“I hope people realize how much I care about Johnny Cash,” said Scott Moreau, who plays the legendary Man in Black in “Million Dollar Quartet,” the 2010 Tony Award-winning show that kicks off the 2013-2014 Theater League season this week.
The show, a jukebox musical created by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott featuring nearly 25 legendary rock ’n’ roll songs, dramatizes the once-in-a-lifetime recording session on Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Records in Memphis that brought together Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and then virtually unknown Jerry Lee Lewis – all still in their fresh-faced 20s.
“I’m not doing an impersonation. I’m doing a tribute,” Moreau said of Cash, the singer/songwriter who gave the world such country classics as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”
“I don’t look a whole lot like Johnny, although I am about the same height and build and have the same shoe size. When I go by a mirror, I don’t really see Johnny Cash,” Moreau said. “My job isn’t just to sing Johnny’s songs, but to get into that certain head space that lets people see him through me.”
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Moreau is a Maine native whose background is traditional Broadway actor/singer rather than singer/songwriter like several of his co-stars. But for the past five or six years, he’s carved out a career as Cash, first in “Ring of Fire” and now in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
“It’s a little intimidating because people have very specific ideas of what their icons are like,” Moreau said. “But Johnny is someone I idolize, too, so it will always be a tribute, never an impersonation.”
The show is based on fact, but the authors took a little dramatic license, mostly with secondary characters, such as Presley’s girlfriend who accompanied him that day. In real life it was a dancer named Marilyn. For this show, it’s a singer named Dyanne, to get a female voice into the songs. A period photo from that day shows Cash in khakis before he made black his trademark silent protest for the oppressed, but for the show, the character is already in black as a familiar identifier for fans.
The story begins with Carl Perkins, then the most accomplished of the four after writing “Blue Suede Shoes,” who books the studio to record songs with a new performer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Sun’s impresario, Sam Phillips, had asked country/gospel singer Cash to come in and talk about a new contract while Presley, on the verge of breaking out as the first rock ’n’ roll superstar, stopped by to show off his girlfriend.
Soon, the four guys find themselves swept up in a jam session for the ages. Performed without an intermission, the show features everything from “Who Do You Love” to “Memories Are Made of This” to “Long Tall Sally,” “I Hear You Knocking” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
James Barry plays Carl Perkins and he laments that his character is the least known of the four these days.
“It’s a real honor to play him but in 99 percent of the cities where we stop, he is obviously the one people know the least about,” said Barry, who grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts and was part of the original Broadway cast of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
“I mean, this is the guy who wrote ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ He was the first poet of rock ’n’ roll. He was a monster guitarist. And he was such an expressive singer. He doesn’t get the credit that I think he deserves. What makes people famous is such an elusive thing,” Barry said.
“It was sort of an uphill battle for Carl. He wasn’t as popular with the ladies as Elvis, although he was always loved and respected. He never went with what was trendy. He never went with synthesizers or big orchestras. He just kept playing what he called his ‘hillbilly music.’ He never changed and never compromised,” said Barry, who discovered Perkins’ music through covers performed by the Beatles and then played the grooves off Perkins’ contributions to the Time/Life Rockabilly Collection.
“Carl rarely played to his full blinding virtuosity. He wouldn’t show off, but he would show us satisfying glimpses,” Barry said. “What any aspiring rock star could learn from Carl is restraint.”
For John Countryman, playing Jerry Lee Lewis is his first brush with Broadway. Countryman grew up in a “crazy musical family” that he likened to North Carolina’s version of the “Sound of Music” von Trapps.
“Piano is my main instrument, but I play the guitar and dabble on drums and bass,” said Countryman, who for the past five or six years has been with the Annapolis-based band the Dirty Names, which he describes as “Rolling Stones meets Booker T and the MGs.”
“Jerry Lee was the original wild man of rock ’n’ roll. He was the craziest guy. He was super-talented. But he was also egocentric. He knew he was talented. He knew what he was doing,” said Countryman, who saw Lewis in concert for his 16th birthday present.
“When he played his music, you had to hold on tight. It’s a real adrenaline rush. When I play him, it’s a very physical role. I get to try to outplay everybody. And I’m having a great time.”
Countryman says it’s not hard for him to get into character for the show because, like Lewis, he tends to march to his own drummer, too.
“I feel we have a bond. I feel what he does at the keyboard. I feel there is a little bit of Jerry Lee ingrained in me. He is an impetuous guy. You can’t play Jerry Lee without a little bit of ego yourself. That’s what makes him what he is,” Countryman said, adding that he tries to keep his own ego under more control off stage. “Jerry Lee is a real force of nature.”
Nebraska native Tyler Hunter has been walking – and gyrating – in Presley’s shoes since he was a young teen.
“I’ve always been pretty much a big Elvis fan. When I was 11 or 12, my grandma took me to see Elvis tribute artist Bill Chrastil, and he got me going. When I was 14, I started doing Elvis tributes and the week I turned 21, I went into the Legends in Concert show as Elvis,” said Hunter, who performed for two years in both the Atlantic City and Hawaii casts before getting the offer to do Elvis in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Hunter, who still calls Lincoln home because that’s where family is, jokes that off-stage, people would likely think he looks as much like “American Idol’s” Adam Lambert as Elvis. Instead, his nightly transformation into The King is all in the attitude.
“Elvis was a sweetheart of a guy. He was so generous. He was also the inventor of cool – you know what I’m sayin’, man? I’m thinking about Elvis long before I get to the stage,” Hunter said. “I definitely have a bond with Elvis. I put my heart and soul into it. I think Elvis would appreciate what a tribute artist does.”
When he’s not being Elvis, Hunter is a singer/songwriter with aspirations of recording in Nashville. He’s working on a modern country solo album for release in 2014.
Hunter says his favorite moments in the show are when the four guys are “just jammin’” to tunes like “Long Tall Sally” and “See Ya Later, Alligator.”
“Elvis was very young at that time. It was only two years after he broke through in 1954 with ‘That’s All Right Mama.’ He’d been on ‘Ed Sullivan (Show).’ But he wasn’t at his peak yet,” Hunter said. “He wasn’t a superstar. He was just a musician hangin’ with his friends.”