Visiting Santa Barbara, California, I was offered a ticket to last night’s performance of the traveling theatrical production Million Dollar Quartet. It is unlikely that I would have sought out a rock and roll musical, but my hosts took me along. The magnificent Granada Theater on State Street was nearly overflowing. The crowd’s appearance indicated that most people in the audience were of high school age when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were in the first wave of rock shock troops. They and Bill Haley stormed popular music as elements of rhythm and blues, country and pop music coalesced into early rock and roll. America’s culture—and eventually that of the world—was destined to change forever. The musical emphasizes again and again in taunts by Presley, Perkins and Phillips that predictions of the early death of rock and roll were flat-out wrong.
Million Dollar Quartet’s story revolves around a day in 1956 when Lewis, Perkins, Presley and Cash (pictured left to right) met in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis. Presley had left Sun for RCA. Cash and Perkins were about to defect to Columbia Records. That sets up tension as Phillips, realizing that all three of his big stars are gone, determines to groom Lewis, a zany ball of fire, to be his next big recording success. In the course of 90 minutes or so, we heard two dozen songs including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Long Tall Sally.” The actor-musicians who played the rock performers were uniformly effective in their roles. The opening announcement emphasized that there was no lip-synching or air guitar; the playing and singing on stage were the real thing. Cody Slaughter had Presley’s moves down cold and frequently caught his inflections. John Countryman captured Lewis’s borderline manic personality. James Barry had Perkins’ mixture of belligerence and sweetness just right. Scott Moreau was touching in his representation of Cash’s rumble of a voice and his peacemaker personality. Vince Nappo played Sam Phillips, the self-made blusterer whose cajoling, pleading and threatening were necessary to rein in the egos of his star performers.
The production was perfect in every respect— sound, lighting, pacing, script and performance. So why did I leave the building disturbed? It was because a brilliantly realized theater microcosm had encapsulated a phenomenon that 57 years ago established a lowest common denominator. The rock mentality spread so fast and so wide that every aspect of popular culture was diluted or distorted. The power of music to direct lives and attitudes has never been more starkly demonstrated than in rock’s influence not only on music but also on literature, theater and film, on sexual mores, on the general capacity or willingness of people to make subtle distinctions in civil discourse, on the flavor and fabric of modern life.
The program notes for Million Dollar Quartet conclude with a double-edged fact:
In his rudimentary, one-room studio, Phillips looked for innovation, not imitation. The music he recorded transformed the cultural landscape of the twentieth century, and its reverberations are still felt today.
Are they ever.