‘Million Dollar Quartet’ sounds so rich because its stars are singers first
By Nelson Pressley,
The rockabilly cats portraying Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the stage musical “Million Dollar Quartet” don’t come from Broadway. They’re not even actors; they’re musicians. And when they take the stage Tuesday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a three-week stand, they’ll be arriving out of left field.
Take 21-year-old Cody Slaughter, an Elvis impersonator since he was 12 and now enjoying his first professional gig beyond Branson, Mo.
“My debut,” Slaughter drawls sleepily by phone from a stop in North Carolina. (It’s noon, but heck, Slaughter’s been on the road for a year.)
Or take pianist/singer Martin Kaye, playing Louisiana wild man Jerry Lee Lewis, a long way from his home town of Manchester, England.
“We do a lot of casting sessions,” says music director Chuck Mead, the self-described “hillbilly singer” working on his first Broadway show. (Eric Schaeffer, head of Arlington’s Signature Theatre, is the musical’s director.) “We wanted authentic rockabilly, instead of somebody in musical theater’s idea of rockabilly.”
For Mead, that meant putting together a real band to handle standards such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and “I Walk the Line.” He’s done that a number of times as the jukebox musical evolved from a 2006 Seattle workshop to runs on Broadway, London, Chicago (where it’s still playing) and Las Vegas (coming soon). First-week rehearsals are all about the songs as the performers, each playing his own instrument, get familiar with one another.
“All the music is onstage; there’s nothing pre-taped,” says Mead by phone as he travels home to Tennessee. Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys just wrapped up a western tour with Loretta Lynn.
“Million Dollar Quartet”is hardly a carbon copy of the fabled Dec. 4, 1956, Sun Studio session when the four legends-to-be noodled around with gospel, country, and early rock tunes. But Mead tries to keep a lot of the details and equipment true, using, for instance, Gibson J200 big-body guitars for Elvis and Cash and a ’56 Les Paul Goldtop for Perkins.
Mead and Schaeffer also beat the bushes for guys who can actually play. So meet the band:
“It’s fair to say all of us tend to be musicians first,” says David Elkins, who’s been Johnny Cash in the nationally touring show for a mere three weeks.
The deep-voiced Elkins, who declines to give his age, has the Cash low notes, but he had no notion of trying to perform full time until he saw “Million Dollar Quartet” on Broadway last year. When he went into an open audition in Los Angeles, “I didn’t even have a head shot or a résumé.”
Yet a lot of Elkins’s personal experience guided him toward the Man in Black. He sang in his mother’s church in Ozark, Mo., and hummed along with Cash tunes “all the time” as kid. His grandmother, like Cash and his kin, picked cotton.
“I have folks who grew up just like Johnny did,” says the humble-sounding Elkins.
Earlier this year Elkins landed a role in the Cash tribute “Ring of Fire” at a California theater; now he talks about how the “Million Dollar” cast typically sticks close to the strumming patterns and drumbeats from 1956. Syncopation is a no-no: “I-Walk-the-Line,” Elkins illustrates in perfectly spaced beats.
Hard-core Cash fans seek him out after the show, and Elkins, who holds a master’s from Fuller Theological Seminary, shares a moment to explain part of why he views his new job as “a gift.” A few weeks ago, a former Navy midshipman described listening to “Folsom Prison Blues” while deployed at sea, and he told Elkins that during the show “he closed his eyes and thought about his friends. . . . When people thank you for that, it’s really from the heart.”
Jerry Lee Lewis
“You can’t fake this music, playing the way we do it,” says Kaye, whose Web site features video of him standing up at a piano and banging out Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” “That’s not what rock-and-roll is all about.”
The newlywed Kaye is homeless, except for road hotels. It happened this way:
After childhood in Manchester he ventured to London to record a CD, but he gave up his permanent address when he took a gig performing on cruise ships. He got married in September; now his American wife accompanies him on the road.
“It’s going to be nice when we eventually do settle,” says Kaye, 28, who has been with the show for just over a year.
Can an Englishman handle Jerry Lee’s Southern twang? Both regions broaden the vowels, Kaye says, and to demonstrate, he puts a deep-fried drawl on “like that.” Persuasively, it comes out “lahhk thay-at.”
His greatest preparation may have been listening to his father play boogie-woogie piano, though Kaye figures his own style naturally lines up with The Killer’s.
“Being a wild guy when I play anyway, I think I relate to him a lot,” Kaye explains. In fact, his challenge is keeping himself reined in: “I already am a lot over the top, just the way I am in life.”
New cast members are sent the score a month before rehearsals, but Kaye appreciates that Mead sometimes instructs them to forget the sheet music and play from the gut.
“We’re a touring rock-and-roll band,” Kaye says. “What’s better than that?”
Since 2006, Robert Britton Lyons has been playing Carl Perkins, the “Blue Suede Shoes” singer-guitarist scheduled to record in the studio that day in Memphis. (Lewis was a precocious session man hired for the gig; Cash and Presley somehow stopped by.) Lyons, 36, has witnessed all the “Million Dollar” highlights, including the night Lewis himself jammed with the cast for three tunes at the end of the show, with Bill and Chelsea Clinton in the audience.
“The electricity in the theater was wild,” Lyons recalls. “We hung out in the dressing room with Jerry Lee. Bill Clinton came in and told us stories for 45 minutes. I thought, okay, this is my life now.”
Lyons is the company’s gearhead, casually talking about the gut strings on the rockabilly slap bass and something called P90 pickups. (It’s a guitar thing.) “The amps in every production are amps I found online,” he says with pride.
Like all of the current “Quartet” performers except possibly Slaughter, Lyons is a musician first, but after six years with the show, he reckons the balance is moving toward 50-50. He even talks like an actor as he describes the “cool arc” of playing Perkins.
“I don’t want to say it’s Jekyll and Hyde,” Lyons says, “but it’s a lot of back and forth, between the anger, the humor, and the heart.”
So what in store after “Million Dollar”: music or acting?
“Could go either way,” Lyons says. “I’m just keeping my sails up while this wind is blowing.”
Mead chuckles as he says of the young Slaughter, “Cody is just eaten up with Elvis Presley. He knows it so well. When he’s onstage he really is Elvis.”
Speaking around lunch hour after a weeknight performance, Slaughter seems to be having an Elvis-style early afternoon.
“Sorry I keep yawning,” he says after a half-dozen or so gusts.
Slaughter’s a champion Elvis imitator: last year he took first prize as the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist, an international competition run by Elvis Presley Enterprises, with its final round in Memphis. He says he placed fifth when he was 13.
“I came across Elvis early,” Slaughter says. “I can’t remember a day I didn’t know who he was.”
He’s been in several of the Branson shows, worked the Elvis competitions, done pre-show routines for other acts. This was feasible for Slaughter as a teen because Branson is only 30 minutes from Slaughter’s tiny home town of Harrison, Ark.
“I really worked hard to get my name out there,” Slaughter says.
For the “Million Dollar” audition, Slaughter had no fear, even though he never had done much that involved, as he says, “lines and blocking.”
“I went in there decked out, shook their hands, very real, not fake,” he says. “I sang ‘Peace in the Valley,’ read my lines. They called me back two days later.”
Slaughter pauses: time for another
The toughest part of life on the road, he finds, is the isolation. “If you start to get sick, you really are a long ways from home,” Slaughter says. “Or if you get a little lonely — those are the things for me.”
He’s thinking about performing as himself soon, or at least as someone other than Elvis. For now, though, he loves connecting with audiences via The King.
“I’ll do my best to put a smile on your face,” Slaughter says. “I hope you enjoy it.”
Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Opening Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater and running through Jan. 6. 202-467-4600.