tickets are $20-$90. Call (901) 525-3000.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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