On December 4, 1956, Sam Phillips—the record producer famed as the father of rock ’n’ roll—telephoned the Memphis Press-Scimitar with a hot tip. Acting quickly, the newspaper rushed a reporter and photographer over to Phillips’ little storefront recording studio, Sun Records.
The photo caption in the next day’s paper set the scene: “The only thing predictable about Elvis is that he’s unpredictable. Yesterday, Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins was cutting some new records at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. … Elvis dropped in. So did Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis was already there.” The Press-Scimitar’s reporter remarked, “It was what you might call a barrel-house of fun.”
Four of the era’s most famous musicians had come together—just that one time—for an impromptu jam session. That Memphis newspaper dubbed them “the Million Dollar Quartet.” Fifty years later, that became the title of a stage musical about this legendary gathering. Million Dollar Quartet made its local debut at the Goodman Theatre in 2008, before running for a remarkable eight years at the Apollo Theater Chicago. And now it’s returning to the area for a limited run in a new production at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, Illinois.
Scripted by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, Million Dollar Quartet gets categorized as a jukebox musical, since it repackages old songs instead of fashioning an original score. But unlike many jukebox musicals, it doesn’t use a fictional story to string together old hit tunes. Instead, it re-creates that night from 1956, adding a few embellishments.
“It’s been really fun to listen to the audio recording of the original session and to hear that banter and the rapport they have with each other,” says the Paramount’s artistic director, Jim Corti, who’s directing the show. And he’s fascinated with the way Million Dollar Quartet offers a glimpse of the way these young musicians helped create rock ’n’ roll, changing the world in the process. “There’s a poignancy about thinking of them and how they ended up, and seeing them at this point in their careers, with so much potential and hope and enthusiasm.”
By the time Elvis Presley showed up that day in December 1956, he’d already rocketed to stardom, popularizing rock ’n’ roll and leaving behind the little Sun Records label that launched his career. Phillips had sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $35,000. “If I’ve been asked once, I must have been asked a thousand times,” Phillips (who died in 2003) later told an interviewer. “Did I ever regret it? No, I did not, I do not and I never will.”
After Elvis departed the label, Phillips told the up-and-coming Carl Perkins, “You’re my rockabilly cat now.” And in early 1956, Perkins had a big hit with “Blue Suede Shoes.” At the time of the session celebrated in the show, Perkins was working on some new songs with a raucous young piano player who’d recently arrived in Memphis, Jerry Lee Lewis. The Louisiana native was still unknown, but in the year after the Sun Records get-together, he became a star with the rollicking tunes “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
The quartet’s fourth member was “the man in black,” country singer Johnny Cash, who’d hit No. 1 on the Billboard’s “Hot Country” chart for the first time in 1956 with his signature song “I Walk the Line.”
In the play, Phillips is on the verge of losing Perkins and Cash from his label, just as he’d lost Presley. “There was a little friction, and they got a little mad at me,” Phillips told Presley biographer, Peter Guralnick. “But I think they trusted me, even though they left me when a bunch of big shots started talking big money. It’s kind of like a family. Some children can feel that just because you feel that this one needs a little more attention—well, they’ve forgotten that they got attention and love.”
As Corti notes, it isn’t easy to cast Million Dollar Quartet, as the actors all play instruments. And while they don’t need to look exactly like the famous musicians they’re portraying, some resemblance is necessary. That explains how the Paramount ended up casting three men who have played the same roles in earlier productions of Million Dollar Quartet: Kavan Hashemian as Presley, Gavin Rohrer as Lewis, and Bill Scott Sheets as Cash. But there’s also a newcomer in the group: Chicago actor Adam Wesley Brown as Perkins.
“I want to do what I can to honor him,” says Brown, a Louisville native who has performed on Broadway in the musical Once and released his own music as a singer-songwriter. “There’s a reason rock ’n’ roll sounds the way it does,” he states. “Because Carl Perkins put his own little twist on it.” In addition to singing like Perkins, Brown is also a key player in the onstage band. “Being the lead guitar player, I get to play all of the famous Scotty Moore lines for all of the Elvis Presley songs,” Brown says. “I get to play all of the Johnny Cash songs. We do a Chuck Berry tune. We do a Bo Diddley song. All the stuff I grew up listening to—some of the most famous guitar lines in all of rock ’n’ roll.”
The Paramount’s cast also includes Nicholas Harazin as Sam Phillips and Courtney Mack as Dyanne, the mysterious girlfriend Presley brought to the studio, where she gets a couple of moments in the spotlight, singing “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” Corti says Mack is ideal for the role. “She comes off a very demure, unassuming young lady, but when she starts singing, she’s transformed. She’s like two different people.” In reality, the girlfriend Presley brought to the studio was named Marilyn Evans, and she didn’t actually sing that day. “In our production, we want to honor that girl in the photo,” Corti says, explaining that Mack will resemble the young woman who was photographed by the Memphis newspaper.
“Music back then was a goofing-off type of thing,” Perkins (who died in 1998) recalled in a 1970s interview with Guralnick. “We didn’t realize that what we was doing was going to amount to anything. It was nothing like making records today…there was no rush. You didn’t worry about making a mistake. It was just an easy, carefree feeling we had. And it was the greatest way in the world, really, to cut raw music.”