Back to the roots of rock: 'Million Dollar Quartet' celebrates a real fab four

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You can't help but wish the walls could talk within the tight quarters of the Union Avenue storefront in Memphis. The displays of photographs include some of the biggest names of the rock 'n' roll era, with one larger than all the rest. It shows the day in 1956 that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis gathered for a one-time only jam session at Sun Record Studios, a moment at the birth of rock that lives on in that image and also in the recordings that surfaced decades later.

Well, some wishes do come true ...

The walls don't only talk, they sing, they swing, and there's a whole lot of shakin' goin' on, too, when that December day at Sun is re-created onstage for "Million Dollar Quartet," the Broadway hit that opens the PNC Broadway Across America season Tuesday at the Benedum Center.

'Million Dollar Quartet'

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Tuesday through next Sunday. 7:30 Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. next Sun.

Tickets: $20-$71; pgharts.org or 412-456-6666.

The title comes from the name given to the musicians who were at the time just starting out. When engineer Cowboy Jack Clement pushed the record button, the tape captured a bunch of young wannabes playing the "gospel, spirituals and the hillbilly music that these boys grew up with and was part of their lives," said "Million Dollar Quartet" co-writer Colin Escott.

Mr. Escott grew up loving the Sun catalog in his native England. As soon as he had earned enough money, he made the pilgrimage to America and that Memphis landmark, finally settling in Nashville as a music historian, writer and producer. He won a Grammy in 1998 as one of the compilation producers on "The Complete Hank Williams."

His book "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll" included what he called a sidebar on the quartet's gathering:

"Over in England ... you get these records, and they were kind of these disembodied records. There was no YouTube, no video, the guys would tour once in a blue moon; Elvis of course never toured outside the United States. So all you could do was just construct fantasies about them based on the music. And to finally come face-to-face with this little hole-in-the-wall studio which I had never seen even a photo of, to see how small it was, to think how much music that profoundly changed American and world culture came out of that tiny little place, it's quite astonishing."

Sam Phillips, the rock guru and head of Sun, helped the musicians establish their individual sounds before they went off to various degrees of stardom. Sun closed around 1959, and Mr. Escott arrived around 1970 to find it empty -- before it became a tourist attraction.

"That kind of made it all the more poignant in a way, first that so much music came out of there and then that no really cared."

Mr. Escott cared, and so did writer/producer Floyd Mutrux, who read the book and called to say that sidebar would make a great stage play. They enlisted director Eric Schaeffer (who also has "Follies" currently on Broadway) and musical director Chuck Mead, who co-founded the country quintet BR549.

One thing everyone agreed on was that this would not be an impersonation show, and that the performers had to be musicians first.

"The thing [he and Mutrux] were both adamant about was that this music had to be played live onstage; these guys had to be musicians first who could really channel the spirit of these performers," Mr. Escott said. "We didn't want imitators, ... what we wanted was guys who could internalize the music and play it back with the same verve with which it was played back then. I always saw the 'Million Dollar Quartet' as like a little catechism on where rock and roll came from. ... I wanted guys who could play it with a freshness with which rock and roll was played in 1956, when it was just a few months old."

They were a band first, agreed director Schaeffer. And then there's a family dynamic that has to happen as well.

"I've always said Sam's the dad, Johnny's the eldest son, Carl's the second son who's always been ignored and Elvis was the third oldest who made it out of all of them, and Jerry Lee was the baby who was always trying to vie for attention," Mr. Schaeffer said. "There is a sense of family, and when a family breaks up, it's kind of hard, so we go through all of those emotions."

There are now four "bands" of rocker brothers in "Million Dollar Quartet" productions, in Chicago, where it was originated, on Broadway, in London and the touring company coming to Pittsburgh.

Along with the band, Sam Phillips is a key figure in the lives and music of the rock pioneers. Mr. Escott explained it was his ear for what worked that made their careers possible.

"Take Johnny Cash as an example. Country music back then was still steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, and Phillips saw that Johnny Cash needed nothing more than that boom-chick-a-boom behind him; that that was how it should be framed. I don't think anybody in Nashville then would have realized that. Same thing for Elvis. When Phillips put out 'That's All Right Momma,' nothing like that had ever sold, but Phillips didn't care. It sounded good to him in some sort of spiritual belief that good music would find the right people."

It can be tricky bringing real people to life onstage, which is why the creators held to the belief the actors should concentrate on channeling the spirit of the famous folks they are portraying. Mr. Schaeffer said that Mr. Perkins' son, Stan, and session drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland and engineer Clements have all said that the originals would have been proud of the show.

Most audience members will remember the later versions of Cash, Perkins, Elvis and the lone survivor, Jerry Lee Lewis, who has jammed with the Broadway quartet. The idea was to go back to a moment in time.

"I've been around these guys -- Cash, Perkins and Lewis -- and the others in their milieu enough to know how they spoke, what their concerns were," Mr. Escott said. "Later in life they tried to portray themselves as sensitive new-age men. But really, these were guys who would fight you at the drop of a hat back in 1956. They were young, they were ambitious, they were just so, so desperate to get off the farm, get out and make something of themselves with this music. There was a kind of brawling, anarchic spirit to early rock and roll, and I wanted to capture that in the dialogue."

It was up to Mr. Schaeffer to corral that spirit and make it work. He said he brought the discipline of musicals and Mr. Mead brought the nondiscipline of rock 'n' roll, and somehow they've meshed the idea into a Tony-nominated show.

The biggest difference between "Million Dollar Quartet" and a traditional musical like, say, "Follies," was rehearsal, Mr. Schaeffer said. "If you tried to straitjacket them, you would take the spirit out of the show."

It was a different kind of musical experience for Broadway veterans Hunter Foster, who played Sam Phillips, and Elizabeth Stanley, who played Diane, a woman escorted by Elvis.

"I said we're going to do the rehearsals really loose, trust me ... it's the only way," Mr. Schaeffer said. "If you force it, it doesn't work. Hunter came up to me the third week and said, 'Eric, in the beginning, I thought this is crazy, this is never going to work. Having gone through the process, you were exactly right.' Because the raw energy, you couldn't rehearse it any other way."

Creating that illusion of a singular time and place, with music "that's part of rock and roll DNA," as Mr. Escott put it, is the goal of "Million Dollar Quartet."

"The obligation is to capture the heart and soul of who these guys are," Mr. Schaeffer said. "I think [the show] captures that moment in time when these four iconic characters were friends and hung out. We always remind ourselves of that. When we see that photograph, it's always like, my God, it actually really happened."


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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