By Bridgette Redman
Sometimes a happy accident can turn into one of history’s sublime moments. It’s what happened on December 4, 1956, when four artists just happened to drop in at different times at Sun Record Studios in Memphis.
They started a spur-of-the-moment jam session, the only time the four of them would play together, and history was made.
The artists? Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
A reporter came by to snap pictures and a recording was made. The next day’s newspaper sported the headline “Million Dollar Quartet,” though a recording of the session wouldn’t be released for another 25 years.
In 2010, the musical of the same name opened on Broadway, dramatizing the meeting of these four greats and the music they played.
The musical returned to The Phoenix Theater on December 18, and it runs through Sunday, February 16, for an encore run as part of its 100th season. It originally opened in March 2018, but the theater had to extend its run because the show was so popular.
“Million Dollar Quartet is really a tribute to these remarkable performers,” says Scott Weinstein, director. “I want audiences to feel the surprise and excitement Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis felt that extraordinary day. They were discovering something unexpected right in the studio, and through this show, we get to discover the magic with them. When you get four big personalities in one room, they’re going to butt heads. But that’s exactly what makes this a great show—the drama is real and authentic, and you get to see that energy channeled into an incomparable record.”
The jukebox musical features such well-known songs as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Peace in the Valley,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Down by the Riverside” and “Hound Dog.”
Chris Lash, who plays Lewis, considers himself part of the “Million Dollar family” because he’s done the show so many times. His first turn was with the original Broadway show in Vegas, and he then did it on cruise ships.
When Weinstein, whom he’d worked with on the Broadway version, asked him to come to Phoenix to do the show, he couldn’t say yes fast enough.
“He’s such a dream to work with,” Lash says. “I didn’t really know anything about Phoenix until I went there to do the show. It was my favorite director and my friend so it would be amazing. I thought, ‘I’m going to do this little show in the desert.’ Then I was doing my research and learned that Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the nation.”
It was an eye-opening experience for him—both the city and the 100-year-old theater company that he found himself working with.
“I was really blown away by the professionalism and the quality of work they put out,” Lash says. “It is inspiring. It makes it really easy to do your job, because they really take care of you.”
All the actors play the instruments that their characters do, so Lash performs in Jerry Lee Lewis’ flamboyant, over-the-top piano style, which is a long way from when he first taught himself to play piano. His mother had withheld lessons because she didn’t think he’d ever be able to do anything with piano.
“At a young age, I always wanted to play piano, but my mom pushed me into dance,” Lash says. “So, I taught myself. In teaching myself, I did my own research—‘Who are these piano players?’ Little Richard was a big influence and he influenced Jerry Lee Lewis, who is the Basie of rock piano playing.”
His first memory of Lewis’ music was his mother working out to a Richard Simmons aerobics video, “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.”
“I loved that video,” Lash says. “I loved all the music in it. That’s when I learned the oldies song ‘Great Balls of Fire.’”
As he got older, he learned who Lewis was and became fascinated with his over-the-top character and his “crazy piano playing.” He has a great time playing one of his idols now that he is an adult. He says he loves tapping into Lewis’ style and character.
“The character itself is very outrageous,” Lash says. “It’s really fun to just sort of be this wild child on stage. He was so young and was trying to assert himself into this industry. He’s so bold, and that’s really fun to play eight times a week. I like to be very chill when I’m not performing. I’m pretty shy, so to play the opposite of myself is a challenge and it’s really fun.”
He also appreciates that almost every song he does is fast, upbeat and show stopping.
Shortly after finishing his contract with Norwegian Cruise Lines doing “The Million Dollar Quartet” in 2016, he happened across a flier in New York on Broadway announcing that Lewis would be performing at BB Kings three days later. He said he immediately knew he had to see the legend perform.
“It was amazing. He’s in his 80s, but it was incredible,” Lash says. “It’s a very small club and we were packed in there like sardines. The whole room was buzzing. He came out in a wheelchair, but he was still singing and rocking out.”
While most of the musical is focused on that single afternoon in December, it uses flashbacks to tell the stories of each artist’s life. They were all at the early stages of their career—Lewis was still unknown outside of Memphis—with only Elvis having achieved the superstar status that all of them would later have.
There is also a storyline in which Sam Phillips, the record producer and founder of Sun Studios, tries to get Cash to sign an extension on his contract. Phillips is sometimes called “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll” because of how many greats he “discovered.” So, the musical flashes back to when Phillips met each of the performers and how he got them their start.
However, what makes this musical popular is the music. They perform many of their characters’ greatest hits along with gospel and country songs that they jammed to on that historic afternoon.
“It really does feel like you’re there in the room with them,” Lash says. “What I find great about working with these actors and doing this show is that everyone is such a great musician. In order to be a good band and tight, it’s all about listening to each other. So right off the bat, the acting is elevated, too. We’re all present and listening to each other. It’s a very, very exciting thing to do every night.”
Lash says “The Million Dollar Quartet” is one of the most fun nights you can have in theater. He also says the experience is amplified by the venue that is producing it.
“You’re not just seeing a show there,” Lash says. “It’s such an experience to be at the theater, and the staff is absolutely amazing, from the lighting operator to the ushers to the staff in the bar. They go out of their way to create an experience for every single person that’s there. I just saw that tickets are $32; that’s nothing for a Broadway-caliber performance, and it really is. I’m very grateful to be a part of it. The company is just amazing and the theater is really awesome.”
The Phoenix Theatre Company’s “The Million Dollar Quartet,” Hormel Theatre, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, 602.254.2151, phoenixtheatre.com, various times, Wednesday, December 18, to Sunday, February 16, tickets start at $32.