Rock of Earlier Ages

A tip sheet of trivia for Harrah’s new Million Dollar Quartet

Modest little mingle, wasn’t it?

Just four demigods kickin’ it really old-school—as in December 4, 1956-old-school, the day Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins traded licks and sent rock on a rocket ride to history in an iconic recording session in Memphis.

Therein lies the setup—hell, the entire raison d’etre—for Million Dollar Quartet, the ex-Broadway musical now settling into a residency at the Harrah’s Showroom. Currently in previews, it’s set to open officially on February 19.

Before you head into the retro wingding, here’s a quick riff on the show from its beginnings to the Vegas version, including comments from interviews Vegas Seven conducted with the production’s cast and brain trust: 

  • Quartet opened in 2006 at the Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach, Florida.
  • “The whole show is a bullshit session. They’re shootin’ the shit and jamming.” (Director Eric Schaeffer)
  • Reviewing the Broadway production’s debut in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood had some fun with aging baby boomers: “Those teeming hordes of the middle-aged wandering without purpose in the theater district, having seen Jersey Boys for the 27th time and been forbidden a 28th by their addiction therapists, can come to rest at last.”
  • About four months before the landmark recording session on which the musical is based, Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, drawing a remarkable 83 percent of the TV audience—estimated at 55 million viewers—the largest up to that time.
  • Classic tunes in Quartet include “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Ghost Riders,” “See You Later Alligator” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
  • “We wanted something that came and went with all the giddy, hormonal rush of rock ’n’ roll. We wanted to hit you over the head with it for 90 minutes.” (Co-author Colin Escott)
  • Celebrities who joined in for the encore on Broadway included Melissa Etheridge, Lesley Gore and Jerry Lee Lewis himself.
  • After opening on Broadway in April 2010 and closing in June 2011—playing to only 38 percent capacity of the Nederlander Theatre by its final week—Quartet took an odd turn, transferring to the New World Stages … Off-Broadway. 
  • Nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it won one, earning a Best Featured Actor honor for Levi Kreis’ portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis.
  • Quartet’s journeyman performer is Robert Britton Lyons, who originated the role of Carl Perkins and has starred in every production, including Chicago, Broadway, London, the national tour—and now Vegas.
  • “There’s some tension we portray in the show between Elvis and Carl in terms of songwriting credit. Carl wrote ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ before Elvis ever performed it, but in the popular opinion, Elvis wrote it.” (Lyons)
  • “Jerry Lee’s biography is ridiculous, like a fictitious novel. And he had such a conflict between religion and music. He believed whole-heartedly they were going to hell because they were playing this music, but he couldn’t stop playing it. He was kind of possessed.” (Martin Kaye, who portrays Lewis)
  • Two cast members have local ties: Benjamin Hale, who plays Johnny Cash, had a six-year run in Phantom—The Vegas Spectacular. Felice Garcia, playing Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend, is a UNLV grad who has been seen in Les Folies Bergere, American Superstars, Fantasy and iCandy Burlesque.
  • “A lot of people have this idea of what Elvis was, this man in a jumpsuit with problems. But they’ll see Elvis when he was 21, young and nothing could stop him, when he had that fire and innocence and rebelliousness … but [performing as young Elvis] is hard on the old knees.” (Tyler Hunter, who plays Elvis)  
  • Although the character of Dyanne in Quartet is fictional, she is based on Elvis’ real squeeze at the time, Marilyn Evans, who accompanied him to the session (and who is usually cropped out of the famous photo of the rockers taken at the studio).
  • “I was bottle-fed Johnny Cash. … He’s captivating in a really interesting way. He doesn’t move a lot, but his strumming is unique, and his stance. He’s kind of a pillar, this statuesque cowboy.” (Hale)
  • All the actors in Quartet play their own instruments. 
  • “[Rehearsals are] like band practice. The only things missing are the beer and the drugs. That’s against Equity rules.” (Music director Chuck Mead)

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