Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., was in his studio on Dec. 4, 1956, the day four of music's biggest names dropped by. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, each a distinctive artist in his own right, were enjoying an impromptu jam session when Phillips had an epiphany: He was listening to a "Million Dollar Quartet." Dashing outside, he buttonholed a reporter to make certain the event was photographed.
Never again did the four perform together, but that singular day inspired the musical that began as a workshop and festival presentation in Seattle, moved to a theater in Daytona Beach, Fla., and graduated to Chicago's Goodman Theatre before Broadway beckoned. The Tony Award-winning show lights up the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater stage through the first week of January with four seasoned musicians doing what they do best. Robert Britton Lyons, who portrays Carl Perkins, is the only cast member who has been with the show since the workshop.
|'Million Dollar Quartet'|
|Where: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW|
|When: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday|
|Info: $80 to $160; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org|
"Everyone in the original cast made their Broadway debut at an interesting time in theater when biopic musicals like 'Fela!' and 'Bring It On' were popular," Lyons said. "Our show stood out because it was real, and we were actual musicians giving an overall sense of the men who lived and performed these iconic numbers. Except for several known actors like Hunter Foster, who was brought in to play Sam Phillips, we were unknowns.
"I grew up in Seattle loving rockabilly and had organized several bands there who played my original music. The keyboard player in one of them got a call from a man in California about the workshop and passed along the information to me. I grabbed my guitar, headed for the audition and read the script. They listened to me play for a while and told me I'd do. The next thing I knew, we performed the show in the Village Theater there during a festival of new works to a great reception, and it just snowballed."
Lyons' own rockabilly style was drawn from that of Carl Perkins, the least known of the quartet. To relay a clear picture of the guitarist from Tennessee, he spent time researching the man who composed "Blue Suede Shoes," the song made famous by Presley. One of his favorite moments was meeting Perkins' son Stan on opening night.
"By meeting people who knew him well and hung out with him, I learned that Carl was a kind, giving person who lived a lovely, charmed life," Lyons said.