Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are jamming, harmonizing hymns and rattling rock ’n’ roll.
The date is December 4, 1956, and the place is Sun Studio in Memphis. The event really happened — more or less — and it’s due to Sam Phillips, the impresario of the legendary record label and the only man who could bring the superstars together. Blown up to Broadway scale and padded with hits from the early-rock era, “Million Dollar Quartet” is a Tony-winning musical based on that evening, and it’s coming to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 6-18 with a jukebox full of hits: “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Sixteen Tons,” “That’s All Right” and “See You Later Alligator.”
Here are seven things you need to know about the show.
1. Acting part of the time, playing all the time.
“You can’t fake this music,” says Lee Ferris, who plays Carl Perkins. “And that’s the thing about this show: Every note the audience hears is us from beginning to end.”
Scott Moreau, who was the understudy for the actors playing Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips before he took the role of Cash full-time says he had the opportunity to eavesdrop on the audience. “Especially with Jerry Lee Lewis, they don’t think he could possibly play the piano and make the music he does. I would hear people in the lobby after the show say, ‘That Jerry Lee Lewis does a good job of pretending to play the piano. I wanted to say, ‘Hey that really is us playing.’ There is this curtain speech before each show … There is an intro that says, ‘There is no faking. These boys are really playing.’ “
2. Forget Method Acting. It’s all about YouTube.
“YouTube was a godsend,” says Martin Kaye, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis. “I didn’t know he was white.”
Moreau learned he was holding his guitar “a little too high. [And] the more I watched his vocals in ‘[I] Walk the Line,’ the more I could pick up where he puts his breath in. The way he used to strum a guitar … it’s hard to get the rhythm he had with his hand. Most people, they want to play a straight rhythm. But with him, there was a kind of hesitation to it. It’s not like a straight beat. It was a little beat behind it.”
The only problem was Carl Perkins. “There is less of him on YouTube and on the Internet,” Ferris explains. “I really had to glean a couple of things from here and there. I watched him do a few early recordings, and he does these distinct leg moves and foot taps, and I developed a more-theatrical version of that so the back of the house could read me.”
3. Ready to rock: The cast and crew just came off a five-week break.
“I got married on Sept. 2,” Kaye says. “Then, I spent three weeks on my honeymoon.”
Moreau played tourist in Nashville, including a stop at the just-about-to-open Johnny Cash museum. “The museum store is awesome,” he says.
4. Jerry Lee Lewis is from the South. The actor playing him is from England.
“It was new [to me], seeing how big country music and gospel music that these guys were rooted in is here,” Kaye says. “You see how mainstream it is here. But I learned a lot from the cast.” Mostly, he learned from Cody Slaughter, who plays Elvis Presley and is the only cast member from the South.
The Harrison, Ark., native says he helped out his castmates with the accent: “Especially Martin, because he’s English. I used to have a lot thicker way of talking with a Southern accent. I can put it on for him. I would say, ‘How y’all doin’?’ And he would repeat it, and then he would get it. We never sat down and had a lesson or anything. It was just us walking down the hall.”
5. That Elvis impersonation you’re doing? That’s all wrong.
“You’ve got to give them their idea of Elvis without going overboard, says Slaughter, who tours as an Elvis tribute artist when not appearing in “Million Dollar Quartet.” “Elvis talked like a human being. He wasn’t a cartoon. He is made out to be one because he was such a phenomenon.”
6. In the show, Jerry Lee Lewis has got a whole lotta hair going on.
“I’m not too proud, but it is what it is,” Kaye says. “I have a lot of clips and pins to keep it on because I move around so much. It’s fun when I leave the theater after the show, because the other guys, they don’t wear a wig. So when they leave, everyone notices who they are. But when I leave, they do a double-take. I have to say, ‘Yes, it’s me.’ “
7. Carl Perkins throws serious shade toward Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
“Underlying everything I do is the thought that these other guys are truly stealing my thunder,” says Lee Ferris, who plays Perkins. “He has a disdain for Sam Phillips for stealing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and moving it on to Elvis. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was really bankrolling everyone else at Sun Records. It sold 1.2 million copies in 1955, which is incredible in that time. These younger guys are kind of living off of him.”
Million Dollar Quartet
When: Nov. 6-18; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. matinees Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, Nov. 14
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org