'Million Dollar Quartet' Mines Gold From The Sons Of Sharecroppers

Apr 14, 2016

In December 1956, an impromptu recording session in the now legendary Sun Records Studio's became legendary itself.  Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis spent a relaxed afternoon recording mostly gospel music. An article featuring a photograph of the four who themselves would reach legendary status appeared in a local newspaper the next day. The headline simply said "Million Dollar Quartet."

The smash-hit musical inspired by that recording session played April 13th at the BCPA in downtown Bloomington.  It took the name of the newspaper headline.  The shows director Lauren Sobon says though the actual recording session was primarily gospel, the music during the show is essentially a "greatest hits" of the four artists.

"For the most part, the creative licensing went into making the best possible production by taking 'hits' by all of those gentlemen and bringing them together into one jam-packed performance."

Sobon says the musical has a roughly 70/30 ratio between music and story.  The story centers on the four young rockers relationship with Sun Studio's founder Sam Phillips.  Sobon credits Phillips for being an amazing manager and a father figure,

"He's the one who literally put them on record.  Later they were able to further their career as they went on to bigger labels."

Sobon was also the casting director for this production of "Million Dollar Quartet," and says of all the musicals she has casted, this was her most difficult one to cast.  The challenge was finding actors with a number of attributes, including a similar physical characteristic to those they were portraying, the ability to play music live, to vocally emulate the characters, and they had to have acting chops. 

"It was a little daunting here and there, because sometimes I had to play the waiting game to find the right actor for each part."

Surprisingly she says Jerry Lee Lewis was the easiest to cast for this production.

"I found my Jerry Lee's right away. My main Jerry Lee and my understudy Jerry came to my first call and were the first to be cast.  They both have extraordinary piano skills and the humor that had to go with it too. Kind of the quirkiness that character had to display."

Sobon was quick to point out that the characters are not Las Vegas impersonator versions of these people.  She said her role as director was to get the actors to figuratively crawl into the skin of the characters.

"They lived a very hard life, they all had a common thread of being raised as sharecroppers.  A lot of their music inspiration came from the sharecroppers working out and singing their gospel songs.  So our modern 20-something-year-old doesn't have a connection to that.  But that's where we do our work in rehearsals and talk about and discuss these things and make sure they're doing the research to be able to bring the genuine vision to the show."

The biggest challenge Sobon says she had as a director was being female coming into a very male centric show.  She says growing up with the music was a huge help.

"My father was very much a huge Johnny Cash fan.  I also did a lot of research.  I think knowledge is power ... and it helps that knowledge is power.  Once I found a way to relate to the actors and their characters, I was able to let the actors know they were in a 'safe environment' to explore the character."

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