Do you know who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”?
I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Elvis Presley. No, that honor belongs to Carl Perkins. (known to all as Mr. Phillips), the founder and owner of Sun Records out of Memphis, TN., famously promised a Cadillac to the first musician on his label to score a hit. The natural assumption was Elvis Presley would end up with that car, and while Presley did perform “Blue Suede Shoes” on The Ed Sullivan Show, Perkins is the man who wrote it (thus the man to drive that Caddy).
The names Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis probably mean an awful lot more to the casual rock ‘n’ roll fan than the name Sam Phillips does, but former wouldn’t exist without the latter. Mr. Phillips is generally credited for kickstarting the careers of all four men. He’s also responsible for a jam session bringing the four — the “Million Dollar Quartet” — together, a night that has almost mythic qualities for rock fans.
Million Dollar Quartet, the Broadway production vacationing at the Kennedy Center, brings that jam session to life. The highlight of the production (as with any jam session) is, of course, the songs themselves. This music’s live from the players themselves, and it sounds unbelievably terrific. All the hits are here: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line,” Great Balls of Fire,” and “Hound Dog,” to name a few of the 23 played.
But the story lies in what’s fueling those songs. A miasma of fear, jealousy and, yes, brotherhood clings to every note. And the dramatic undertones keep the audience engaged – not that the audience needs much more engaging than these terrific songs.
In many ways, Mr. Phillips was a father to these four young men, all of whom grew up poor and all of whom needed someone who cared, who believed in them. He was that man, but early in his career, financial concerns forced him to sell Presley’s contract to RCA, something neither man wanted.
On this night, those wretched finances are again nipping at his heels. He needs to extend Johnny Cash’s dwindling contract another three years. Perkins, still bitter at Presley for the Ed Sullivan Show debacle, is struggling to record another hit (a pressing ego-driven matter, considering no one seems to know he wrote his only hit thus far). A young Jerry Lee Lewis is playing session piano for Perkins and generally spouting off about his talent and future fame.
Seeing an opportunity, Mr. Phillips calls Cash and Presley over to listen, play, drink whisky and (unbeknownst to them) have Cash sign a new contract. Meanwhile, Mr. Phillips is considering an offer of his own from RCA to manage his first prodigy, who hasn’t produced a hit since leaving Sun Records.
Director Eric Schaeffer’s philosophy is sound: direct the transitions with a steady hand, but let the rock numbers roar off the handle. We go from the angriest, saddest, most booming version of “Folsom Prison Blues” I’ve ever heard into joking, macho-alpha-male-posturing digs — Lewis on Cash’s “train songs”: “Hey Johnny Cash, ain’t you never heard of no aeroplane?” Cash on Sun Records: “If they really wanted to stop the spread of communism, they should have Sun distribute it.” Mr. Phillips upon first hearing “Blue Suede Shoes”: “You wrote a song about your shoes? You must really like them shoes.”
Moments such as when Cash and Perkins step out for a cigarette and the recording studio fades away feel like anything you’d see in high-end drama, right down to the clever writing. Complaining that the only people buying Sun Records’ artists are drinkers, Perkins says, “Drunks don’t buy records.” Cash responds, “They just write ‘em.”
Humor and sorrow blend so well.
Million Dollar Quartet
Closes October 6, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $59 – $120
Tuesday thru Sunday
Everyone else captures his famous doppelganger with precision: Presley’s cool sneer (by Tyler Hunter), Cash’s deep voice (by Scott Moreau), Perkin’s wounded pride (by James Barry) and Lewis’ nimble fingers and cosigned arrogance (by John Countryman). Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), who drops by the studio with her boyfriend, adds a layer of modesty to the group, even as she wails some heart-wrenching tunes of her own.
It’s a production that requires standing, clapping and singing but also a moment or two of introspection. Most of these men ended up with problems down the road: premature deaths, drug addictions, broken families, alcoholism.
But on this one night, before those demons began destroying these great men, they were together. They were with the man who saw a light in each and every one of them. They may have been mad as hell at each other, but they were also happy.
In other words, they were a family.
Million Dollar Quartet . Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux . Directed by Eric Schaffer . Musical Arrangements and Supervision by Chuck Mead . Sound Design by Kai Harada . Costume Design by Jane Greenwood . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Travis M. Andrews.