One night in Memphis: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company rehearses “Million Dollar Quartet

By JIM LOWE
Staff Writer

On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash found themselves in an impromptu jam session at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The session by four young men who were to create what has become rock ‘n’ roll was recorded and released in 1981 as “Million Dollar Quartet.” And, in 2010, it was turned into a Broadway hit featuring music by the four.

“It’s extremely casual, not like a recording session,” Michael Berresse says of the recording. “It’s a jam session. There’s a lot of talking, a lot of repletion, a lot of mistakes. Because of that it’s a very interesting window into the actual people versus the polished commodities that their careers became.

“For the sake of theatrical impact, (the musical) is less casual,” Berresse said.

Berresse will direct the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company production of “Million Dollar Quartet” Aug. 9-Sept. 2 at Weston Playhouse, closing the theater’s 2018 main-stage season. (August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” will be presented at Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm Sept. 27-Oct. 21.)

“Million Dollar Quartet,” written by Floyd Mutrix and Colin Escott, premiered in Florida and traveled to Chicago, among other places. It opened on Broadway in 2010, where it ran for 489 performances and 34 previews, before going on to Off-Broadway and London’s West End.

Although this is a “jukebox” musical featuring 23 hit songs, “Million Dollar Quartet” delves deeper into the lives of these young men on their way to stardom.

“Honestly, I believe that history looks back on these rock ‘n’ roll pioneers as rebels more than anything else,” Berresse said by phone. (At Weston, he has directed “Once,” “Next to Normal,” “Analog and Vinyl” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.”)

At the time, the United States was enjoying a post-war boom, focusing on all that was good about the country and ignoring the bad.

“All four of these guys were very, very poor. So things didn’t really change as much for them,” Berresse said. “I think it was sort of confounding for young people who came from nothing to watch the way in which culture had sort of stalled.”

Perkins (1932-98) was born in Tennessee to poor sharecroppers. Cash (1932-2003) was the fourth of seven children from Tennessee. Presley (1935-77) grew up in the two-room shotgun house built by his father. And Lewis (b. 1935) was born to a poor farming family in Louisiana.

“Their influences were across the racial and economic divide,” Berresse said. “When those guys were quite young, some of those guys learned to play from black field hands. Despite the fact that there was segregation, these people were pretty integrated in their lives.”

What they had in common was Sam Phillips and Sun Records. He took on all four of these guys before anyone had heard of them.

“So, when I look through that lens, I think what they were trying to do, or moreover what Sam was trying to do, was to build a bridge over the economic and racial divide,” Berresse said. “It was about making something that felt real. Let’s talk about real things, let’s talk about real emotions.”

And yes, they played to the raging hormones of the teens — scaring their parents.

“The truth is, I think, they were just looking for something that felt authentic,” Berresse said. “And Sam realized that these really poor white kids from the south had something that was authentic.”

Exploring that is part of what makes the show work.

“And a lot of what makes the show work, quite frankly, is just the sense of family and camaraderie that this little tiny special kingdom of Sun Records was for these guys,” Berresse said.

“Million Dollar Quartet” celebrates a unique moment in American culture.

“At the first day of rehearsal, I said to the cast that ultimately, I think this is a show about celebrating the moment,” Berresse said. “It was the first and only time it ever happened.”

Weston Playhouse

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company presents “Million Dollar Quartet,” written by Floyd Mutrix and Colin Escott, Aug. 9-Sept. 2 at Weston Playhouse, 8 Park St. in Weston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, plus 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. For tickets or information, call 802-824-5288, or go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.