The fact that two musicals have opened on Broadway this season that focus on 1950s rock and roll in Memphis speaks greatly to the current creative drought in musical theater. Or maybe it speaks to the gatekeepers of Broadway and their resistance to take creative chances. Either way, Million Dollar Quartet, trailing the first rock and roll musical of the season—Memphis, is a play-it-safe show that employs some incredibly smart strategies to escort its audience out of the theater grinning. These choices, I’m sure, will make the production a commercial success.
The story takes places over the course of just a few hours on December 4, 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The true backstory is that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips has invited Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis for a recording session. It would be the only time these four rock and roll gods would ever play together. Eighty percent of the show is this jam session with some light (and I do mean light) banter and relations between the musicians. For the show’s only dramatic backbone, Phillips, who has recently sold Presley to RCA to keep his fledgling record company afloat, is preparing to resign Cash for another three years. What Phillips doesn’t know is that Cash is on his way to break the news to him that he’s already signed with Columbia Records.
The main aspect of this show is the simulated performances of these rock and roll greats, and that part is right on the money. The four actors who play Presley, Cash, Perkins, and Lewis (Eddie Clendening, Lance Guest, Robert Britton Lyons, and Levi Kreis, respectively) are the show’s orchestra. Their instrumentals and vocals are incredibly strong. Their performances of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Hound Dog,” and “See You Later Alligator” are fire-breathing rock and roll spectacles. Quartet holds up as well as it does because of the acute musical talent of these performers. It doesn’t have a lot else to ride on.
The most interesting (and unexpected) aspect of the show is Hunter Foster’s portrayal of Phillips. Foster, a Tony-nominated actor for Little Shop of Horrors has starred in numerous other musicals like The Producers, Urinetown, and off-Broadway’s Ordinary Days. This is a gifted musical theater actor—why he would accept a non-singing role in a musical was beyond me when I learned of his casting. However, Foster takes the role of Phillips from what could be a stale narrator and gives him hefty character and heart. Most of the play, Foster plays Phillips as a stubborn, curt business man—his impatience and frustration with his company’s finances showing on his face in a tight-lipped grimace. Yet Foster gives Phillips heavy sentiment at the play’s conclusion, when the real-life photograph of the four musicians huddled around the piano is shown. It might be a tad schmaltzy, but Phillips says to the audience, “I just wish my boys had a bit more happiness in their lives.” It’ll pull at your heartstrings (it pulled at mine). Foster can expect a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical… for a non-singing role!
So you’re watching a show with blazing musical performances peppered with clunky dialogue (Presley calls Phillips “the father of rock and roll.” He wouldn’t have known to say this back then, nor would have been likely to say it at all.). The actors do the curtain call and that’s it, right? Wrong. The quartet comes back out, donning bedazzled jackets, and the set raises up to reveal a new scene, featuring a wall of gigantic flashbulbs. The quartet performs a handful of closing numbers about five times more raucous than any done during the show. The crowd is out of their seats, dancing in delight, and just as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” ends, the gang forms a closing tableau with Presley on his knees, leaning back parallel with the stage and Perkins standing on a bass (standing on a bass!). The audience is ecstatic and files out of the Nederlander Theatre grinning from ear to ear. And I’m standing there thinking, “This director Eric Schaeffer is one smart man.” No matter what any individual in that audience thought of the show, that rock-‘em-sock-‘em finale is genius audience manipulation. Give ‘em a spectacle to take away as the departing memory of the show and that will be their lasting impression.
Million Dollar Quartet has going for it the same winning formula that Jersey Boys has: a Behind-The-Music style story and a roster of beloved songs. There’s no book or story to get in the way. There’s just sheer performance value. This is not a creative piece of theater, but it’s popcorn entertainment that pleases (if popcorn was allowed in a Broadway theater). I expect its crowd-pleasing factor to be acknowledged at the Tonys this year, along with definite box office success.
Editor’s note: I was invited to see Million Dollar Quartet and did not rush it. There is a ticket lottery for this production. The drawing is two hours prior to curtain, two tickets per person at $31.50 a piece.
Photo: Joan Marcus