It’s about time!
Finally, after the show has ended its Broadway run, we can buy the cast recording of Million Dollar Quartet in a record store or online.
Throughout the entire 489 performance run of the show on Broadway (April 11, 2010 to June 12, 2011) the only place you could pick up this disc was in the lobby of the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street in New York City.
That was convenient for those who were entering the theatre anticipating a great time and for those who were leaving having had exactly that. For the rest of humanity, however, it wasn’t exactly a snap.
The show hit big in Chicago where Eric Schaeffer directed the staging of a book musical that had been developed at the Seaside Music Theatre in Florida and then at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington. It had been assembled around the historical fact that on one night in 1956 Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley were in the same recording studio at Memphis’s Sun Records with some time on their hands. They did what musicians everywhere do when they have the time. They jammed. As it happened, Sun’s producer, Sam Philips, was smart enough to push the “record” button on his tape recorder. The tape of that jam session became a prized item on the underground network of rock ‘n roll fans.
When Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux got the idea of staging a musical based on that encounter, they felt that fans in this century would come expecting to hear the big hits of the last century, not necessarily the songs that happened to have been sung that night. They took considerable liberties with the historical setting, not the least of which was to have Perkins, Cash, Lewis and Presley singing some songs that had yet to enter their catalogues. They had the decency to market their show with the subtitle: “A New Musical Inspired By The Actual Event.” Notice that they don’t say the show presents the actual event.
After all, this is theater — not a classroom or a history book. And, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, it is good theatre. The story being told in the show isn’t terribly complicated but it is told clearly and cleanly. Perkins was in the studio to record a song called “Matchbox.” In his back up band was a new piano playing youngster named Jerry Lee Lewis.
Sun Records producer Sam Phillips was chafing over the fact that he’d sold his contract with his biggest star, Elvis Presley, to RCA Records and was determined not to loose another big name, but his contract with his country-western star Johnny Cash was about to expire. He contrived to get Cash to come by just as Elvis, in town for a concert, was going to drop in to say hello to his old friends. Phillips hoped the “vibes” of the reunion would be enough to keep Cash in the fold. It didn’t work.
What did work was the chemistry of like-minded rockers sharing their songs and, as is so often the case with the practitioners of any field, competing to see who was the best at what they loved to do. Challenge after challenge, rock ‘n roll rolled on through the night.
The Chicago production was a big hit — in fact it is still running today, but with a different cast than when it opened. Those four performers went to Broadway with the show in 2010 and one of them walked away with the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Musical. That was Levi Kreis who played Jerry Lee Lewis with as much energy and audacity as Lewis ever had, even sitting atop an upright piano plunking out a mean rock stride with his hands behind his back. He rocked out on “Real Wild Child,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” His performance is the best thing about the recording now available on its own label – MDQ Merchandising LLC.
Lance Guest’s Johnny Cash is also a spot-on impersonation of the original with an emotional range in the dialogue scenes that was impressive. When he launches into “Folsom Prison Blues” he manages to capture not only the way Cash used to sing the song but the way he sounded, as if he still enjoyed singing it even after hundreds of concerts where it was demanded by his fans. He handled “I Walk The Line,” “Sixteen Tons” and “Riders In The Sky” with assurance.
The best musician in the cast turned out to be Robert Britton Lyons whose guitar work as Carl Perkins is sparkling but with a deep blue tint. In addition to “Matchbox,” he lets loose with “Who Do You Love,” “My Babe” and is especially strong on “See You Later, Alligator.” He leads the entire cast in “Blue Suede Shoes” — that hit of his that was overshadowed when Elvis covered it.
As was the case on Broadway, on this disc the slight disappointment is the performance of the Elvis of the evening, Eddie Clendening, who sometimes seems more like an Elvis impersonator than an Elvis, and who somehow misses out on the sex appeal of the original. His “Memories Are Made of This” is a mere snippet but he manages a passable “That’s All Right,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Hound Dog.”
One performance that fails to come across on the disc as well as it did in the theater is that of Elizabeth Stanley who played the girlfriend Elvis brought along to the studio that night. In fact, Elvis did have a girl with him, but the tape of the actual event doesn’t have her singing.
The play, on the other hand, gives her two solos — “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.” It will be hard for those who only have the evidence of the CD to believe it, but she nearly stopped the show the two times I managed to catch it on Broadway.
The show may have closed on Broadway, but it continues as an Off-Broadway attraction at the New World Stages and a national tour is about to kick off in Rochester, NY with stops down the east coast as far south as Miami this year. A London production has earned some good reviews as well.
Now – at long last – you can check this show out without having to be in a city where it is playing. It’s on disc and its worth a listen.