On December 4, 1956, the stars aligned in Memphis, Tenn., to bring Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis together at Sun Records. United by their musical prowess and producer Sam Phillips’ keen eye for talent, the four artists spent the evening playing gospel songs they’d grown up singing before parting ways. The night is cemented in music history as one of the most star-studded jam sessions of all time, making it a natural pick as the premise for a jukebox musical.
“Million Dollar Quartet,” written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, premiered on Broadway in 2010, with actor, singer and playwright Hunter Foster in the role of Sam Phillips. Foster is now directing the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of the show, which premieres on Friday, Sept. 6 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 6. The Arkansas Times sat down with the four stars of “Million Dollar Quartet” to talk about their famous characters, performing in the South and playing their own instruments in the show.
You guys are tasked with portraying some of the biggest influences and revered names in music. How do you navigate staying true to the character without becoming a caricature in your performance of these figures?
Trent Rowland (Elvis Presley): Elvis has a lot of the iconic ways of talking, ways of moving, ways about him. I always try to have flashes of that throughout my performance. I’d rather play Elvis as a character than as a tribute artist, and really, the truth of the show is that this takes place pretty early in his career. A lot of people have memories of the ‘70s, karate-crazy Elvis, and you might throw in very small elements of something like that, but the reality is this was very early in his career, and he’d just begun to really shoot off. When he returns to Sun [Studios] in this show, there’s kind of a sense of longing for the simplicity that he once had, and how it was just fun, and now it’s all something bigger. In terms of strategies that I employ to keep it from becoming a caricature, [it is] just being rooted in the truth of the actual history of the event.
Bill Scott Sheets (Johnny Cash): That honesty that you’re talking about, in portraying the role, if we’re trying to do an impersonation, I think that would be less honest. And people want to feel like they’re seeing these people all over again. So if you have your own interpretation of it and you’re actually doing the role, through yourself, I think that’s a lot more akin to being the person that you’re portraying in the first place, than if you were just trying to act like someone.
Brandyn Day (Jerry Lee Lewis): To a lesser extent Jerry Lee but also with Carl [Perkins], we have a bit more of a dramatized version of ourselves. So in all honesty, people might come and see this version of “Million Dollar Quartet” and feel like Jerry Lee is a character, but in a way, that’s the point. In pushing against that, I think you lose a little bit of what people want to see of Jerry Lee. … You might come expecting karate Elvis, but what you get is going to fulfill you, [because] you’re going to see, ‘Oh, that’s Elvis of this era.’ With Jerry Lee, as an audience member, you’re one hundred percent looking for the performance that we’re giving. And I think [with] anything less than that, you might walk away a little disappointed. But I don’t look at it as a caricature, I don’t look at it as a clown. I’m trying to live Jerry Lee’s truth in this, and his truth is that. He’s totally that extra.
Skye Scott (Carl Perkins): So I have the easiest task in the sense that people, I think, would know Carl the least of these four, or at least him as an individual — they’ve probably heard his songs. So it’s neat for me to get to tell this. Even at this young age, [Perkins] was dealing with such adversity in his life, and we kind of get to see Carl’s complete arc, in a sense, through the story. It starts as his session and we get to hear a lot of his truth, and his past, and his history. So the dialogue, for me, kind of helps me do the work. But it’s neat to get to tell the story that I don’t think anybody really knows. I didn’t know until I saw the show, so that’s a fun task. But it’s a little bit easier than Elvis. The expectation isn’t there for me, so it’s really great to try to give one side of this human at a time. I [get to] play these songs that people might not have known were his, or haven’t heard before. It’s a neat task for me.
Each of these artists have distinct mannerisms and characteristics. What was the process like for you guys, preparing for these roles?
Scott/Perkins: Dramaturgically, there’s a bunch of archival videos that we’ve watched over the course of our time with the show. You do kind of pick up on [things] — Carl’s got the crazy legs — everybody has their specific things, and we hint at those moments a lot, or more than hint, with some [of the roles].
Sheets/Cash: That’s absolutely right. There’s a lot of evidence out there in terms of video. Johnny Cash had a show, so you get plenty of that. For me, it was a little bit easier because I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, so the voice came first. The voice was there before I even started trying, just because I’d been listening to them my whole life. And I grew up in Tulsa, which isn’t that far from where he grew up. As far as the moves go, I would say for Johnny, I cringe every time I see a Johnny do the [holding guitar high up on chest] move constantly because it wasn’t a gunshot in ‘56 yet. He was holding his guitar up to be able to be heard. … So you pick and choose when you do these iconic poses, because they’re still young.
And icons weren’t always icons, and those moves were not always iconic — they were natural to begin with. You guys are treading a unique line between giving audiences the iconic traits they love and conveying the reality of the timing of the session.
Sheets/Cash: One could say we’re walking a line.
Rowland/Presley: Much is made of the way Elvis moved, to get his moves exactly right, [but] that was just how he moved. Just on his own, he didn’t even think about it, at least not at the beginning.
Sheets/Cash: When you do it enough, it basically becomes second nature. I started pulling the guitar up without thinking about it.
Scott/Perkins: It is a discussion in the room, because the audience has an expectation. So while sticking to the truth of 1956 and these young individuals, you have to find a middle ground, which is neat for us because we get an encore concert at the end of the show, which is kind of like our moments to really exaggerate and go into, ‘This is these guys at the height of who you thought they were.’ But for the first 75-90 minutes, we get to tell a story of these guys — well, it’s Sam’s story, but on this specific night, this is what they were dealing with before they became famous. It’s a neat juxtaposition.
Rowland/Presley: The finale takes place outside of the context of the story that we’re telling. It’s in a kind of ‘dream concert’ space. So that’s where you can really cut loose.
Sheets/Cash: You’re working within [the audience’s] memory. This play works because of people’s memory. So not only are you doing your own true interpretation of who these people are, but you’re also trying to give them a little bit of what they’re expecting. They are expecting ‘68 Cash whenever they listen, because that’s the version they know of [Folsom Prison Blues]. So whenever you do that, you might act like young Cash, but you might throw a little bit of older Cash in there too.
This show has a special significance in the South. All of these artists have southern roots — Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas — so there’s a lot of weight on these characters because people here really feel as if they know them. The bar is a little higher, so how have you guys taken into consideration the weight of this performance in the South?
Scott/Perkins: I’d say I’m excited more so than scared of anything. When you’re with the show and you’re in the South, it’s a much greater experience as an artist on stage, playing rock and roll.
Sheets/Cash: It’s a hootenanny, man.
Scott/Perkins: It’s because they get it. I was in Seattle [with the show] this summer, [and] it’s different. The energy is different, and it’s palpable for us, so in turn, we give whatever that is. The show is the show. So we let that do the work for us. We’re excited to start previews to see what that energy is.
Day/Lewis: I think the people [here] love it a lot more, and the more they love it, the more they’ll be transported and feel like they’re in a concert. And that’s the best feeling, is that conversation. The more we’ll give.
Rowland/Presley: It’s the best energy. You’ll receive so much more from the audience, which feeds us greatly.
Scott/Perkins: [This show] breaks the fourth wall. The audience is a character as much as we are.
You guys play all of your own music in the show in addition to your acting and vocals. Has this been a challenge? Does it help you learn the show in a deeper way?
Sheets/Cash: It’s just a different kind of challenge, I would say. We don’t really dance — except for Elvis here.
Rowland/Elvis: And my dancing is not choreographed at all.
Sheets/Cash: So I think that kind of focus is the same as remembering, ‘Oh, I’ve got to play this chord and this change here, and I’ve got this lick here for Carl.’
Scott/Perkins: You think about how long each of these [artists’] bands played together. Combined, [it’s] many hundreds of years. And we’ve got two weeks to put a band together, so that’s a challenge. But what’s neat for us is we’ve all done the show with many different bands as well, so we’re bringing licks and runs and new exciting music things to this version. And so, truly, for me, that is what the rehearsal process is: Let’s figure out what this band is. And let’s try to create many years of history in a couple weeks together, and play so that we sound great.
Hunter Foster was part of the original Broadway cast of “Million Dollar Quartet,” so he has a unique perspective and insight into the show. What is it like performing the show under his direction?
Sheets/Cash: He’s got his own version of it.
Rowland/Elvis: I have only worked with Hunter on this show, but from what I understand, he has been given the blessing of a lot of the original writers to tweak and tinker as he thinks he can or should.
Scott/Perkins: As the actor that [Foster] is, I think he sat in that process of however long he did the show and thought about all of the things that he would do differently, from his perspective. … And he saw things come and go from the script. When you’re originating something, it’s changing and evolving constantly until opening night. … So I think he took everything he thought of in his time with the show and created this. It’s a fuller version of “Million Dollar Quartet.” You get more of an arc for each of the characters. There’s a lot more connection in this version. So I think that’s where he came from with this. … Hunter has found his own very unique way to tell this story that’s really effective.
Day/Lewis: Hunter also understands that this is not musical theater, and I’ve done it with a lot of directors who want to make this a musical. It is a play, where there is rock and roll music, and you’re being the people. It’s very unique in that way. I’ve done [the show] with a director… who, in my song Wild Child, for example, wanted me to act the song, like I was doing [Inspector] Javert in [Les Misérables]. The acting is, ‘I’m in the studio playing this song.’
Day/Lewis: And it also takes a special kind of actor to be able to do that, too. You’ve got to be a band member before you’re an actor.
Scott/Perkins: To that point, in normal musicals, a song is in the show to progress the plot. Not a single one of these songs progresses the plot. So how do you tackle that challenge? I think that’s something that Hunter [takes on]. … The story is what is happening in the recording of this song about a matchbox. [The song] makes no sense, but what are the plot points that we’re investing in that are happening underneath?
Day/Lewis: And that is what Hunter understands. What Skye just said — Hunter is the only person I’ve ever worked with in this [who] understands that.
Is there anything you guys want to add that I didn’t ask you about?
Sheets/Cash: We always try to make sure that [people] know this: We are definitely playing our own instruments.
Rowland/Presley: Everything you see.
Scott/Perkins: It’s a testament to how good the show normally sounds, that people think that we’re not really playing, but it is a little frustrating to pour your soul into this music every night and then hear, ‘You really weren’t playing, right?’ It would be harder, I promise you.
Day/Lewis: It’s not a magic trick.
Sheets/Cash: [Also], even for the people who don’t normally come to the theater, this might be the one to come to because it’s not like your typical play, it’s not your typical musical. I know it sounds like ‘quartet,’ like, what, ‘barbershop?’ But it’s badass.
Rowland/Elvis: It kind of isn’t a musical.
Scott/Perkins: It’s a rock and roll play. We’re a band with lines.
Day/Lewis: Who are doing the lines really darn good.