The night the "Million Dollar Quartet" was born - Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Studio in Memphis - will go down as one of the greatest in rock and roll mythology.
It brought together four of rock's founding stars - Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins - for an unguarded jam session, where musicians play together because it's fun. Usually, those kind of moments were left uncaptured, but that night Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records and producer of many of rock and roll's early hits, was there. And Phillips was way too smart not to run tape on that.
That fact wasn't lost on the team behind the new Broadway musical "Million Dollar Quartet," which opens Sunday night. "It's his story," says the show's director Eric Schaeffer, who has also directed "Putting It Together" and "Glory Days" on Broadway. "Everybody thinks it's about these four guys, but it's really about Sam Phillips. People come expecting these great songs - and you get that - but you also get a story that's unexpected."
Schaeffer says the focus on Phillips was the major change from the show's successful run at Chicago's Apollo Theater to its Broadway version. Instead of Phillips introducing each of the stars, nearly the entire show flows through him, complete with his own decisions about whether to sell his company to one of the major labels. "He really was 'the Father of Rock and Roll,'" Schaeffer says. "He was our window into their world."
To make that look into the world of the early days of rock look authentic, Schaeffer took the unusual step of having the actors rehearse as a band for a few weeks instead of actually rehearsing the show. "This isn't a normal musical - it's not a jukebox musical," he says. "It was important that they play authentically, that they had a really driving sound and that they captured the sound of Memphis in the '50s."
Schaeffer says the authenticity of the sound became the goal, not getting the actors to do impersonations of the legends. "These characters cannot be impersonated," he says. "They really have to be real people. I think we strike a good balance." Yes, Eddie Clendening's Elvis Presley does some hip-swiveling and Lance Guest's Johnny Cash does tuck his guitar under his chin like The Man in Black. And - Goodness! Gracious! - does Levi Kreis have Jerry Lee Lewis pegged, from the larger-than-life ego right down to the wild-child hair.
"I think the gods just smiled on me," Kreis says. "The spirit of something just took over my head because it really is actually no work to get my hair like that."
Though Presley and Cash were bigger stars, Kreis' take on The Killer grabs the most attention. "I just tried to hone my focus on the first 20 years of his life and what I can relate to," says Kreis, who is also a recording artist and saw his video for "Nothing At All" get voted to No. 1 on MTVmusic.com's Top 100 chart the same week "Million Dollar Quartet" went into previews on Broadway. "It just feels like I was meant to play this part," Kreis continues. "I play the piano. I'm Southern. I've played 'Great Balls of Fire' since I was 12 years old at family reunions. It just fits."
Kreis has been connected to "Million Dollar Quartet" since it was in workshops in 2004, and he says the changes for the Broadway version made him feel even closer to the story. "It's become about the journey of a man who had a dream and a vision of a sound, collapsing about 18 months of history into this one night," he says. "It's more than just the novelty of this jam session. ... It's a personal story - no matter where you come from or what you have available to you - that believing in your dream can become reality in the most surprising ways."
Kreis says the stories of Lewis, Presley, Cash and Perkins, as well as their backgrounds, are similar to his own. "I'm an East Tennessee boy with a graduating class of five people, valedictorian with a C average," he says. "I can relate to the struggles of having this thing inside of you that you know you want to show the world, but you just don't know who's going to pay attention.
"I think it's a great story, especially for the young people coming to the musical with their own vision of what they want to do in this world," Kreis adds. "Believe in your dream. It can happen."
Real and false notes in 'Million Dollar Quartet'
Because the "Million Dollar Quartet" session took place at Sun Studios, much of it is on tape and the performances have been released in various configurations over the years. In 2006, RCA released "The Million Dollar Quartet: 50th Anniversary Special Edition." So how does the "Million Dollar Quartet" Broadway musical compare?
"That's All Right"
"Brown Eyed Handsome Man"
"Down by the Riverside"
"Peace in the Valley"
"Don't Be Cruel"
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken"
"Old Time Religion"
WHAT'S COMPLETE FICTION
"Fever" and "I Hear You Knockin' " sung by the character Dyanne. Though Elvis Presley did bring his girlfriend at the time, Marilyn Evans, to the session, she never sang.