Whole lot of shakin' going on—mostly, rows and rows of gray heads bopping to early rock—at the Nederlander where Million Dollar Quartet set up April 11.
What an alignment of stars occurred Dec. 4, 1956, at the Memphis auto body parts shop Sam Phillips had just turned into a ragtag recording studio for his Sun Records. It was a mythic gathering of Good Ol' Boys—Elvis Presley from Mississippi, Johnny Cash from Arkansas, Jerry Lee Lewis from Louisiana and Carl Perkins from Tennessee—all coming together in song for the first and the last time in their lives.
This miracle was photographed, too. A solitary snapshot survives, confirming this event. When it is thrown up on the screen at the end of the concert, the sight packs a stunning emotional wallop: four fresh-faced musicians—embryonic icons—oblivious to the hard road ahead. And, of course, Phillips kept the tapes in the control booth spinning, recording the jostling palaver between the songs as well.
From this, a musical book of sorts by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux has been fashioned—Southern boys razing each other, joking around—to punctuate 23 musical passages. The flash of the camera concludes the session, and the show enters the homestretch with a Vegas-style revue where the foursome, having ditched their street duds for sequined jackets, tears into a medley of their latter-day hits. The stunt that ends the show could wring applause from a rock. Gotham Hall, a short hop-skip-and-jump from the Netherlander, was the after-party site. The Southern-fried spread consisted of "old-fashioned" Tennessee baked chicken, hushpuppies, Memphis-style chile, brine-cured roast turkey on succotash, individual collard green pies, pulled pork buns with mustard slaw, pepper jack cornbread and—yes—Goo Goo Clusters. There was a three-piece band swinging and swaying with party-appropriate music, for a refreshing change—country-western that nodded to The Fab Four of the show and reached all the way back to Hank Williams.
The only still-living legend from that session—Jerry Lee Lewis, 74 and six divorces along—gave the Broadway opening a pass, but the original drummer showed up.
"I cannot believe what I saw," W. S. "Fluke" Holland exclaimed. "I told Joyce, my wife, I just wished everybody could have been there like I was so they could really realize how good it was. All the guys were great, and the boy who played Sam Phillips was so unreal. The people who didn't get to know Sam like I did—they can't imagine how much like Sam he was. The whole thing was terrific."
He explained that phenomenal jam session as a rather ordinary miracle. "Nobody had any idea it was going to happen. We were back in town—we being Carl Perkins, his two brothers and me—to record 'Matchbox,' which was released after 'Blue Suede Shoes.' The reason Jerry Lee was there was because Sam had hired him to play piano. And, just in the middle of the session, John and Elvis just walked in. They heard we were in town, and that's why they came by. Now we'd played a lot of shows together in 1955, and it just turned into a jam session. Nobody thought anything about it then. Nobody figured anybody there would be a big star."
[flipbook] Stan Perkins, son of Carl, was the lone family representative in attendance. He was pleased as punch, also. "It was awesome," he said, "beyond my expectations."
His dad is the only one of the quartet lacking a movie biography—but don't rule it out, he said. "There has been talk about one, but it hasn't come to fruition yet."
Robert Britton Lyons, who played Perkins in the show, was scouring the pillared rotunda at the party hunting for Perkins fils. "I haven't seen or met him yet. In fact, I got told that he was in the audience right before we went on stage. Like, thanks a lot—but it was amazing to know that he was out there."
He put in a lot of research on Perkins and credits Chuck Mead, the show's musical supervisor and arranger, with shaping and sharpening his performance. "Chuck is a wellspring of knowledge. He understands the vibe and what's going on with those guys—especially Carl and how he played. A lot of one-on-one time with Chuck has helped me tremendously. And the audience helps, too. They are such a major part of this performance because we feed off what they are giving us. More than just seeing their reaction, we can hear them responding, clapping, hollering."
"I kinda acted like a record producer," Mead explained. "We made a little rock 'n' roll record and put it into a play." Yes, liberties were taken with the song list of that jam. "At the actual session, Johnny Cash didn't do 'I Walk the Line' or 'Folsom Prison Blues,' but, if you go to a show, don't you want to see Johnny Cash sing those songs? That's what we did. We tried to stay close to the original recordings of these songs and the original spirit in which they're intended—and I think we achieved that. The biggest validation we got tonight was that W. S. Holland gave us a big thumbs up."
Director Eric Schaeffer was last on Broadway May 6, 2008, the whole day's run of Glory Days, and that too was about a boy-band quartet. "I know," he nodded, adding with a self-deprecating laugh. "What's that about?"
Novices are in charge of playing legends here, and Schaeffer never considered bringing in bigger names. "What's unique here is that this show is the band. You need that connection that these players have. If I brought just two of them to Broadway, that would break that band apart, and it wouldn't be good for the show."
As it is, the band has put in a lot of practice with this play, according to Lance Guest, who does the Johnny Cash track. "We did it in Chicago for a year and a half. We did tryouts and a couple of two-monthers, three-monthers in '06 and '07."
With that under his belt, pressure about Broadway was minimal. "My job is to go out there and try to hit it. We have done this show, and, by now, we know how to do it."
Eddie Clendening, the Elvis figure, owned up to some anxiety. "I was a little nervous. I didn't know what to expect, leading up to the opening. It's all new to me—Broadway, but, now that it's over, it didn't hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would. It was a lot of fun. I'm just relieved, and I'm ready to start doing the show full-time." He did realize he was in the big league now. "The whole experience is a lot different, just because of the space that we're in now. We've got so much more room, and there's so much more audience to play to. Everything has to get bigger. The Apollo Theatre in Chicago was such an intimate place, and this is so much grander. It's a whole new dynamic for the entire show, and the approach has to be adjusted."
He's fond of his "Peace in the Valley" moment in the show. "We don't really use any instruments, just my acoustic guitar, and the rest is just voices. It's one of the more stripped-down, personal moments in the show. It's my favorite part of the show."
Was it intimidating to pretend to be The King of Rock 'n' Roll? "It was at first, trying to get my head around 'What am I going to do?' There are a lot of expectations for people coming expecting to see Elvis. As far as what he was and who he is to them, everyone has their own idea. But, once I got over all that and started focusing on who he was as a person—it was a little liberating, actually. I didn't want to do an impersonation. It has to be organic. It would be so unnatural if I just walked out and started doing karate in the jumpsuit—that's sorta what people think Elvis is, but, in 1956, he was one of the best-looking guys around, he was a sharp dresser, way ahead of his time musically. He was the coolest thing around in 1956. But he was just a guy, and especially at this particular moment in time. He was just having a good time with his buddies. All the guards were down. He wasn't 'doing Elvis.'
"I've listened to that session over and over again. I was a big fan of that recording. There's a lot of talking. It's real interesting to hear those guys joking around. There's a great spot where Elvis is talking about seeing Billy Ward and His Dominos, an act in Vegas, and they did an Elvis set of three or four Elvis songs, and the guy doing the singing was Jackie Wilson in the early part of his career. So Elvis is actually doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson impersonating Elvis. It's kind of a cool moment."
As the wild and crazy Jerry Lee Lewis (the newbie of the group and self-appointed jester), Levi Kreis springs and sprints around the stage and hammers away at his piano. "My favorite stunt I actually don't get to do anymore because I ripped my knee doing it. Back in Seattle, I used to vault over the piano and land in front of it and start playing it. And I tore my knee up for that, but that was always my favorite."
He likes to watch the audience warm to the show. "The audience, I don't think, at first know what to expect when they come," said Kreis, "and then I love watching them in the process of being able to let go and realize that they can have a good time. It's so much fun to see that kind of transition over the course of 90 minutes."
Elvis arrives on the scene with a girlfriend in tow, and she's tossed a few undocumented solos—a sultry "Fever" and a raunchy "I Hear You Knocking." When she's not singing, Elizabeth Stanley slinks around the room as the desirable Dyanne. "I believe her name was Marilyn, but they changed it. She's not a famous person, but she was a singer in Vegas when Elvis was doing a show out there. She didn't do solos like I do, but you do hear her if you listen to the soundtrack of that day. It was really special to hear their actual voices all together in the same space."
Hunter Foster, the most expert musical-theatre performer on the Nederlander stage, suffers in silence as the out-of-tune Sam Phillips. Yes, he's champing at the bit: "When I hear some of that music, I want to get up there and sing something, but listening to them is great. They're amazing. We get along great. I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys to work with. I'm from the theatre, and they're musicians, so open and wanting to learn about Broadway."
He's not sure how he got cast in a nonmusical role, but "people say I look like Sam. I went down to Sun Records, and they actually said I resemble him a lot." A Georgia boy, Foster didn't need a dialect coach. "I just called home and listened to my folks."
Not one but two Ramonas popped up on the opening-night guest list: Ramona Singer of "The Real Housewives of New York City" and Ramona Mallory, with Kevin David Thomas, both of A Little Night Music. Also: Lend Me a Tenor's Jennifer Laura Thompson and Mary Catherine Garrison; American Idiot's Stark Sands; WABC deejay Cousin Brucie Morrow; Everyday Rapture scripter Dick Scanlan; Illinois Governor Pat Quinn; ex-CBS news anchor Bill Kurtis; Nona Hendryx; Mrs. Hunter Foster (Jennifer Cody); John Scherer; a thoroughly westernized Tamara Tunie, replete with cowboy hat; Phil Ramone; Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker; Marc Kudisch and Shannon Lewis.