Million Dollar Quartet captures an epic rock ’n’ roll summit
By Susan Stapleton
Wind the clock back 57 years to a day in December 1956 when Carl Perkins was putting together material at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. Perkins had one hit on his hands, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and while he was cutting new material with a relatively unknown pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley happened to walk in. After listening to Perkins’ demos, Presley sat in on a jam session, later joined by Johnny Cash.
The first supergroup was formed, dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. More than 45 songs came out of that jam session, a one-day chance meeting between these four singers. Now audiences can relive that fateful night with Million Dollar Quartet, the musical opening Feb. 4 at Harrah’s Las Vegas.
Martin Kaye joins the cast as Jerry Lee Lewis, known as The Killer, who could dance his way across the ivories and is probably best known for his hit “Great Balls of Fire.” Kaye calls the show, “A play telling a story dramatizing that night. It’s interspersed with songs that they played and sang together. It’s not contrived in the sense that suddenly someone breaks into song. … The audience gets a fly-on-the-wall view of what happened that night.”
Kaye, originally from Manchester, England, spent 15 months touring with the show across the country before landing the role here in Vegas. Prior to joining the cast of Million Dollar Quartet, Kaye had an engagement playing piano on a cruise ship—not really a tried-and-true path to a Broadway career. He met an agent on one cruise, who pointed him toward the show.
“Everyone onstage plays live,” Kaye says. “That’s the unique thing about the show. I wouldn’t have taken the role if it had been different.”
Look for the cast to perform songs such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “I Walk the Line,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Hound Dog” and more during the 90-minute show.
Kaye says his portrayal of Lewis, who was 20 at the time, doesn’t feel like acting. “To be able to play this part comes more naturally to me than people might hope,” he says. Lewis at the time was still relatively unknown. “He’s a bundle of energy and arrogance. He gets under everyone’s skin, but he knows he’s destined for great things. He’s a wild guy.”
While some in the audience in Las Vegas may have seen Lewis perform live, Kaye says he’s not nervous about their reaction. “I would have been nervous when I first started the tour. Some people come up to me at the end of the show and say, ‘We saw Jerry Lee Lewis and you were better.’”
Lewis, now 77, did see the Broadway production of the show and came onstage to perform a few songs with the cast. “He’s still got it, he’s just slower,” Kaye says. “He stood up very slowly, kicked the chair over and the audience went wild.”