Will Million Dollar Quartet make Memphians cringe? Chuck Mead, the music arranger for Million Dollar Quartet, says no but understands the risks you take converting rock-and-roll into show tunes.
Mead is quick on the draw.
Do you want to be the David Bryan of Nashville, I ask, referencing the New Jersey rocker who made Memphis a musical. "Why would I want that?" Mead asks with an Oklahoma drawl. "I want to be the T-Bone Burnett of Broadway."
Mead's a Nashville cat these days, more closely associated with Lower Broad than the Great White Way and best known for his work with classic-country enthusiasts BR549, a longtime house band at Robert's Western Wear. But he can quote Sam Phillips, hold forth on the evolution of Gus's fried chicken, and is well known for loving American roots music as much as Jerry Lawler loves wrestling. The musical theaterization of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley could be in much worse hands.
But Mead was a controversial choice.
"I don't read music," he says, giving the simple reason why some of the show's producers may not have been convinced about him. "But I know how to produce a record, and I thought that would be a good way to approach it." Mead got the gig and took the original cast to Daytona, where they rehearsed like a club band.
"You can't just write down 'Blue Suede Shoes,'" Mead says. "I mean, you can, but it's not the same."
There's no pit. The actors play all the music in Million Dollar Quartet, a speculative account of the one time that Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins were all together at Sun Studio. This valentine to Memphis opened on Broadway in April 2010 and was nominated for three Tony awards, including Best Musical. It lost, of course, to David Bryan's Memphis.
"Million Dollar Quartet" is at the Orpheum Theatre, February 14th-19th, orpheum-memphis.com