By John Benson
The magic of the garage band isn’t lost on Broadway director Eric Schaeffer.
In fact, it’s that dynamic that led the theater veteran, whose Broadway credits include “Follies,” “Putting It Together” and “Glory Days,” to get involved with what became the Tony Award-winning “Million Dollar Quartet” production.
“I had never worked on a musical where you use preexisting music in any way,” said Schaeffer, calling from Washington, D.C. “I don’t think of this as a jukebox musical because it’s not like a catalog of one performer or singer. So that really enticed me to go to work on it.
“Also, I loved the story of Sam Phillips and how he discovered these guys. He was basically in a garage making amazing music. I love the idea of that. I started a theater in Washington D.C. We were in a garage, and I know exactly what that felt like going into this place and making magic. I just loved that story and wanted to tell it.”
That story takes place in 1956 Memphis when a twist of fate brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley together at Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records storefront studio. This was the first and only jam session for the rock ’n’ roll bellwethers.
As for “Million Dollar Quartet,” which returns to Northeast Ohio for shows Tuesday through July 27 in PlayhouseSquare’s Ohio Theatre, the production details the legendary night covering broken promises, secrets, betrayal, humorous banter and music.
In fact, the tunes are what give the show a heartbeat, with performances of hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “See Ya Later, Alligator,” “Fever,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hound Dog.”
Adding to the allure of the show is the fact all of the actors are also musicians performing the songs organically for the audience.
“We don’t rehearse like it’s a normal musical because it’s not a normal musical, which is a great thing,” Schaeffer said. “And it’s what the guys love about performing as well because it’s fresh and vibrant every night. It’s never exactly the same show. It’s not cookie cutter. That’s the thing that was exciting about it. We created a great band.”
For those who experienced the show during its Northeast Ohio run a few years ago, Schaeffer said it actually was retooled for a Las Vegas production, which is what audiences will see in Cleveland.
Speaking of the Rock Hall City, the director said he’s looking forward to the show coming back to Cleveland because that’s where the original national touring production opened and confirmed the narrative was universal.
“The music speaks to everyone, which is really kind of fascinating because the younger kids and the younger people that have seen the show, they may know some of the tunes, but I think they end up having a new appreciation for the whole beginning of rock ’n’ roll.”