The story of an impromptu jam session that ended up being a monumental moment in music history is back by popular demand on stage at the Chemainus Theatre Festival.
Audiences are flies on the wall at Sun Record Studios as jukebox legends Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis gather around to sing in sweet harmony in the The Million Dollar Quartet.
“You’ll certainly see two or three of these guys maybe sharing the stage together but this was the only time all four of them were together,” said music director Kraig Waye, who has also been part of the production and/or appeared in Once, Ring of Fire, Buddy Holly and Rock Legends.
“All of the them are still very young in their careers. They’re all just starting out.”
Back in 1956, Carl Perkins (Daniel Kosub) had just released his hit Blue Suede Shoes a year earlier and returned to the Sun Records in Memphis that December day to record a followup.
Jerry Lee Lewis (Montgomery Bjornson), still a 21-year-old young buck, had been hired by producer Sam Phillips (Brett Harris) to play piano on the session.
Then Elvis, who started out with Sun Records before moving to RCA, stops by with then girlfriend Marilyn Evans, or Dyanne (Sarah Horsman) as she known as in Million Dollar Quartet, to play the keys.
“Sam sensing some sort of media opportunity got on the phone to Johnny Cash and said ‘you’ve got to get down here’,” Waye added. “I think it’s interesting from an audience perspective to see their relationships to each other and to see how they interact. They’re real people, just kids. They each have their own degree of fame but they’re certainly not the icons that we know now.”
A phone called was also placed to local reporter Robert Johnson who coined the title ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’ in the following day’s paper which included a photo of the music icons gathered around the piano.
But while the legends may take up a lot of the spotlight in the jam session (a special note to the actors who play their own instruments) the play is also about the story of Sam Phillips, the Father of Rock ‘N’ Roll, and the glory days of Sun.
“He drives the show in many ways and a lot of the action will stop in the song and he’ll step out and serve as narrator to the audience,” Waye said.
“He had a real knack for developing the talent because he knew how he wanted it to sound. A lot of his recording techniques for really cutting edge – slap-back vocals and very raw, off-the-floor minimalist arrangements.”
Written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, the play premiered at Florida’s Seaside Music Theatre and was then staged at a theatre in a Seattle suburb in 2007.
It eventually made it to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010.
The Chemainus rendition had it’s first go around in 2016 and is directed by Mark DuMez.
“The Million Dollar Quartet is like drafting the ultimate musical team,” said DuMez. “The show is a lively concert punctuated by flashbacks of showbiz life at the time – with insecurity, violated contracts, business intrigue, good and bad deals, and romantic ordeals.”
For Shandel, Johnny Cash is an exciting role and he prepared for it by “watching a lot of video” and immersing himself in the man’s life story.
His own background as a singer is with a roots and Americana band, but he’s “become a huge fan” of Cash and his songs.
“He had a huge talent, but he was also a bad ass, he stood up for the downtrodden,” Shandel said.
“I love the way he carried his problems on the outside. He didn’t try to hide them. That’s why his legacy is so strong.”
Order your tickets today from 1-800-565-7738 or go online to http://www.chemainustheatre.ca/
– With files from Lexi Bainas