Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley
By John Benson
One for the money, two for the show, the “Million Dollar Quartet” in the Rock Hall City is ready to go.
“We’re so excited about coming to Cleveland; it just feels like a perfect fit,” said Director Eric Schaeffer, calling from New York City. “These are such great rock ’n’ roll icons, so to be there is going to be wonderful.”
The Tony Award-winning musical, which visits Cleveland’s Palace Theater from Tuesday through Oct. 23, revolves around a twist of fate that brought Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley together for one impromptu evening. “Quartet” will be at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center from Nov. 1-6.
The production opened three years ago in Chicago and premiered last year on Broadway.
With a cast of legendary characters, “Million Dollar Quartet” was admittedly a different animal for Schaeffer, whose Broadway credits include “Follies,” “Putting It Together” and “Glory Days.”
“We never want it to be about impersonators; it’s really about these four characters,” Schaeffer said. “What’s great is the show takes place when these guys are at the beginning of their careers. Everybody thinks of Elvis and Cash and Jerry Lee, but no one really thinks of them when they were just starting out. It gives us the freedom that we could actually tell the story. You see how these four guys grew together and also grew apart.”
The narrative glue is Sam Phillips, the “Father of Rock ’n’ Roll,” who discovered all four artists. Fate brought them together Dec. 4, 1956, during a Perkins recording session, which eventually became known as one of the greatest impromptu jam sessions of all time.
For a modern comparison, just think of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna by happenstance all being in the same city and meeting up for a girls night out of fun and music.
“What took place was one of rock and roll’s most magical moments,” said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “The impromptu jam session with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash was filled with experimentation, improvisation, nostalgia and fun. In just one session, these rock-and-roll pioneers gave us a unique window into a moment in time that clearly illustrates rock and roll’s roots.”
The production details broken promises, secrets, betrayal and celebrations with an eclectic and electric score of rock, gospel, R&B and country hits; “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “ Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Hound Dog” and more.
In terms of the music, Schaeffer said it acts as the appeal of the show but also the greatest misconception. Sure, we live in a lip-sync kind of world, but you better believe these actor-musicians are really playing. No, really, they are.
“We’ve had times where people say, ‘Oh, they’re playing to a tape,’ and we’re like, ‘No, that’s real,’” Schaeffer said. “We had to change the pre-show announcement to say these guys really play, so I think people are amazed at the musicianship of these guys and how great they are.”
Having actors that sing and play musical instruments is nothing new to the stage, especially of numerous biopic stage productions becoming en vogue. Earlier this year the Cleveland Play House tackled Ginger Rogers’ story in “Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical.” As for “Million Dollar Quartet” offering so many hits, some theatergoers may be expecting more of a revue than a show. Schaeffer said this thinking is a mistake, albeit a fun one.
“What they’re going to expect and get are totally opposites,” Schaeffer said. “They’re going to expect an impersonation show and instead get a great evening of music with a really heartfelt story behind it and a little rock ’n’ roll concert to send them on their way at the end of the night. They get a little bit of everything.”