By John Dwyer
“Million Dollar Quartet” at the Bucks County Playhouse is based on a historic musical jam session that occurred on Dec. 4, 1956, at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis. Gathered were Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and the jam was recorded by happenstance by sound engineer Jack Clement that day.
Clement said he remembers thinking, “I think I’d be remiss not to record this.”
Carl Perkins had come into the Sun Studios that day to record new material and an updated cover of an old blues song called “Matchbox.” Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, had brought in a relatively unknown Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano. Also in the band were Perkins brothers Jay and Clayton and drummer W.S. Holland.
Presley arrived with his girlfriend, Marilyn Evans, to pay a visit to his old studio. The 21-year-old Elvis, had been a Sun recording artist until recently signing with RCA. Cash arrived to listen in on the Perkins recording.
When the jam session started, Elvis was the focal point of the recordings. Johnny Cash was 24, and had just scored a couple of hits on the country charts. Jerry Lee Lewis was new to the business and was brought in for piano by Phillips. Supposedly, by the end of the session, Jerry Lee was still going strong.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre on April 11, 2010, played for over a year, and then moved off Broadway to New World Stages.
If you loved “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” and “Rock and Roll man: The Alan Freed Story,” it is a safe bet that you will like “Million Dollar Quartet.” Familiar songs are in the spotlight, like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Who Do You Love,” “Folsom Prison Blues,””Long Tall Sally,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and “A Whole Lotta Shakin’.” And the girlfriend, now called “Dyanne,” has solos with “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” The tunes are sure to please theatergoers who long for a trip down memory lane with these icons, and to learn a bit of rock n’ roll history along the way.
Certainly, the sound engineer Jack Clement was right. This was a historic moment. If you go on YouTube, you can hear parts of the actual jam session, which were almost exclusively gospel. The songs from the Broadway show that were actually part of that session were “Peace in the Valley,” “Down by the Riverside” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.”
In order to make the recording session a musical, there had to be more of a story than just a fortunate intersection of music legends. If the show were first about the story and not the music, a better title may have been “Million Dollar Sunset,” as the plot is about Sun Records and the re-signing of Carl Perkins (John Michael Presney) and Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), after Sun Records’ owner, Sam Phillips (James Ludwig), sold his rights to Elvis (Ari McKay Wilford) to RCA. He was just bringing in Jerry Lee Lewis (Brandyn Day). The plot revolves around Sam’s next business moves. Sun Records is not the most financially stable venture, but it is gratifying for Phillips to find talent and nurture it.
It is best for the artists is to be represented by a major label that can promote them better than Phillips. During the show, where the timeline is the day of the session, Phillips will stop the action to reminisce about how he discovered each of the quartet, and how they evolved. In reality, the contract negotiation did not take place all in one day, which is the basis for the plot. It happened over months, instead of hours. The timeline was shrunk for dramatic purposes.
I enjoyed the show and encourage you to go and have a good time. It is a feel-good musical with great American rock n’ roll classics. That being said, there are problems with the material.
It is hard for me to believe that the book for the show was nominated for a Tony. Initially it seems a clever premise, but what is written is a bait-and-switch. With the name “Million Dollar Quartet,” one assumes the evening will be about the four singers. The story really is about Sam Phillips. That is the through line of the plot, but if that is the case, as with “Rock and Roll Man” and Alan Freed, more time should be taken to explain Sam’s background.
The writers came up with a convenient idea to have the greatest hits sung for the show, but when you do “the best of” the individual singers, you lose what was the magic of that day in 1956. Four young men, who were thought to be wild, were singing gospel. They were all young. Elvis and Jerry Lee were 21, and Johnny and Carl were 24. They played for hours on that day, and their individual egos, which were great, were subsumed by the spirit. They were not doing their playlist — it was gospel and spirituals and songs that they were familiar with from childhood that had inspired them. The magic moments in the show were when they sang songs like “Peace in the Valley,” and at the finale, when they were believably playing like a band. The writers should have chosen to showcase the spirituals and sneak in a few hits. Not the other way around.
The cast overall was wonderful. James Ludwig, who was brilliant as Bob Cratchitt in “Ebenezer Scrooge’s Big Playhouse Christmas Show,” is convincing and empathetic as Sam Phillips. John Michael Presney acts understandably annoyed as the talented Perkins who had his “Blue Suede Shoes” stolen by Elvis. Sky Seals has Johnny Cash’s swagger and sound down pat, and rocks with “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Sixteen Tons.” Ryan Nixon rings true as the understanding Dyanne, who seems to know how to navigate the waters of suddenly famous twenty-year-olds. She steams it up with her rendition of “Fever.”
The best lines of the show are given to Jerry Lee Lewis. In the original Broadway cast, Levi Kreis won a Tony for the role. Brandyn Day is brilliant as Jerry Lee — a piano playing wunderkind with whacky energy that is actually, good gracious, a great ball of fire.
The hardest role of the show is that of Elvis, and this is where I have a suggestion. It is nearly impossible to play this role without being in the sight of some critic. And, I guess that includes yours truly. If you go too far in an impersonation, it comes across as false. If you do not have any mannerisms, you will get criticized by some for that. But I would go for the latter, and not the former. When Elvis was young, he was not affected. And I would jettison the jet black hair, and trim back the sideburns. With brilliantine, hair gets dark but when it gets too black, it’s looking too “Vegas” on Wilford. Also, his voice was perfect in “Peace in the Valley,” but there were moments where the sound had a rasp, and that was not Elvis. Again, this is a role that is difficult, as he is so familiar to so many. But Wilford as Elvis did hit pay dirt acting-wise, capturing the youth and soulfulness of the king. And he had the silky smoothness that we all remember for the spirituals and slow songs.
The show has an extended run at Bucks County playhouse until Sept. 15. It is celebrates youth and spirit and the pounding energy of rock n’ roll that can only be found in icons like those portrayed in “The Million Dollar Quartet.” Tickets can be purchased online.