Wop bop a loo bop, grab your honey and get to Wolf Trap this weekend because, as part of its current national tour, the Tony Award winning musical Million Dollar Quartet is rolling into town for five performances, starting this Friday June 26th. This high energy musical tells the story of what might have happened inside the legendary Sun Records recording Studio on December 4th 1956. The recording artists Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins come together for an impromptu jam session and between the songs you find out plenty about the four men known as the Million Dollar Quartet.
The show is directed by one of our area’s biggest directors of musicals. You most likely know Eric Schaeffer as the Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington VA, but he has branched out in recent years. His production of Gigi just concluded an engagement on Broadway after starting its life at the Kennedy Center. Also on Broadway he directed the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting it Together that starred Carol Burnett. He is currently back in Chicago directing Beaches the Musical, which coincidentally premiered at Signature Theatre.
Million Dollar Quartet is a real audience show. No matter the size of the theatre, audiences immediately respond to it. Between his tech rehearsals for Beaches, Eric was kind enough to answer a few questions for me as to why Million Dollar Quartet connects with the people that go to see this Rock ‘n’ Roll spectacular.
You can be part of that connection this weekend. Get your “Blue Suede Shoes” and never mind the heat because these “Great Balls of Fire” are sure to give you a rip-roaring musical experience.
After first reading the script of Million Dollar Quartet, was it an automatic “I need to do this” type of reaction for you?
There were two things that really made me want to direct this show – the story and the music and then the opportunity to do a jukebox type show. I wasn’t that familiar with the entire history of Sun Records and that period of music so it was great to explore this era and share it with audiences. It was also a fun puzzle to piece together using existing songs to make them work dramatically in the storytelling.
When the show was preparing for its debut in Chicago, did you have a sense on how big it was going to become?
You never know on these things. I felt the show was special and you could tell from the first audience reaction that something was there. It’s had an amazing life – it’s still playing in Chicago – 7 years later, Las Vegas – in its third year and been on tour for four years. People just really respond to the story and music.
We have all seen the Elvis impersonators that perform him very exaggerated. You made a very wise choice not to portray any of the characters in Million Dollar Quartet this way. Was this a conscious choice not to make the quartet cartoon like?
Yes, from the beginning I always said I wanted the audience to feel like a fly on the wall. These guys aren’t performing but hanging out and jamming. The show could ever be a cartoon and we never let it become that. People saw Elvis in a whole new way. All of these guys were at the beginning of their careers which makes it a great discovery for the audience.
It seems to me that Million Dollar Quartet is a fairly intimate type of show. When the show tours it plays some pretty big venues. The 6,000 seat Opera House in Boston was the one that surprised me. Do you think the show works better in a smaller venue or do audiences react the same if it is in a larger house as well?
The great thing about the show is that it’s rock and roll and so it can play both small and large venues. The music can fill anywhere. Because of my life at Signature, I relate to a smaller house but what is fun with this show is seeing a couple thousand people up on their feet dancing in the aisles. So it’s the best of both worlds.
No matter where Million Dollar Quartet is playing audiences automatically have a connection with it. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the story and the characters. And of course, the music. Each person relates to either Johnny, Elvis, Carl or Jerry Lee and the chance to hear these great songs being played live with the original licks is refreshing. And mostly, I think people just have a great night out and get to shake it in the aisles with Jerry Lee. Who doesn’t love that?