The year is 1956. Eisenhower is in office. Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I is a Hollywood favorite. On Broadway, Gwen Verdon's Lola is seducing baseball player Joe Hardy, while Rex Harrison teaches Julie Andrews' Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady. On TV, the Ricardos and the Mertzes are touring Europe, and on the music front, Elvis Presley is on his way to becoming music royalty with hits like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog."
In that same year, on Dec. 4, a historic, Big Bang event for music took place involving Presley and three other soon-to-be music gods — Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. They formed a one-night-only impromptu jam band that produced an album still considered to be worth a million bucks.
The place was Sun Studios in Memphis, TN, and the owner, Sam Phillips, was the connection for all four original American idols.
That million-dollar day is now being brought to life on Broadway compliments of the new musical Million Dollar Quartet, which stars musicians-turned-Broadway newbies Eddie Clendening as Presley, Lance Guest as Cash, Levi Kreis as Lewis and Robert Britton Lyons as Perkins, along with stage vet Hunter Foster as Phillips. "Most of us come from the world of musicians," says Kreis. "To find an outlet in a completely new medium is pretty fine."
The score features songs from the album of the same name ("Down By the Riverside," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man") along with tunes made famous by the icons — "Blue Suede Shoes," "Great Balls of Fire" and "Sixteen Tons." To maintain authenticity, none of the music in Million Dollar Quartet was written after December of 1956. "That definitely adds a sense of realism — we're playing music that was played back then," says Lyons. "What separates us from the other shows on Broadway is that we play everything live ourselves — no backing tracks or orchestra."
"Up until recently there wasn't a score — it was just us working over these old recordings," adds Clendening.
All four Broadway first-timers say they're hoping that their performances will live up to the legacies of their respective rock 'n' rollers.
"I know Jerry Lee Lewis has heard of our show," says Kreis. "I had contact with people from his fan club and they're all very supportive of what we're doing — and they're all excited for him to see it. Even if Elvis, Carl and Cash were still alive — we're all concerned about respecting these gods of rock 'n' roll."
With a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and direction by Eric Schaeffer, the musical took shape in the spring of 2004 in an impromptu fashion similar to that long-ago night at Sun Studios.
"Floyd would bring a bunch of actors together [at a table read]," says Guest. "We would go home, figure things out, and had a lot of bangs at this."
Following the initial reading, Quartet went on to have productions in Los Angeles, Daytona Beach, Issaquah, WA, and, most recently, Chicago (where it's still running at the Apollo Theater), before taking on The Great White Way.
As for the significance of telling this particular story, Guest says, "I call Sam Phillips the Benjamin Franklin of popular culture. Phillips kind of discovered electricity in a way."