BWW Interview: Wearing the Mantle of Rock n' Roll Legends
"I would simply say 'thank you' and then I'd probably ask him about one of my favorite songs and why he wrote it." Actor Scott Moreau is fantasizing about what he might say if he ever had been able to meet Johnny Cash in person.
"If I do get to meet Jerry Lee Lewis when I am in California this Thanksgiving - he is playing a concert in Santa Monica - I don't know what I will say. I think I would want to talk to him in the past," chimes in Brandyn Day.
"I think you are all are talking to these guys nightly," adds Maine State Music Theatre's Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark. He is referring to the performances these three actor-musicians are giving as part of MSMT's opening production in which Moreau plays Johnny Cash, Barry plays Carl Perkins, and Day plays Jerry Lee Lewis, who together with Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis make up the foursome that Sun Records producer Sam Phillips dubbed a Million Dollar Quartet. The show which takes its inspiration from an actual event - the night of December 4, 1956, when all four of these then young artists, , their careers just taking off, gathered in Phillips' studio, and made some historic tapes.
Clark, Moreau, Barry, and Day are all part of MSMT's popular annual panel discussion series, Peek Behind the Curtain, hosted by BWW Maine Editor Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, which is now in its fifth season at the Curtis Memorial Library. Together, they are sharing their thoughts about the legends of Rock n' Roll whom they have played on stage in numerous productions and whose lives and music have become part of these artists' own journeys.
Scott Moreau, a Litchfield, Maine native, tells his story about first falling under the spell of Johnny Cash's music while he was working at Bull Moose records in Lewiston. Moreau, who has at the time of the panel, played Cash 1010 times, says delving into the singer's life and art began "not as research, but rather I was as an obsessive fan. I never saw Johnny live; I never met him, but he became an ever-present person in my life, and I am constantly listening to his music, reading about him, watching videos and trading bootlegs of concerts to learn all I can about him. I have also had the privilege of meeting his younger brother and sister and the owner of the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, so I have had access to many things the public has not. I first played his music before an audience ten years ago, and Million Dollar Quartet and two other tribute shows [Walk the Line, Ring of Fire] have taken me all over the country in the last seven years."
James Barry, who also serves as the Music Director for MSMT's production, talks with similar awe for Carl Perkins, the "Father of Rockabilly" whom he portrays in the show. "Carl grew up listening to country music like Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family, as well as hearing the blues and gospel as a poor sharecropper working in the fields, and he puts it all together and gives us the birth of rock n' roll. There were some better looking people with smoother moves, but Carl was right there at the vanguard of that magic synthesis of American styles. The mark he left on American popular music is extraordinary. Paul McCartney and George Harrison famously said many times that 'without Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.'"
Brandyn Day talks about his character, rock n' roll's wild man Jerry Lee Lewis. "In this show, Jerry Lee is set apart a bit from Perkins, Cash, and Presley because at this point he is a young musician still trying to make a name for himself. He can be alternately cocky or honored to be in the room with these other musicians. I try to ride the line between these two attitudes in my portrayal. He's great fun to play because I have a lot if freedom to make him my own within the rock star vibe."
In addition to these three legendary musicians Million Dollar Quartet also creates strong characterizations of the young Elvis Presley and the visionary recording producer and owner of Sun Records who gave the four their starts, Sam Phillips, and adds Dyanne, Elvis' fictional girlfriend to help the plot. Curt Dale Clark believes that this particular jukebox musical captures in a unique way the excitement of the historical moment and elevates it to the heightened magic of stage truth. "Stories based in truth are often the strongest. By taking a tidbit of truth and adding theatricality around it, by wrapping even an invention like Dyanne around so much truth, the result is brilliant. When you see the picture of the four at the end and hear them singing on tape, I get goose bumps every time, and I like to think that wherever they are they are happy that this is being remembered."
Clark also feels that this production of Million Dollar Quartet is special because "of the scene work that takes place. "I am so proud of these fellas and [director] Hunter Foster for the way they are able to take hold of the audience and keep them in the palms of their hands. You can hear a pin drop in the confrontation between Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins with Sam Phillips or you can feel the entire audience drawn into the moment when Johnny and Jerry Lee glare at each other from across the stage and Carl breaks the tension with that great line, 'The boy's startin' to grow on you, ain't he, John?'" Clark urges the audience to try to see the show more than once because "you will notice all these little dramatic nuances you didn't catch the first time that lend so much truth to the piece."
Both Barry and Moreau, who have worked in numerous productions with Foster, feel that he brings something special to the piece. "Hunter has a vision," says Barry, "but if you have an idea, he is willing to let you try it - something I appreciate. He has a grounded respect for the work but he can still be loose and playful with it."
Day, for whom this is the first production of the show he's done with Foster, adds, "This one feels like the most real version to me - the truest to the story, to the people who wrote it, and to the characters. I have been in a few productions with other directors where they have musical 'theatrified' the show, and I prefer this more truthful version."
Keeping the dramatic truth and freshness of the piece is important to all three actor-musicians. Barry says, "Even though we are doing the show eight to nine times a week, I still surprise myself with these revelatory moments. Some kernel of truth keeps getting polished in the tumbler, and I think,"Wow! I didn't think of that before!' And like Carl, who maintained a positive outlook despite setbacks, especially later in his career, I try to stay open to that."
Barry also articulates what he believes makes this gathering of the four legends so powerful. "Despite the tensions and conflicts, once the music begins, each of them can let the negative go. Nothing else matters; each becomes involved as a member of a team doing something that transcends ego. Whatever else in going on in their lives, they surrender to the music. It is the divine calling for all these guys."
Similarly, the same kind of chemistry happens with MSMT's Million Dollar Quartet cast in each performance. "This show celebrates the celebrity of the people portrayed on stage, and that makes it a perfect way to kick off our Diamond Jubilee season," says Clark. "Watching these fellas, something magical happens. In the moment these guys truly believe they are the characters they are playing, and the audience believes it too. Some nights it seems so real I am afraid we are going to have to keep people from storming the stage. Everyone is willing to go there with us, and that gives the show its electric, festive nature.
And clearly, after sixty years, celebrations are in order. Moreau, who grew up closely connected to the Brunswick community, speaks of his love for the place and people, and especially the theatre company. " I saw my first shows here. I wouldn't even know what theatre was if it weren't for MSMT. This is where I got a love for it all.' Noting that "thankfully the town hasn't changed all that much," Moreau adds, "but the theatre has. It was always great here, but in the last few years Curt Dale [Clark] and everyone at MSMT have done such amazing work in terms of renovations and outreach. MSMT uplifts this community, gives patrons a chance to see quality musicals, and gives actors the opportunity to leave NYC and come to a beautiful place where they can have an amazing professional experience."
Curt Dale Clark, obviously touched by the comments and warm audience applause, makes clear his chief objective for the 60th anniversary season. "For sixty years we have delivered entertainment to this area. The public has enjoyed our work and has sustained us. So now it is time for us to say thank you and to give back. Million Dollar Quartet is the start of a season that will have all kinds of special events and so many ways to celebrate!"
Photo courtesy Olivia Wenner, photographer
Peek Behind the Curtain will host four additional panels this summer : July 11 (Beauty and the Beast), July 25 (Saturday Night Fever), August 15 (Singin' in the Rain), and September 6 (Nunsense) at noon at the Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick, ME