“Million Dollar Quartet” Takes on Musical Giants
The toe-tapping “Million Dollar Quartet” show recently opened at Harrah’s Las Vegas, and we tracked down the show’s director, Eric Schaeffer, for a quick Q&A.
The story of “Million Dollar Quartet” is based upon a rare alignment of circumstances which brought together Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley for what’s considered one of the greatest jam sessions in music history.
The date was December 4, 1956.
The show’s award-winning director, Eric Schaeffer, has directed shows both on and off Broadway, as well as at the Kennedy Center and in London and L.A.
POV: As a director, how did you help the performers prepare for the challenges in this show?
Schaeffer: I tried to help by putting together a site, for anyone who performs in the show, of all this classic footage of these guys performing. There are also books I recommend they read, so they can get a sense of the period, but also so they can learn about what these guys were going through.
POV: Classic question, “What’s their motivation?”
Schaeffer: An interesting aspect of these performers was everything they were doing was rooted in the church. So, that was a driving force. It’s a layer like that which we need for background story, even if it may not come out onstage, necessarily. Although it does when Jerry Lee starts preaching and says, “We’re all going to hell for playing the devil’s music.” He really thought that, but kept playing it, of course.
POV: Can you talk a little about how you approached the acting aspect of the show?
Schaeffer: For the actors, this isn’t about acting. It’s about reacting. It’s about watching what everyone else does and how everyone else connects with each other. Like when Elvis enters a room. Each character is going to react differently. They respect him, but there’s also jealousy there because he went to Hollywood and struck it rich. They’re all at different points in their lives. It’s like a family. Sam Phillips [founder of Sun Records] is like the dad and these are his four kids. Get them around the dinner table and the sparks fly.
POV: What else makes it special in your opinion?
Schaeffer: When you realize this moment portrayed in the show will never happen again in our lifetime. In anyone’s lifetime. I can’t imagine you’re going to get Barbra Streisand, Cher, Bette Midler and Beyonce in a room together to jam. The fact that it did happen with these guys is truly amazing.
POV: A great deal of the show is based upon what really happened, though. Any examples come to mind?
Schaeffer: It’s fun for an audience to learn things they didn’t know about these individuals, things they may not have been aware happened. Like the whole dynamic between Elvis and Carl Perkins about Elvis performing “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Ed Sullivan show. Carl Perkins wrote the song and was supposed to play it on another show a week before, but got into a car accident. All those facts come out dramatically, and those parts of the show end up being some of the most special discoveries for an audience.
Related: If you ask this blog, the story behind Blue Suede Shoes might warrant a Vegas show all its own.
The cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” includes: Felice Garcia as Dyanne, Tyler Hunter as Elvis, Marc D. Donovan as Sam Phillips, Benjamin D. Hale as Johnny Cash and Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis.