Eschewing obscurities in favor of “Hound Dog” makes theatrical and commercial sense, though familiarity has its hazards. If the performers go for energized impressionism and not impressions, the show could feel like the shoulda-been jam of every fan’s phantasmagorical dreams. If the actor-rockers appear too desperate to impress, it could come off as a tribute show restaged as a rockabilly dance-off. What the show does have going for it is that, unlike any other catalogue musical of recent memory, it unfolds in real time in a credible setting where the characters involved really did break spontaneously into song.
Also upping the credibility is the presence of musical director Chuck Mead, front man of the alt-trad-country band BR549. “I’m the Jiminy Cricket, as far as this music’s concerned,” Mead says, though T Bone Cricket might be more like it. “I knew Carl Perkins, and I know Fluke Holland [the session’s drummer] and Cowboy Jack Clement [the legendary engineer, not portrayed in the show], who are still alive. Without sounding corny, it’s pretty sacred to me, this music, because it was part of a cultural and musical revolution, and things haven’t been the same since then. We’ve worked hard to cut the cheese out. I ain’t ashamed for any of my hillbilly friends who are recording artists to come see this.”
This reenactment of the near birth of rock and roll takes place a few blocks from a symbol of its decline, the empty Virgin Megastore on Broadway. “In the music business, things are so messed up now that there’s a lot of hedging your bets,” says Mead. “These guys went in and had all these happy accidents—it’s always better when you don’t make it up ahead of time—and they didn’t win American Idol to get their record deal. Although Elvis would kick ass at American Idol, I’m sure. What would Simon say about Elvis?” That he plays to the camera too much?
Mead admits to a hint of portentousness in the show’s dialogue but says they’re keeping it light. In other words, don’t look for any binge-snacking from Elvis, Tic Tac–popping from J.C., or references to prepubescent girls from Jerry Lee. It’s a chance to commemorate the very skinny Elvis without the excess poundage of Colonel Tom Parker’s subsequent two decades of badly takin’ care of business, not to mention the cast of hangers-on who helped turn his latter-day existence into a horror version of Entourage. Million Dollar Quartet celebrates the last time Elvis had friendly contemporaries, if not coequals. After the setting of the Sun era, Presley was, in a practical sense, peerless—a lonesome fate that shouldn’t be wished on anybody, much less the guy responsible for rescuing America from Eddie Fisher.