It was a once in a million alignment of the stars. Four giants at a chance meeting at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and an impromptu jam session that would, unknowingly at the time, become one of the greatest moments in rock-and-roll history.
The story of Million Dollar Quartet is truly legendary. The date was Dec. 4, 1956. Elvis Presley was well on his way to huge stardom after a highly successful release of “It’s Alright Mama,” just two years earlier. Somewhat by chance but mostly, we’ll say, by destiny Presley just so happened to stop by Sun Records while rockabilly star Carl Perkins was recording a follow-up to his smash-hit, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Perkins’ long-time friend Johnny Cash was hanging out in the studio while relatively unknown rocker Jerry Lee Lewis was being paid to bang out a few tunes on the keys.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. What began as a relaxed jam session with this impressive foursome quickly turned into a record of a lifetime. It was only a matter of time until someone put this history-making event on stage.
Million Dollar Quartet is the new smash-hit musical inspired by that incredible night. Featuring a score of rock hits — “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to “Folsom Prison Blues” — this new stage show has had wide success since its debut on Broadway. The boys will head to Minneapolis March 27, 2012 as part of the Broadway Across America season at Hennepin Theatre Trust, but for those of us that just can’t wait that long, we got a special sneak preview Monday night.
The talented quartet now appearing at the Apollo Theatre in Chicago stopped by the State Theatre for a little taste of what’s to come. Sean Sullivan (Johnny Cash), Gabe Bowling (Carl Perkins), Shaun Whitley (Elvis Presley) and Lance Lapinsky (Jerry Lee Lewis) wowed the crowd with a few hits from the Broadway production and sat down for a quick interview on what it’s like to play a rock legend every night.
This show has had a great response from audiences. What’s it been like for you to see that kind of reaction night after night?
Sean Sullivan: It’s been a great thrill and an honor. We all know these guys and their music and have had profound respect for them for many years and to get the opportunity to bring a little bit of what they brought at the time to audiences today, you know, bringing back memories of younger days for older crowds and also opening up a whole new world to younger crowds and realizing the music they liked was influenced by music their parents liked many, many years ago. It’s just an immense thrill and honor.
And for you, playing Mr. Johnny Cash, a star that younger audiences are rediscovering and he’s, in a way, becoming new again. What’s it like being a part of that and seeing the younger generations respond to your performance?
Sullivan: I can’t emphasize enough what an honor it is to be associated with the likes of Johnny Cash and the impact that he had on American music and American culture in general. I think he’d be thrilled, honestly, that young people out there are rediscovering his music and his message and why he touched so many people through his music and message. The idea of being true to yourself and being true to your faith and what makes you a positive, strong individual. He really believed in the soulfulness of his music and to know that’s still ringing true, I think he would take a lot of pride in that.
Were you a fan of Johnny Cash’s music before this show?
Sullivan: Oh, absolutely. I had never learned to play his music. I’ve played guitar for many years but I never learned his lexicon of songs, so I’ve slowly been picking my way through the hundreds of tunes that he made popular and it’s been great.
And you get the best part of saying that iconic line of his every night.
Sullivan: (in his deep Johnny Cash voice) “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Yeah, it gets a real kick of out of people. It’s really fun.
— Next up was Gabe Bowling, who plays Carl Perkins …
I hear some of you guys were musicians first and then became actors? Is that true at all?
Gabe Bowling: That is not entirely true, actually. I’ve been acting since I graduated from high school. I moved to Los Angeles, got an agent and started doing commercials and films and so forth. I have been playing guitar since I was a kid but not professionally. For a few of us, acting was kind of our main focus but we also happened to be really experienced musicians. I actually had had some experience as a professional musician, touring around with bands and so on, so I literally have been splitting the difference between the two since high school. However, there are a couple members of the cast that primarily made their living as a musician and were thrown into the acting world, you know, a sink or swim, and have risen to the occasion.
That’s one thing people really notice with this show — the cast is made of true musicians so it’s almost just like a live rock concert.
Bowling: Yeah, we’re not faking it. Everyone can definitely represent on their instrument. And there’s no, if there’s shoddy musicianship in the audition process, that person gets filtered out.
How familiar were you with Carl Perkins’ music before this show?
Bowling: You know, you had to be living under a rock to have not heard “Blue Suede Shoes,” obviously that was a huge hit but like most other people, I had been under the impression that that was an Elvis Presley song before auditioning for this. When you book a role, or when you get an audition, you do some research and I realized what an amazing guy he was and what an amazing musician he was. But I was not truly fully aware of Carl Perkins’ catalog.
Just seeing the preview, it looks like you guys really just have a lot of fun out there.
Bowling: Oh yeah, it’s the best job. Best job I’ve ever had in my life. It’s an absolute thrill and privilege and anybody who gets to go out and get a standing ovation in front of hundreds and hundreds of people eight times a week and get paid through the teeth for it, I mean, it’s great. (Laughs)
— And then, there he was. Elvis Presley is in the building. Er, at least Shaun Whitley is.
So tell me how you came into the role of a lifetime, as Mr. Elvis Presley.
Whitley: When I first auditioned, I auditioned for Carl Perkins and I’m actually a Carl Perkins understudy. So that’s how I started in the show was being an understudy for Carl Perkins and Sam Philips. But then about halfway through that contract period, the producer switched me into the Elvis track, which came as a complete shock to me. I never thought in a million years that I’d be playing Elvis Presley. But I am. I watched all the source material and listened to almost every single piece he ever recorded. It was quite a process. Especially strengthening my leg muscles. (Laughs, while doing a hip shake.)
How about the iconic lip curl?
Whitley: I’m still working on it. I look like I’ve been stung. I don’t quite have the lip thing going yet.
— Lance Lapinsky (Jerry Lee Lewis) chimes in: “He’s been doing lip exercises.”
Whitley: I do. I try but I look like I’m sick. (Tries the lip curl.)
— Lapinsky: Drop and give me 200 lip push-ups!
So besides the lip curl and hip shaking, what’s the best part of playing Elvis Presley?
Whitley: Oh man. The unbridled joy that he brought to everything that he did. And just to be him for an evening or eight times a week, it’s such a blessing. I don’t know. He’s a legend. To be even mentioned in the same sentence as him is a big thrill.
When did you start playing guitar?
Whitley: Well, I started playing guitar really hard core at about 13. But I started playing violin and piano when I was about 6. I have a musical family and musical background. I play a lot of different instruments and have been an actor/musician for probably the last 10 years now. When this show came around, I was like, ‘I gotta get a part with this thing.’ It was the only thing I’m good at. (Laughs)
What were your first impressions of Elvis’ music?
Whitley: When I was a little kid, I was not a big fan of Elvis’ music. I saw him as my parents’ music and I didn’t delve into the 50s. I was stuck in his 70s music and thinking, ‘well, I don’t like that.’ But when you go back and listen to his 50s recordings, it’s awesome. It’s exciting music — even then and even now.
Being on stage, obviously, Elvis is a popular guy with the ladies. What’s that like for you?
Whitley: What was really fun, we had a big group of high schoolers. It was a high school chorus trip that came to see the show, it was probably about 200 of them or so. I got a first-hand for the screaming throngs. It’s deafening. Sometimes it hurts a little bit, but still worth it.
Any underwear thrown on stage?
Whitley: No, nothing like that. It’s still theater, so everyone’s pretty classy.
— And last, but certainly not least, Mr. Lance Lapinsky, as Jerry Lee Lewis, saunters in.
So you are self-taught at the piano? What music did you teach yourself how to play?
Lapinsky: I grew up on that whole post-WWII era of 50s and 60s. Everything before my time. I have no interest in any modern music. I gravitated instantly towards Elvis and Sun Records. My dad had every record known to man and it was pretty obvious that was what I was going to do as an occupation, whether I made money at it or not. I got into piano when I was 13 and it came really naturally. I just stuck with it, my whole life, that era of music and I was fortunate enough to make a living out of it when I turned 17. And low and behold, a once in a lifetime opportunity of a show based around the characters I loved and Jerry Lee Lewis pops up so I was stunned there was a whole production based around that era of music I loved and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was literally like a once in a lifetime thing.
Throughout school and the changes and trends of music, everything that I liked wasn’t going on and still isn’t necessarily going on at the time, so it was like how do you find your place when you know you have something to offer but it’s not going on right now? So this is like this amazing outlet to showcase it in a big way. I’m very thankful for it.
Obviously, you guys give it your all when you’re on stage. How do you keep the momentum going night after night?
Lapinsky: It never gets old. We’re like a family, we love each other and we’re together every day. The hard part is just, before going on stage, going on stage is the easy part. We don’t get paid for what we do on stage, it’s all the hair and traveling and whatever. We have a blast.
I’d imagine playing a character like Jerry Lee Lewis could often be a tad draining. How do you get into that character and energy level?
Lapinsky: The script, the way it’s written, you know that if you attack it right, it’s going to consistently get a reaction from the audience, musically and in the dialogue. You do it enough times, it’s a rhythm. You get used to it. You know it’s going to entertain and I love to get the reaction out of people when I entertain. As long as I attack it, I know it’s going to work and that keeps it fresh.
Any whiplash yet from the Jerry Lee head bob?
Lapinsky: No, fingers hurt sometimes. And you have to keep your balance when you’re on the bench. And you gotta be careful with those old mics, because I’ve almost chipped my tooth. That’s happened a few times.
Million Dollar Quartet will come to Minneapolis’ State Theatre March 27, 2012. Tickets are on sale for season ticket holders. Tickets range from $35 to $80. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.