The latest musical at ASU Gammage, June 5-10, is “Million Dollar Quartet” featuring performances dedicated to legendary musicians known for their contribution to rock ‘n’ roll music.
The performance started out as a recording session for Carl Perkins, with, a then unknown, Jerry Lee Lewis backing him up on piano at Sun Records which morphed into a impromptu jam session once a visiting Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash entered the recording studio.
The plot of “Million Dollar Quartet” dramatizes this meeting, which occurred on December 4, 1956.
Most of the drama on-stage revolves around a critical time in Sun Records’ history where fame and money triggered a changing of the guards at the label, with Presley recently lured to RCA by a lucrative contract, and Cash soon to follow suit at Columbia Records, while Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant), Sun Records proprietor, contemplates an offer by RCA for Sun Records to be a subsidiary.
A lot of this sounds better on paper than it did depicted on stage, they’re more like blips than actual plots, but the most poignant of these was Phillips own history. We learn that the building used to be a measly auto repair shop and he literally built the studio from the ground up, and Presley and Cash weren’t only motivated by money to leave Sun Records, but they outgrew the primitive production style and limited distribution.
But, the drama comes secondary to the performances of classic rock and roll songs such as ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ‘Long Tall Sally,’ ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Who Do You Love.’ Any avenue to hear this music performed live again is always appreciated–even if it’s from singers belting them in character as the people who originally sung it.
At its best, the musical glides by on nostalgia, the tunes and, at times, eerie performances of these legendary musicians. This was probably the most important ingredient to get right. The demographic of the audience was geared toward those who lived through this musical era of reinvention and reinterpretation, if they got the music and people wrong, they’d lose their audience.
In certain moments, it’s startling how close several of the actor/singer come close to the legend they’re channeling. The best performances belong to Englishman Martin Kaye’s who was spot on as Jerry Lee Lewis and Cody Slaughter’s who took on the role of the King.
Similarly, Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins and Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash come fairly close to their mark as well, even if Ferris sounds a bit more like Chris Issak and Keeling’s vocals registers just a notch higher than Cash.
With Hollywood’s proclivity of snatching up musical properties left and right, it’s downright shocking that a tiny monumental moment in rock ‘n’ roll history like the one portrayed in “Million Dollar Quartet” hasn’t reached the silver screen yet.
Just imagine a talented director like Taylor Hackford or James Mangold staging a conversation between Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis or examining the group dynamics at work in the room that day.
There still needs to be a movie that defines the record label that planted rock ‘n’ roll within the collective conscience everywhere. We’re waiting on you Hollywood.
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