"Million Dollar Quartet" Wants to Be Your Teddy Bear

Sam Phillips comes home to Playhouse on the Square


The quintet.
  • The quintet.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock’n’roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door.” Jerry Lee Lewis.

In the Summer of 2010 Cowboy Jack Clement and I talked about the Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet. Technically it's Cowboy Jack who recorded the famous event, but he's almost always airbrushed out of the myth. Clement got his break in the music business when Sam Phillips hired him on as sound engineer at Sun Studio, and he's vaguely referred to near the top of M$4 when Sun is briefly described as a "2-man" operation.  Clement wrote songs like "Teenage Queen," which sure would be fun to hear in a show about the early days of rock-and-roll, but is also missing here. On the country side, he wrote the honky tonk standard, "A Girl I Used to Know" and brought Memphis songwriter Dickie Lee's "She Thinks I Still Care," to George Jones. He was a producer, recording artist, disc jockey, grand interpreter of Shakespeare, and an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Clement was wonderfully weird in the way everything good about Memphis usually is. Poofed from the story, per Broadway.

"I'm not in it? Don't they have somebody operating the board," he asked and I told him, "Sam Phillips does it all."

"Sam went next door to Taylor's restaurant," Clement explained. "Carl Perkins was in the studio recording, but everything stopped when Elvis came in... I remember thinking I would be remiss if I didn't record this. So I moved a few mics around and recorded what happened."

So, safe to say, Million Dollar Quartet's not the best historical document. But all warts and so many better possible playlists aside, the Tony-winning musical (and inspiration for the cancelled (botched?) Sun Records) gets the Memphis dynamic mostly right.

Phillips knew he couldn't compete with Nashville. So he panned for gold in a river of rejects, outcasts and oddballs. "That was right down my alley," Clement told me, affirming, for a paper thin jukebox musical playing with fast, loose facts, the story on stage at Playhouse on the Square, is undeniably true. It just didn't happen like that. As with Jersey Boys, the actors channel their famous characters, making all the music themselves — no pit. Like any good rock-and-roll show, it's about much fun for the crowd as it is for the pickers making it happen right there together. This cast looks like it's having a good time.  No surprises — Playhouse on the Square's homecoming production has an easy, authentic vibe. False notes  stick out, but are quickly buried in surplus charm and reasonably good rocking.

For locals who somehow missed the lore, M$4 is a fictionalized account of the one and only occasion Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all at Sun Studio together. The conceit: Elvis has gone to RCA, but wishes he was still working with Sam. Cash and Perkins have deals with Columbia but haven't told anybody yet. Phillips has a secret too. He's been offered a chance to move to New York and join Elvis at RCA. As he watches his most famous artists leave for greener pastures he becomes more convinced that he belongs right where he is and swears he'd rather sell a hundred records made his way that a million with somebody else pulling the strings.

"This is where the soul of a man never dies," the fictionalized Phillips says of studio life. Stephen Garrett, last seen at Playhouse as Lonny the narrator in Rock of Ages is a natural in the part of young Sam Phillips, and nails the moment.

Kavan Hashemian's got the voice and the moves, but it's the boyish understatement that really sells his Elvis. See, there's tension here, and hurt feelings. Carl Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" and put it on all the charts at once, then watched Elvis perform it on national TV while he was laid up in the hospital after a catastrophic car accident.  But for all of his flash and good fortune, Hashemian's King is a sweetheart, bashful, humble and human to the core — qualities fans have connected with across generations. Nobody could ever stay mad at that guy for long. Stephen Hardy is similarly winning as the Man in Black. Nobody ever bothers impersonating the no less distinctive Perkins, and that's true here too. As it should be with the father of Rockabilly,  Isaac Middleton lets his guitar do the important talking.

But what of the Killer?

It's important to understand, it wasn't just a lyric in "Whole Lotta Shakin'" Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't faking. Not a bit. Not ever. I'm not even sure the wild man of Concordia Parish could have faked anything if he wanted to. That's always been a problem for M$4. Lewis may have been the class clown, but he was never just a clown. His edge as real as the Pentecostal abandon when he played. The Killer had swagger like an OG rapper, and real gone, crazy genius. He might smile and charm, and toss his pretty hair and be polite as you please, and he might even sit down when you tell him to — and he's told to often in M$4. But Jerry Lee's gonna get you some day, wait and see. The musical comedy counts on Lewis for laughs and POTS's Nathan McHenry delivers big on that score, at the expense of spiritual verisimilitude. Then he beats the piano to the ground, sings the hell out of his songs, and gives, and gives, and gives.

As I've mentioned, all the good stuff in Memphis is weird at the edges, and think that's the main thing Memphis the musical has over a sanitized M$Q. If Andy Kaufman hadn't thrown coffee in Jerry Lawler's face, David Letterman's craziest interview award might very well belong to Sam Phillips. All these cool cats had demons and this musical's light tone wouldn't suffer a bit if things were just a touch wilder. Michael Detroit's staging always errs on the side of cuddly —  that's fine too. And if some pieces are missing from the million dollar puzzle, at least one piece has been returned — sort of.

 Kathryn Kilger's a smokey-voiced delight as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne. Her songs and character are shoehorned in, but she makes herself essential as the mystery girl cropped from the famous photo.

On any given night you can go out in Memphis, lay down $5 or $10 and watch the latest crop of Memphis rockers kick out some fantastic jams, — weird and wonderful or tight and seasoned. Fun as it was, even the Broadway production left me thinking, "that was a hefty ticket for a decent cover band." M$4's  a paradox: Polished, commercial vehicle about raw creative force. The plot's soapy — better yet, it's 100% True Bromance. The best moments are jams, where characters find each other in the groove. Like the Killer, it is what it is. And whatever it is should probably play somewhere near Graceland or Beale St. every single August when the tourist monsoon hits. Until somebody gets the ball rolling on that genius plan POTS's fluffy teddy bear of a production will have to do.


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