The scene: Three disparate musicians stand at microphones, strumming their guitars with inborn ease and energy, while a fourth—a “wild man”—accompanies them on the piano. The moment in time from 1956 is a scene from Million Dollar Quartet, the Tony Award–winning musical that returns this season by popular demand to the Kennedy Center.
Brought to life by director Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington’s Signature Theatre, the boisterous Broadway musical centers on a once-in-a-lifetime meeting between Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, and showcases a powerful mix of country, rockabilly, gospel, and straight-up rock ’n’ roll.
Critics have hailed the show for its authenticity: After all, the dream team encounter that the show spotlights actually happened. One December evening in Memphis, the rising stars happened to meet in Sam Phillips’s Sun Records studio and launched into an impromptu jam session. The 95-minute show chronicles that historic rendezvous and throws in some drama as the musicians consider terminating their contracts with Phillips, the man who cultivated their talent and introduced them to the world.
But Million Dollar Quartet is really all about the tunes, all of them performed live, including favorites like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Great Balls of Fire,” as well as lesser-known standards such as the gospel song “Down by the Riverside.”
“It takes a special talent to do the show, between the singing and the playing and the acting,” says Schaeffer, who held auditions all over the country. “It’s unlike any show I’ve ever rehearsed,” he adds. Once the cast is complete, “we get them together and just jam for a whole week…. That energy really transforms onstage into a certain chemistry.”
In production from September 24 through October 6, the show gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall perspective as the four musicians preen, squabble, and harmonize together before scattering onto wildly different paths. 2700 F Street NW, 202-467-4600