Presley, Cash, Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis
One afternoon, four legends of rock ‘n’ roll crossed paths in Memphis, and then…
by Bondo Wyszpolski
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins came together for the first and only time at Sun Records in Memphis. An impromptu jam session followed, and Sam Phillips got the tapes rolling. “Million Dollar Quartet” is based on that historic event, and it features such landmark tunes as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Walk the Line,” Great Balls of Fire,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Presented by 3-D Theatricals, the musical opens Saturday with a preview on Friday for seven performances at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center (it then moves over to Cerritos for two weeks). The show’s musical director is David Lamoureux, who just happens to have taught locally, way back when. He shares his thoughts about the show as well as his own career, which includes dozens of stage productions (just see for yourself at davidlamoureuxcreative.com). Easy Reader: I’m assuming that the years you spent as a theater instructor at Mira Costa High School can be seen as a sort of prelude or springboard to your subsequent career?
David Lamoureux: I’m still in some disbelief at the opportunities I was afforded during my time at Mira Costa. It was home to a lot of firsts for me: first music direction (“Little Shop of Horrors”), first direction of a musical (“Assassins”), first direction of a play (“The Elephant Man”), first arrangements/orchestrations (“Schoolhouse Rock Live!”). I’m terribly grateful to Carol Matthews, Leslie Lauter, the entire department, really. They allowed me a tremendous amount of room for someone as young as I was to develop some of the artistic beliefs I still maintain through a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation.
ER: Did you come of age locally? Was the idea or plan of becoming a director, musical director, and even actor, always in the cards for you? Or had you originally started out in pursuit of a different profession?
DL: I grew up in an extremely musical household in Glendora. I don’t know that I ever gave any thought to wanting to be a director, but I definitely micromanaged a lot of living room performances with myself and my siblings.
ER: You have a small part in “Million Dollar Quartet,” although it doesn’t seem that you’re promoting yourself as an actor. But you’ve done a reasonable amount of that before, if I’m not mistaken, such as being one of the stars in the Norris Theatre production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.” Do you still actively pursue acting in addition to directing, or has acting taken a backseat these days?
DL: I don’t actively pursue acting opportunities, no. It’s been some time. I can probably count on both hands the shows I’ve performed in onstage since my voice changed. I do find that I miss it more as time goes on. The offer to be involved with “White Christmas” came somewhat out of the blue, and that was delightful to be a part of and jump back into the song-and-dance world for a moment. Other than that, my musical theatre performing has been limited to a couple performances for the Reiner Reading Series, a staged reading series that I co-produced for six years alongside Michael Betts for Musical Theatre West in Long Beach. Outside of musical theatre, though, I perform extensively with my act David and the The Bombshells, performing my arrangements of current Top 40 songs in the style of Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters.
ER: Is there a vast difference between being a director of a show and being its musical director? Sometimes you’ve worn both hats, so I’m guessing you’re comfortable with both. Also, was your early focus on music, since you clearly have a musical background as well? And so did you pursue music and theater in college and/or other schools?
DL: I’d say there’s been a vast difference between what the job description of “director” has entailed on every show I’ve held that position on, and the same could be said of “music director.” In my experience, the definition of “director” has ranged anywhere from a prior dance captain of a show on Broadway or the tour coming in to reset the original staging exactly to the extreme opposite of recreating a show from the ground up using only the book and score as reference. My preferences lean far towards the latter. I do believe that having a nuanced understanding of music and an ability to interpret a score are critical qualities of a functional musical theatre director. While my childhood and upbringing were entirely surrounded by music (my mother was a concert pianist, my father has what I continue to consider the most impeccable taste in melodic pop music of anybody I know), I didn’t finish college and don’t know that doing so would have impacted, significantly or otherwise, what my career has turned out to be so far.
ER: Were you previously familiar with “Million Dollar Quartet,” and did you have any connection with it?
DL: I was familiar with the premise of the musical, and have known some performers who’ve been in the show over the years who’ve had glowing things to say about the material and its impact, but I’d never seen it myself.
ER: When you began preparing for this show, what were the first things you had to do? Were you involved with the audition process? And if so, what qualities did you look for in the actors?
DL: Preparing this show was different than other projects I’ve music directed, at least for musical theatre. It was more similar, honestly, to how I’d prepare rehearsals to get a band ready to go on tour. We had four principal cast members (the “Quartet”) who between them have literally over a thousand performances of the show under their belts, with myself (on drums), our bassist, and the two other non-instrumentalist characters coming into the process for the first time. So, rehearsals were operating on a lot of different levels simultaneously: coordinating the myriad of wonderful ideas and nuances that the Quartet brought to the table from their prior experiences with the piece, racing through the memorization of material for the newcomers so that staging wasn’t impeded by stands and scores, integrating a much larger sound design component in the rehearsal hall so that we could effectively simulate stage volumes and parameters, and ultimately making a group of people who’ve been collaborating for three days sound like they’ve been collaborating for three years.
ER: How familiar were you with the music itself, and how important was it to get a good feel for each
of the fabled musicians?
DL: I was pretty familiar with all of the songs in the show, although not necessarily the recordings of the songs by the artists in the show. Having a good background on each of these four musicians was imperative. If this show is expected to play effectively for anybody who claims fandom of any or all of these artists, and especially with a quartet who brings such a knowledge of and history with their characters to the table, bringing anything less than a comprehensive understanding of why each of these musicians mattered and why their impact has sustained would simply be negligent and a wasted opportunity.
ER: Are the events depicted in the musical historically accurate, or is the work primarily a trellis on which to hang a procession of classic music?
DL: While the show isn’t the epitome of historical accuracy, the content it addresses is all based on real relationships that these musicians had with Sam Phillips and Sun Records. And obviously the session itself happened. But the show uses the instance of the recording session to paint an incredibly respectful and admiring portrait of music that doesn’t get very much attention anymore, in a time where trends move so fast that not getting very much attention turns to no attention turns to obscurity pretty fast. It doesn’t feel like a jukebox musical, there’s a different sort of underlying sincerity to it, and I appreciate that.
ER: What’s been the best part, so far, for you personally, working on this musical?
DL: It’s pretty unbelievable to me that we’re making the sounds we’re making as a band, after such a short time together. Everyone in this show cares about it. Because of how important these characters are to music history, there’s a fierce defense of authenticity and honesty that’s constantly palpable in the room. It presents tense moments, it presents challenges, but that level of investment in material is something that you would beg from performers on other material. This show has been a huge learning experience for me, and one that I’m continuing to learn from.
ER: What should the audience look for and expect? What are you hoping to instill in them so that they’ll leave the theater a lot happier than when they walked in?
DL: Exciting, compelling, important music comes at a cost. Same as any art does, really. It’s hard to hear any of this music now and consider it revolutionary, consider it near-damning from a society standpoint. Music has progressed to far wilder and more provocative places since. But to hear these songs now as something beyond their simple structures and repetitive refrains requires understanding what all of these artists were fighting against just to get these ideas heard. It’s undoubted that we take for granted how much the guitar barrages of Carl Perkins, the piano frenzies of Jerry Lee Lewis, the resilient drive of Johnny Cash, and the uncaged energy of Elvis Presley defined the parameters by which front men would be created and compared to for decades to come. We’ve got the right group of people to bring the immediacy of all this music to the audiences in Redondo and Cerritos, and I hope that everyone who walks out of the theater feels energized, inspired, and optimally, compelled to give some attention to some music that deserves it.
ER: Apart from your work as a roving director and musical director, I gather that you have other projects and other ambitions. And if so, present and future, what are you working on or towards, and what would you like to achieve?
DL: I’m splitting my time at the moment between continuing to write and develop the David and The Bombshells act, specifically expanding the idea to a weekly broadcast/podcast and a monthly, large-scale variety show, and adapting a late-’90s Chuck Palahniuk novel for the stage. I’m hoping to make some headway on both come summertime. I believe there are really incredible things to come from musical theatre in Los Angeles. It’s my hope to be a part of eliciting a new valuation of originality and inventiveness in theater production in lieu of reproduction. I have a lot of confidence in what’s to come.
Million Dollar Quartet previews tomorrow and opens Saturday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd. Redondo Beach. Performances, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Also next weekend, Feb. 16 to 18: Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets, $105 to $25 (plus $3 handling fee per ticket). “Rush” tickets one hour before select performances. Box office opens two hours before showtime. Free parking. (714) 589-2770 ext. 1, or go to 3dtshows.org. ER