By Seamus Gallivan
The “Million Dollar Quartet” is arguably the greatest and shortest-lived supergroup in the history of music. An impromptu jam session on December 4th, 1956, at Sun Record Studios in Memphis between Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley, the group cut a bunch of songs for fun – whether or not Cash even performed is in doubt – and perhaps most importantly to history, Sun owner Sam Phillips seized the opportunity for some publicity and called the press over to capture what will forever stand as one of the most iconic photos in music. Taken by Leo Soroca, the photo is in fact much more famous than the recordings.
Further capturing the moment in the form of a hit Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet has hit the road this fall, currently at Shea’s Performing Arts Center through Sunday in the fourth stop of a coast-to-coast tour. The cast performed a lunchtime set today at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery including classics such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” after which three of the main characters – Martin Kaye (Lewis), Derek Keeling (Cash), and Cody Slaughter (Presley) – sat down to talk shop.
Does it seem surreal at all to do a running show based on a one-time gathering?
Derek Keeling (Johnny Cash): Absolutely, but that’s what’s so cool about it – it only happened once, and it’ll never happen again, so the only way it exists in the present is in our show. It’s kinda cool for people to see what it might’ve been like – we don’t blow it up any more than what it was.
Martin Kaye (Jerry Lee Lewis): People have said after seeing this show that they feel like they were there; what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall in that studio. We don’t turn it into something that it wasn’t – the majority of the show is a jam session. To be able to do that, and kind of be these people who really lived this and had such an impact on the world of music is immense.
Cody Slaughter (Elvis Presley): What I think this represents above everything is that this is where this music came from; these guys were the kings.
Keeling: You’re being there when rock n’ roll was born – it’s the Garden of Eden of rock n’ roll.
Kaye: I love that! Get that. I just got that right now, I’m gonna use that.
Keeling: That’s the Johnny Cash way of looking at things.
As an actor, is it more or less of a challenge to take on these larger-than-life characters that are already well-defined, as opposed to one more obscure?
Slaughter: For me, it is – you gotta really represent the best interpretation of that person that everyone knows.
Kaye: It is a challenge. We know that people have an image in their minds of what they’re like. But what they don’t necessarily know they’re like is in the social context, the jam session – here, they get to see how these people would interact with each other in a way they wouldn’t see on normal basis. We’re not impersonating – that’s a big thing. People have said that this captures their essence, and that feels great. They were real, and we’ve gotta be true to who they are.
Keeling: It’s a different challenge for each of us. Cash and Elvis are probably the most iconic as people; Jerry is more iconic as a musician; and the Carl Perkins challenge is introducing people to his influence on all these musicians and the entire industry. It’s interesting in that we all have different burdens to take on with each role.
Kaye: As Lee, who plays Carl, says, he actually has the most freedom – no one knows what he’s like, so he can portray him how he wants.
Slaughter: Everyone who’s into this music knows Carl as a musician, but not in everyday life. And for those who don’t know him at all, and the end of the show, they come out and say, “He’s badass!”
Again, considering how much is known about these characters, what is for you the most surprising and/or unexpected element of the production?
Slaughter: How real it is. It’s not at all fake – we’re not running around singing lines.
Keeling: It’s not like a musical – this is a play with rock n’ roll in it. We do the songs as originally intended. We don’t try to mess these songs up for the purpose of moving the plot along.
Slaughter: And we’re all playing the instruments, which is why I say it’s so real – what you see is what you get.
Kaye: That’s a misconception that a lot of people ask us, “Really, you’re playing?” Everything you see is what you hear. That’s surprising for me, because they can see that we’re playing, but I guess can’t connect.
How has your work with these artists and songs informed your own music?
Kaye: Oh yeah, it definitely has. For example, I wrote this song recently, about a year ago, which was based on an Oasis-Beatles kind of theme, but since I’ve been doing this show, I’ve started putting riffs I’ve learned from this show into it. It’s changing the way I play and write, and gives it new life.
Keeling: I’m currently working on a Cash-inspired album, working on songs in the vein of Johnny Cash, and I’m hoping to get it done by the time we get to Memphis – I want to record it in Memphis; do it live with some of the guys in the show.
How does Shea’s compare to the theaters you’ve performed in across the country?
Kaye: It’s amazing. This is digressing a bit, but while we have that inconsistency in traveling, the place where we feel most at home stage – personally, when I walk onto the stage, that’s when I feel at home. After all the hotels and all that, it’s surreal to go onstage and feel, “This is the thing; this is the place.”
This theater, Shea’s, it’s so ornate, and the biggest one yet of the cities we’ve toured in so far – Cleveland, Rochester, Pittsburgh. I was saying before – I feel like we should be doing Phantom of the Opera here.