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A live take on a legendary session

'Million Dollar Quartet' is a musical based on an actual studio gathering of Sun Records stars.

April 22, 2012|Randy Lewis
  • Martin Kaye, left, as Jerry Lee Lewis, Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins, Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley and Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash in the national tour of "Million Dollar Quartet."
Martin Kaye, left, as Jerry Lee Lewis, Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins, Cody Slaughter… (Jeremy Daniel / Segerstrom…)

There's a moment each night in the "Million Dollar Quartet" stage musical when the audience sees a photo revealing that what they've just witnessed on stage -- a rock fan's dream meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins -- was no figment of a writer's fertile imagination but a hard and happy fact of history.

"There are audible gasps every night," said Colin Escott, the veteran pop music historian and writer. Escott wrote the book for the show that premiered in 2006 and comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Tuesday to May 6 ahead of a run at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood from June 19 to July 1.

The proof exists not just in that celebrated photo taken at Sam Phillips' Sun Records label in Memphis but also in the recordings Phillips was savvy enough to make while the foursome was hanging out, chatting and playing for a couple of hours on Dec. 4, 1956.

The show's creators -- Escott, director Eric Schaeffer and musical director Chuck Mead -- got the idea to create a staged version of the story that would transcend the basic jukebox musical, and it received laudatory reviews when it opened on Broadway in 2010.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 25, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Million Dollar Quartet": An article in the April 22 Arts & Books section about "The Million Dollar Quartet" stage musical identified Colin Escott as the author of the book. Escott wrote the book with Floyd Mutrux, who also should have been credited with the original concept for the show.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 29, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Million Dollar Quartet": An April 22 article about "The Million Dollar Quartet" stage musical identified Colin Escott as the author of the book. Escott wrote the book with Floyd Mutrux, who also should have been credited with the original concept for the show.

Rather than serving up a quick evening of hits from a quartet of famous names, they set out to capture the informal, mutually inspirational mood of the musical conversation among five pop music pioneers -- Phillips included.

Beyond the intimate tone that contrasts with typical big-budget Broadway musicals, "The Million Dollar Quartet" also differs from most such shows in that all four actors do their own playing and singing -- there's no pit orchestra or chorus backing them up.

"This show has never been slicked up," said Schaeffer. "You know how things are on Broadway: Everything has to be bigger and better. But what's always been at the heart of rock 'n' roll, and the key to this piece, is the raw energy of these guys playing."

Mead, a roots-rock musician in his own right and former member of the country-rock band BR5-49, said, "I got this gig because I'm a hillbilly singer by trade.... I guess they hired me because they didn't want it to be a Broadway musical interpretation of rock 'n' roll."

The show highlights facets of the musicians' early lives that many audience members might not know about, an educational aspect of the production that isn't limited to the ticket-buying public.

"Strangely enough, I had never heard of Sun Records," said Martin Kaye, the British actor cast in the touring version as Louisiana-born Lewis. Nicknamed "The Ferriday Fireball" for his performances at the piano in the '50s, Lewis is the last living member of the real-life Million Dollar Quartet.

"I grew up listening to Elton John and jazz and the Beatles," Kaye said as the touring company began a two-week vacation, its first since the national tour began last fall. "My parents weren't of the right age, and my grandparents would have been the people who disapproved of Jerry Lee Lewis, so my parents introduced me to other kinds of music.

"But as the show has progressed, I've come to appreciate how important this music was and why it's so influential over the course of history," Kaye said.

Indeed, geographically, culturally and chronologically, the musicians portrayed in "Million Dollar Quartet" were at ground zero of the birth of rock 'n' roll, that fusion of country, blues and gospel music, black and white styles that merged into an explosive, liberating new sound.

The recorded evidence from that day at Sun was for a long time was little more than a rumor. The recordings were released internationally nine years before RCA put them out in official form in the U.S. -- in a 1990 package for which Escott wrote the liner notes. But the show is not only about the celebrated musicians.

"It's really a David-and-Goliath story in a lot of ways," Escott said from his home in Nashville. "It's the story of how Sam Phillips -- and in a broader sense, all those guys who ran those small indie labels -- had the vision of this music that needed to be created, and it was taken away from them. It was co-opted by the bigger labels, who signed those artists away from them."

That element provides what tension and drama exist in the largely upbeat show: Phillips had to sell the contract of the artist who would become the biggest star in rock history -- Elvis Presley -- for a meager $35,000 to keep his studio open to develop the other budding artists on the label.

Liberties have been taken dramatically so that each musician performs a few of his signature songs during what started out as a Carl Perkins session at Sun.

"Everything that happens in the show actually did happen, just not in one day," said Schaeffer. "We've compressed things that took place over about 18 months into that one session."

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