It really happened, and there are recordings to prove it.
In what used to be an auto parts store, now converted into a recording studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, four early rock and roll stars, now legends, met together at Sun Studios for different reasons, and jammed. They were dubbed the Million Dollar Quarter, and what happened that afternoon on December 4, 1956 is exactly what you’ll see re-enacted at Phoenix Theatre’s mainstage until April 15. If you’re a rock ‘n roll fan, you’ll have the time of your life. And even if you only have a passing interest, it will still be one of the most fun nights at the theatre you’ll get to experience. Strap yourselves in; under Scott Weinstein’s Phoenix Theatre directorial debut, Million Dollar Quartet is a musical theatre thrill ride.
It was supposed to be a recording session for the man who would be known as ‘The King of Rockabilly,’ Carl Perkins. He was already a name, but after Blue Suede Shoes there was a lull in the career, and he needed a follow up. Helping out that afternoon was a young up-and-comer, later to be known as ‘The Killer,’ rock and roll’s first great wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis. At the time, Jerry Lee was unknown, but there was something about him that recording impresario, Sam Phillips could see. The unpredictably volatile twenty-one year old was there to help out that afternoon.
Then the deep, bass-baritoned voiced Johnny Cash dropped by. He had already recorded with Phillips, and his career was in full swing. After seeing Perkins recording with Jerry Lee, Cash picked up a guitar and joined in. Finally, Elvis Presley dropped by, accompanied by his then girlfriend, and joined the other three behind the mics. There were several people in attendance at the studios who witnessed the events. One was a newspaper man who dubbed the four as the Million Dollar Quartet. There’s been some doubt as to whether Johnny Cash stuck around to sing, but Cash himself has said he was definitely there, and it’s his voice you’ll hear on those recordings.
And that’s the setup. As written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Million Dollar Quartet is a ninety-five minute, plus intermission, jukebox musical that dramatizes the events of that afternoon, as told by Sam Phillips (a wavy coiffed Kyle Sorrell in full Tennessee accent). “On December fourth, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley to play together for the first and only time,” states Phillips. “That man was me, Sam Phillips. The place was Sun Records. And that night, we made rock ‘n roll history.”
If you saw either the 2010 Broadway production, or the National US tour when it came to the valley at ASU Gammage in 2012, you’ll notice a difference. It’s the kind of difference that has nothing to do with either book or performance. In fact, there’s little change to the musical when it comes to presentation; this is a top-notch production. It’s all to do with intimacy.
Because of Phoenix Theatre’s mainstage area, the ability to feel close to what you’re watching, even from the back row, plus the clarity of sound, even when the volume is turned up to eleven, there’s the kind of personal involvement that can’t be felt when seated in a larger auditorium. When Phillips introduced himself on the tour, it was a declaration, a projection, something that needed to be heard by everyone in a packed house of over three thousand. Here, when Sorrell as Phillips enters from the aisle, climbs the stage, and turns to us, his introduction is less an announcement, it’s information he’s sharing. And like everything that follows, it’s as if we’re there, right there in the studio alongside those legends. When they’re singing into the mics, they’re not so much making a recording, they’re singing directly to us, for us, as though we’re invited guests. As soon as the famous foursome burst into the introductory Blue Suede Shoes, the smile you’ll feel on your face will be bright enough to light up the house, and it’ll remain there for ninety-five more minutes until Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On is done and Elvis has left the building. “I didn’t want to just play the tunes,” Phillips confides, referring to his time on the radio, “I wanted to record them.”
The style of the show is quickly established. Once Blue Suede Shoes is completed, the cast exit, only to individually re-enter to begin the session. There’s a verse of a famous song, followed by either a theatrical freeze or an entrance mimed in slow-motion as Phillips turns to us and tells us how he first met them, with an anecdote to follow “Flog me a lick,” he tells Perkins in a flashback.
There’s an arc of story, there to create a little conflict among the songs. Phillips has drafted a new, three year contract he’s about to offer Johnny Cash (Bill Scott Sheets), but he’s unaware that Cash has already signed a deal with Columbia Records. Cash is trying to find the right moment to tell the impresario that he’ll be leaving Sun Records, but it’s not going to be easy. There’s also the resentment felt by Perkins when watching TV’s The Perry Como Show as guest singer Elvis Presley (Kavan Hashemian) performs Blue Suede Shoes. Now, when people hear Perkins sing his own song, they think he’s covering a Presley hit.
But there’s also a lot of good humor throughout. When Presley’s girlfriend, here called Dyanne (Alyssa Chiarello, whose slinky, sexy version of Little Willie John’s Fever stops the show) is introduced to an aggressively flirtatious Jerry Lee Lewis (a powerhouse Chris Lash), she remarks, “You’re kinda bashful, ain’t ya.” For the record, Presley’s mystery girlfriend was named Dyanne for the show, simply because at the time of writing it, no one quite knew who she was. She was later tracked down when in her seventies and found to be one-time Vegas dancer, Marilyn Evans.
Occasionally there’s a groaner in the humor. When Johnny Cash enters and is asked where he’s been lately, he answers, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” And when Elvis talks of his annoyance of having to play support to comedian Shecky Greene at a Las Vegas nightclub to the wrong kind of audience and booed off the stage every night, he declares, “I swear, I’ll never play Vegas again.”
But it’s the songs and how they’re performed that matter. Backed by Jay Perkins on bass and Alex Crossland on drums (under Alan Ruch’s musical supervision) and performed in an outstanding angled recording studio set by scenic designer Douglas Clarke, complete with Christmas lights ready for the oncoming December holiday, to call the score ‘timeless’ is nothing short of lazy journalism. There’s something more far-reaching about songs like Who Do You Love, Long Tall Sally, Great Balls of Fire, or Brown Eyed Handsome Man (originally written by Chuck Berry as Brown Skinned Handsome Man, but forced to change for potential radio play). With supremely catchy hooks, an energy rarely before heard, and the simplicity of arrangements – a bass, drums, lead guitar, and if Jerry Lee was included, a piano played as though fingers were hammers – those were songs meant to be sung, not so much in a recording studio, but live, in performance. The passing of time changes nothing. They are and always will be thrilling. And once the play itself is done, don’t think of leaving. There’s an encore.
But when you go, check the foundations of Phoenix Theatre and tread carefully as you take your seat, just in case. It’s more than likely that the cast brought the house down the night before, and they’ll be doing it again when you’re in attendance, as they will night after night until April 15. As the introductory voice-over informs us when the house lights begin to dim, there ain’t no fakin’, these boys are really playin’.
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography