BWW Q&A: Jeff Calhoun of ELVIS - A MUSICAL REVOLUTION at Walnut Street Theatre

The production begins previews October 3, and opens October 11.

By: Sep. 27, 2023
BWW Q&A: Jeff Calhoun of ELVIS - A MUSICAL REVOLUTION at Walnut Street Theatre

The new musical Elvis – A Musical Revolution will make its Philadelphia premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre. Directed and choreographed by two-time Tony Award nominated director Jeff Calhoun, the production begins previews October 3, and opens October 11.

Originally scheduled to end October 29th, this production is now extended through November 5. Tickets for this show and all shows in the Walnut’s 215th season go on sale to the public Sunday, September 10th. Subscriptions and group ticket sales are available now. 

This exciting new musical celebrates the cultural icon who changed the history of music. Experience Elvis’ pivotal moments with those who knew him best, including his parents Vernon and Gladys, Colonel Parker, Ann-Margret, Priscilla, and the R&B pioneers who influenced his music. You’ll be “All Shook Up,” with dozens of his greatest hits, including “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Don’t miss “The King” as you have never seen him before!   

Elvis – A Musical Revolution has a book by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti, and is based on a concept by Floyd Mutrux, with arrangements and orchestrations by David Abbinanti.  

We sat down with Jeff Calhoun to talk all about the upcoming production.

Jeff Calhoun (Director & Choreographer) Broadway: Newsies, Bonnie & Clyde, Grey Gardens, Deaf West's Big River (2004 Tony Honor, Excellence in Theatre), Brooklyn, Bells Are Ringing (2001 Revival), Annie Get Your Gun (1999 Tony Award, Best Revival), Grease (1994 Tony nomination, Best Choreography), Tommy Tune Tonite!, The Will Rogers Follies. West End/International: Disney's High School Musical 1 & 2: On Stage!. Regional/National tour: Jekyll & Hyde, Upcoming National Tour; Disney's Newsies, Paper Mill Playhouse; Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy (2011 Craig Noel Award, Outstanding Resident Musical), The Old Globe; Bonnie & Clyde (2009 San Diego Critics Circle Award, Outstanding New Musical and Outstanding Director of a Musical), Asolo Rep Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse; Dolly Parton's 9 to 5: The Musical, 1st National Tour; Deaf West's Pippin, Mark Taper Forum; Disney's High School Musical: On Tour!, Disney Theatrical; The Civil War and Shenandoah, Ford's Theatre. Ford's Theatre Associate Artist.

What have been some of your main inspirations while directing 'Elvis - A Musical Revolution'?

Each show's inspiration usually begins when I can visualize what a show looks like as I'm reading the script. So, you could say that my inspiration begins by working with the designers. Secondly, there's the casting. Nothing is more important than finding the right actor for the role. I find it beneficial not to say too much to the actors too soon. You don't want to limit their choices with your preconceptions but rather create an environment that enables them to make choices that often exceed my initial thoughts. This is best done by creating an environment where actors feel safe! It's a trap to try to do too much too soon as it tends to stifle the all-important time for actors' exploration.

How did you approach the challenge of depicting such an iconic figure like Elvis on stage?

What excited and attracted me to this musical was the writer's determination to create a compelling theater piece rather than just another Elvis revue. We are not simply doing a revue or an Elvis impersonation that is all too familiar in many Vegas showrooms. Instead, it's a story that covers Elvis's humble beginnings, his fears, and insecurities, as well as his familiar rise to stardom. We also traverse his life through the eyes of a very young Elvis in a way that feels fresh, original, and inspiring.

Can you share some insights about the research process that went into creating this musical?

All my shows begin with the obligatory exploration of anything you can find regarding your subject matter. Then I dispose of the 'literal' and try to recreate the actual events as creatively and theatrically as possible. What I love about the theater is that it forces you to use your imagination, representation, and metaphor to hopefully excite and thrill the audience by depicting the familiar in a very unfamiliar and unique way.

Can you tell us about the casting process for the show? What were you looking for in the actor to play Elvis?

Many shows' initial success is determined by finding the right actor for the right role. I know this is going to sound peculiar, but finding the right actor is not unlike finding a person you want to date. After all, you are asking an audience to spend a two-hour date with those actors. Also, my philosophy has always been that the best idea wins, regardless of where it comes from. So, it's imperative for me to cast artists whom I believe love the rehearsal process as much as the actual performances. And to that point, not since Jeremy Jordan's audition for the Broadway production of Bonnie and Clyde have I been so impressed and excited about a performer as I am about Lucas Pastrana, the young actor we have playing Elvis.

How do you think this musical will resonate with today's audience?

It's my hope that this show will not only entertain the die-hard Elvis fans and the audiences that loved Baz Luhrmann's film, but also that it may introduce new generations to this truly iconic American original. I also hope his early roots, so embedded and influenced by the music of many influential black artists of his time, will resonate and educate during this current cultural climate.

Can you share some details about the choreography of the show? How did you incorporate Elvis' signature moves?

Elvis was known for his dance style, which simply means he moved his hips, shook his body, and seemed to have a great sense of humor about the reaction it always elicited. With such iconic life in those moments, I wanted to do my best to recreate that authentic feel without getting in the way of what people already know and love.

How has your previous work on Broadway influenced your direction for this production?

I think each show influences the next. Nothing is wasted. If you can keep striving to be the best you can be and do it with an open heart and courage, hopefully, each experience enriches the next. I've also had the privilege of working with some of the theater's preeminent artists, from Cy Coleman, Stephen Schwartz, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green to Peter Stone and Tommy Tune. I feel a great responsibility to honor those shoulders I get to stand on and never take for granted my good fortune that I'm living my childhood dream.

Why should audiences come and see 'Elvis - A Musical Revolution?'

It's important, especially since the pandemic, that people start returning to the theater to remember the profound joy of live theater. It's far too easy to get in the habit of sitting at home with your remote control. Other than the arts and sports, where else do folks from different walks of life come together and have a shared experience? That's the real benefit and beauty of live theater, and that's why it remains my church.

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