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‘Million Dollar Quartet’ immortalizes rock ’n’ roll history

“Million Dollar Quartet” immortalizes rock ‘n’ roll history with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. (Emily Jones)
“Million Dollar Quartet” immortalizes rock ‘n’ roll history with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. (Emily Jones)

Dec. 4, 1956, was a typical winter day for most of the country, but in a small studio in Memphis, rock ‘n’ roll history was being made.

“Blue Suede Shoes” singer-songwriter Carl Perkins, looking to record new material, stopped by Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio.

As the story goes, Phillips wanted to fill out Perkins’ sparse instrumentation and had the then mostly unknown Jerry Lee Lewis play piano.

At some point in the afternoon, former Sun Records artist Elvis Presley stopped by for a visit, as did Johnny Cash, who was either the first to arrive that day, according to his autobiography, at the studio when Presley arrived, as Perkins has stated, or, as others believe, was called into the session by Phillips.

Over the next few hours, the quartet, dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet” by entertainment editor Bob Johnson in an article that ran in the next day’s Memphis Press-Scimitar, played country and gospel tunes including “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “That’s Alright” and “Down By the Riverside,” taking turns leading the group.

The resulting jam session was recorded and has been released in various editions over the years.

The session has also been immortalized in a musical called “Million Dollar Quartet,” which the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre brings to the Salvation Army Kroc Center from Thursday-Aug. 27.

Directed by Matt Wolfe, “Million Dollar Quartet” stars Jeff Rowden as Presley, Michael Feldman as Cash, Matt McClure as Perkins, Henry McNulty as Lewis and Casey Raiha as Phillips.

The cast also includes Quinn Vaira as Dyanne, Presley’s girlfriend, Robert Peterson as Carl’s brother Jay, and Bryan Swenaland as Fluke.

Wolfe has a lot of insight into this musical, the character of Phillips in particular – he starred as Phillips as the show was being developed as part of Seattle’s Village Theatre’s Festival of New Works a decade ago.

“I was in on the ground floor, and, I think to some extent, got to help form what that character of Sam became over time,” he said.

The Tony Award-nominated musical, written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, opened on Broadway in 2010 and closed in 2011 after 489 performances.

Wolfe’s time with the musical has informed his role as director as he understands the challenges that come with rehearsing a show like “Million Dollar Quartet.”

For one thing, there has to be a sound system in the rehearsal room, not just onstage. For another, the focus is even more so on the music, which also includes songs like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and “See You Later Alligator.”

Authenticity is another challenge, as the actors are actually playing each song onstage.

When casting the show, Wolfe was looking for actors who could portray Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Presley as they were in the beginning of their careers, not the caricatures they have become over time.

“They were still simple country boys surprised at their own success and what’s going on around them …” Wolfe said. “I keep calling it ‘This is not the limited edition collector plate version of these characters.’ ”

Ultimately, Wolfe hopes to make “Million Dollar Quartet” a true jukebox musical, one that peels back the curtain on one of rock ’n’ roll’s most groundbreaking nights.

“I’ve been remembering my experience of doing the show before, and I always remember talking to people excitedly saying ‘I didn’t know these stories. I didn’t know this history was so interesting,’ ” Wolfe said. “They get a great time but then they get this piece of American history that’s pretty vital.”