It sounds like a rock ’n’ roll fan’s dream: a 1950s recording studio session with soon-to-be giants in the genre Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, with Memphis-based Sun Records founder Sam Phillips at hand.
Dream or not, it actually happened on Dec. 4, 1956, and serves as the basis for a stage musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” whose Waco Civic Theatre production opens a two-weekend run Friday.
“They basically had a huge, awesome jam session,” explained Sarah Miller, director of the WCT production.
The music’s the selling point, with hits like “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line,” “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire” and more, with a few spirituals and other numbers thrown in.
For Miller, the familiarity of that music made casting the production a little tricky. She needed cast members who could play guitar or piano and suggest the performers they were portraying without falling too deeply into imitation or mimicry.
“That’s a really tall order,” she said. “Most of the audience is able to recognize these people because of the music they produce. What we’ve tried to do is create the tone of these people.”
There was another consideration as well: acting, to pull off the context that brought the Million Dollar Quartet together for that magical session.
“The music makes the show fun, but the story makes it real,” Miller said.
“Million Dollar Quartet” has Carl Perkins (Shane Wilson) set to record with newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis (Joey Tamayo) at Sun Records studios when Elvis Presley (Tyler Miller) drops in with his girlfriend, Dyanne (Kelli Ann Pistokache). Then Johnny Cash (Jonah Hardt) stops by to talk business with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Roger Houston).
What happens when four talented, spirited musicians get together? They make music, of course.
While Miller’s cast play and sing, a combo including drums and upright bass provides backing, led by music director (and professional guitarist) Jon Fox. Miller, an East Tennessee native, moved to Waco with her husband, Tyler, two years ago and found her experience working this summer with the WCT musical “Beauty and the Beast” — Tyler played one of its Gastons — reignited a longtime love of theater and music that led her to apply as director of the current musical.
Working with a small cast has deepened members’ chemistry and friendship, she said, adding that the personable side of the musical comes through with the well-known songs.
“You’re getting to see a more in-depth picture of the characters. Even if you don’t like the music, you’ll appreciate it,” she said.