Music’s Past and Future Meet on Broadway

In the new Broadway musical, currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre, audiences are able to listen as each of the four that make up what would be known as the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ — the real-life name given to the recording that surfaced after the 1956 gathering at Sun Studios — play through their early hits and argue over contractual disputes with the man behind the magic, record producer Sam Phillips.

All of the actors starring in this musical have mastered the energy and sound behind their characters without becoming a complete parody.  Taking on a role like Perkins, as performed by Robert Britton Lyons, might not be as difficult, seeing how the musician didn’t become a cultural phenomenon like Presley — now a fixture of Las Vegas impersonations — but even Eddie Clendening (Presley) keeps most of the schtick out, as do Lance Guest as Cash and Levi Kreis as Lewis.  The energy these four actors, singers and musicians — they all play their own instruments — put fourth each night in ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is enough to get the foot tapping and hands clapping.

After all, a musical including such hit songs as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and “Great Balls of Fire” couldn’t succeed without an authentic sound.  And, unlike last season’s ‘Rock of Ages,’ ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is a juke-box-musical that uses its music not only to entertain, which it successfully does, but also to educate on rock’s birth on radio.

While Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins are the names sure to drive audiences to the theatre, the man that tied this star-studded quartet together deserves equal billing, as both historically and in this musical, Sam Phillips — smoothly played by Hunter Foster — was the man with the vision.  He gave all of these once unknown artists a break.  Without him, there is no telling what modern music would have sounded like, or what Broadway would sound like, as Green Day and their peers wouldn’t have had such strong musical roots to grow from.

One can only hope that the future crop of Broadway producers has as Phillips amongst them, because just like the music industry needed someone to take a chance on a bunch of southern rockers in the 1950s, Broadway needs to begin taking more chances on new kinds of musicals.  While ‘American Idiot’ shows the future of Broadway musicals, ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ provides the backstory to the long hard journey that the music industry took to get us to this point.  Here’s hoping U2 can swoop in next season with ‘Spider-Man’ the musical and reaffirm that rock music belongs on Broadway.


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