Mead channels history to make 'Million Dollar Quartet'

Chuck Mead remembers it this way.

One day the award-winning Americana songwriter was on a plane when he took a call from Colin Escott, the music writer whose books include a history of Sun Records.

“Some guy that he’d met in Los Angeles had the idea of making part of that book into a Broadway musical about the Million Dollar Quartet,” Mead recalled recently. “And so he called me up and was like, ‘Have you ever thought about working in musical theater?’ And I’m like, ‘Not really.’

“But then he described it. He’d written this musical play. And I knew all that music and so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try that.’ Because I’m into doing other things.”

Nothing looms quite as large in Sun Records lore as the fabled recording session in 1956 when four iconic rockabilly cats came together to make music. Elvis. Carl Perkins. Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash. It was like an alignment of the planets.

And so Mead, a native of Lawrence who made a mark in the 1980s with the roots-rock band the Homestead Grays and later helped form the band BR5-49 in Nashville, Tenn., took a plunge into the mysterious world of Broadway theater.

Suddenly he was being fitted for a new title: musical director. He was based in Nashville and had a songwriting deal with a publisher at the time, but doing a stage show about legendary figures in American music sounded like a thing worth doing.

The resulting show, “The Million Dollar Quartet,” a Broadway hit that comes to Kansas City on tour Tuesday, uses as its point of departure an actual event: The only recording session that brought together Carl, Johnny, Jerry Lee and Elvis. The date was Dec. 4, 1956, and it happened at the little studio in Memphis, Tenn., where producer Sam Phillips had “discovered” all four of them and had recorded a host of white and African-American artists.

It was actually a Carl Perkins recording date produced by Cowboy Jack Clement, a songwriter who would achieve legendary status in his own right. Jerry Lee Lewis was a piano player hired for the session. Johnny Cash dropped by to listen to Perkins record. And Elvis, who had rocketed to fame as a Sun recording artist but who by then was with RCA, came by a bit later.

“So we went down to Florida to work on this production, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” Mead said. “But I just approached it like I was producing a record in the studio, which I do know. And it worked out pretty well that way.

“And of course I learned a lot about theater along the way, happily. Because it’s a part of show business I’ve never been involved in before. I’ve been around shooting music videos and on the road as a musician for years and years. But this is like legitimate show business. It’s Broadway. It’s the theater.”

The show opened on Broadway in the spring of 2010. Putting it together musically required an honest representation of the songs recorded that day, but Mead and his collaborators decided to exercise a bit of artistic license.

“There was a lot of give and take,” Mead said. “We wanted to include as many songs as they did in that little jam session in actuality as we could. But people don’t like to watch real life. Even your reality shows, they make stuff up.

“So what ended up happening is we put other songs in. You can’t imagine a show with Johnny Cash in it without him doing ‘I Walk the Line’ or ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ So people want to go see the show. They want to see Jerry Lee doing ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ ”

The trick was finding actors who could more or less look and sound like the people they portrayed. Some actors were already steeped in the music, Mead said. Others weren’t.

“These guys are up there really playing the instruments and really singing,” Mead said. “It’s a tribute to their talent that we were able to pull it off at all.”

The resulting sound was so impressive that some people accused the show of using prerecorded tracks.

“Playing a track would actually be harder to do,” he said. “It’s not like any other Broadway-type musical. With ours, the first week was like band practice. It’s the meeting of the discipline of theater and the complete lack of discipline of musicians. And that comes across in the show.”

That’s another way of saying that in the theater actors have to hit their marks and time their performances pretty much the same way every night. But for this show, the music has to have some of the loose-jointed imperfections and raucous abandon of real rockabilly. In pursuit of authenticity, the producers outfitted the performers with period instruments.

“The idea was re-creating authentic music,” Mead said. “We got a gold-top Les Paul like the one Carl Perkins played. There’s a little spinet piano. We tried to get the kind of guitars Cash and Elvis had at that time.

“Some of these guys come in really being freaks about this, and other guys don’t know anything about. The only thing we didn’t have at rehearsals was beer, like you would at band practice.”

If the show has a message, Mead said, it’s a simple one: Memphis was the place.

“Memphis was ground zero,” he said. “New Orleans is ground zero for jazz. But I think Memphis is ground zero for rock ’n’ roll.”

Mead was in Kansas City a couple of months ago to serve as musical director for the New Theatre’s current production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” The music consists of songs original to the show, and much of it has a country feel.

“Richard Carrothers, the director, had seen what we did with ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ in New York,” Mead said. “It was fantastically challenging for me, because this time it was songs I was not familiar with. But we had a great time putting it together, and for me it was one step closer to musical theater because I had to work with a choreographer.”

Yes, Mead conceded, he’s got the theater bug. He’s working on an idea for his own show. And he figures the only way forward is to keep trying new things, even if they seem a little risky.

“So I’m up for whatever comes down my way,” he said. “I’m through saying no. I just say yes now.”