I am a bit of a theatre geek, but even more so I’m a music geek. If you are trying to listen to the radio and hear me say “Did you know …” you know you are about to get a lecture on what I consider to be an interesting sidenote in music history.
Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of one of those interesting sidenotes in music history – in December 1956 Elvis Presley (Ross William Wild), Jerry Lee Lewis (Ashley Carruthers), Carl Perkins (Matthew Wycliffe) and Johnny Cash (Robbie Durham) all ended up in the studio at Sun Records together and spent the day messing around and jamming (see archive picture, above) . It’s not much of a story, so Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, who co-wrote the book, have beefed it up a bit by adding the backstories of the singers’ relationships with Sun and some drama about contracts. The trouble is it’s still not much of a story.
The first half introduces the musicians by having them play a bit of one of their hits (Elvis’s That’s Alright Mama, Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues), then pausing for flashback to their fateful first recording, narrated by studio owner Sam Phillips (Peter Duncan) before continuing with the song. The information in the flashbacks is nothing that someone with a passing knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll, or a copy of the programme, wouldn’t know and while it’s well staged I did have to swallow the urge to shout “Get on with it!”
The second half is more about the music, with less interruption of the songs. The conflict, such as it is, is that Sam Phillips wants Johnny Cash to sigh a new three-year contract. Unbeknownst to Phillips, Cash had already signed to Columbia. In reality, Cash didn’t sign to Columbia until 1958 and would release an album, Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous with Sun, the recording of which continued long after the Quartet. The truth is (rather prosaically) he’d gone to the studio to pick up some money. This isn’t the only fudging of facts – the real recording was mostly gospel songs, but let’s face it, we want hits. Elvis’s girlfriend at the time was a dancer named Marilyn Evans, not a singer called Dyanne (Katie Ray), but we need someone for the high notes. Cash is barely audible on the real recording, but it would be a crime to waste Robbie Durham’s voice.
The music is well played and well sung, with good impersonations of Presley and Cash’s distinctive voices. At the start we are told the actors are playing their own instruments, and they clearly are. This is impressive, but does it matter? At a music gig we care that no one is hidden behind a curtain playing the tricky solos, but does it make a better theatrical experience that the guitar playing is for real? This is one of the play’s problems; it can’t decide if it’s a tribute act or a piece of theatre.
It does conform to the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action, which is unusual in modern musical theatre. There is one set – the studio. Occasionally characters go outside, denoted by a blue spotlight and their taking their coat from a messy pile on the right of the stage and putting it on. All action takes place within a day. There are no costume changes, no dancing horses. The cast are dressed appropriately casually. It is committed to being a story about that one day, which is refreshing.
There are some issues with the staging. People wander in and out of the studio for no apparent reason, some guy (I think he is the musical director) is sat in the studio writing notes but never referred to, and there is the messy pile of coats which (maybe it’s my inner mum) I found distracting.
I feel like it sounds like I didn’t enjoy myself, which isn’t the case. Million Dollar Quartet is fun. There are laughs, chiefly from Carruthers’ self-aggrandising yokel Jerry Lee Lewis and his bickering with the other singers. There is acknowledgement that rock ‘n’ roll is black music, which the likes of Phillips and Presley repackaged to be palatable to white folks. On leaving many of the audience commented how much they’d enjoyed it, particularly “the last bit” – the (now obligatory) sing-a-long section. Certainly the cast can’t be faulted – they are all excellent musicians and it’s no surprise several of them are recording artists in their own right. They did the best they could with an imperfect play.
If you like rock ‘n’ roll music you’ll like it. It you like deep storytelling then you won’t. For me it was neither fish nor fowl – not enough story for theatre, too much story to be a gig. The music geek in me likes the idea, but the theatre geek can’t love the execution.
CAST PHOTOGRAPH: DARREN BELL
[Catherine Rogan 29 March 2017]
Million Dollar Quartet is at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Wednesday 29 March to Saturday 1 April at 7.30pm, with matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday