The events of Dec. 4, 1956 are no surprise to music fans of a certain generation.
That’s the day that Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all wound up in Sun Studio in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. The gathering was followed by years of arguments about who played what with whom, what was discussed, and the reasons that the young men fatefully convened that day under the watchful eye of studio impresario Sam Phillips.
It was the only time Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash would play together, and thanks to studio engineer Cowboy Jack Clement – who had the presence of mind to think to himself, “I think I’d be remiss in my responsibility not to record this” – some version of the first supergroup, dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet by the local newspaper, lives on.
The musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, has chugged across the nation on tour since 2011 and pulls into the Fox Theatre Tuesday through Sunday . The show premiered in Florida and Washington in 2006, opened in Chicago in 2008 (where it’s still running), had a 14-month run on Broadway (enough to score three Tony nominations which resulted in one acting win), ran for almost a year in London’s West End and is currently housed at Harrah’s Las Vegas for eight performances a week.
Chuck Mead, musical arranger and supervisor for the musical, jokes that considering the strong rockabilly current that runs through the show and its decidedly Southern sensibilities, he’s surprised “MDQ” lasted as long as it did on Broadway.
“New York is the most urban place you can think of, and there’s a limited amount of people who listen to what I call ‘hillbilly music’ or rockabilly. We would have loved for it to run longer, but we always knew that going on tour was the crux of the business,” Mead said, adding, “In the South, they get all of the jokes.”
Mead, a longtime Americana-roots musician who fronted BR-549 and now tours with with his Grassy Knoll Boys, was chosen to oversee the music direction because producers wanted authenticity and not just another jukebox musical.
“It’s not just a litany of hits. You get the iconic moves of the performers, but it’s not an impersonation show,” Mead said.
Since turning a few hours of a jam session into a 100-minute show would have resulted in a very slight production, “MDQ” takes some creative license with the events of that December day. In addition to songs that were actually played during the Sun session, the show features some of the chestnuts from each artist: “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” Hound Dog” and “See You Later, Alligator,” among them.
The writers also padded the story with 18 months worth of real-life events in the artists’ lives, using Phillips as the conduit to explain to the audience how he met each of the men and his musical significance at the time.
“You feel like a fly on the wall in the recording session,” Mead said of the stage setup. “It’s a little bit of a history lesson, and you also remember how young they really were then. They were just making it up as they went along, and we lend that looseness to the show that anything can happen. There’s a very rock ‘n’ roll spirit.”
Many famous rockers have caught the “MDQ” bug, including Jimmy Page and Bill Wyman, who brought his kids to the London production. Lewis sat in with the cast one night in New York and Perkins’ son, Stan, played with the band last year in Memphis.
Mead noted that everyone who shared in Dec. 4, 1956 and is still alive has seen the show and given their approval.
“That’s the important thing,” Mead said. “Paying tribute to these guys’ musical legacy and Sam Phillips’ guidance of them.”
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“Million Dollar Quartet”
8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; also 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $30-$80. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxatltix.com.