The Broadway Honky Tonk
Chuck Mead gives Million Dollar Quartet its rockabilly flair
Chuck Mead is not your average Broadway musician. Most of the time, in fact, he’s a Nashville singer-songwriter and front man for the country band BR549, but at the moment, he’s making his theatrical debut as the musical arranger and supervisor of Million Dollar Quartet, a fictionalized recreation of the December 4, 1956 recording session that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.
Mead had known Colin Escott (who co-wrote Million Dollar Quartet with Floyd Mutrux) for years when Escott asked if he’d ever considered working in musical theatre. He hadn’t, but he read the script and thought, “Wow. I would actually see this.” Escott introduced Mead to the producers, some of whom had doubts about a musical director who didn’t read music in a conventional way, but he got the job.
According to Mead, Escott wanted an authentic sound, not “musical theatre rockabilly.” The job of an arranger requires placing music in the correct key and tempo for the performers and giving “personality” to the overall sound of a production, so for a show like this, Mead’s rockabilly expertise is invaluable.
He had some say in the song list. Million Dollar Quartet is based on a real event, but as in any work of theatre, there are liberties taken. Songs like “I Walk The Line” and “Great Balls of Fire” are in the musical, even though they were not recorded on that fateful day in December. “Johnny Cash didn’t sing his famous songs [at that session], but when you do a theatrical presentation of that, you have to put those songs in,” Mead says.
Mead (pictured above) calls himself the Jiminy Cricket of the production, the one who keeps it real. His goal is for relatives of the musicians or others who were present at the time to feel that Million Dollar Quarter honors the integrity of the music and the period. A challenge is that even though there is room for improvisation, it is still a structured show. “It’s difficult when the discipline of the theatre meets the complete lack of discipline of musicians,” Mead says. “You get so deep into it that you don’t really want to do the same thing every night. But there are some things that you have to do the exact same way every night because there are cues, and that’s the way it works in the theatre.”
Still, the show’s talented musicians and performers—Eddie Clendening (Elvis), Lance Guest (Cash), Levi Kreis (Lewis), Robert Britton Lyons (Perkins), Corey Kaiser (bass), and Larry Lelli (drums)— are able to maintain a rock and roll spirit. “This show is set up so that your solo doesn’t have to be the exact same every night, so you can express yourself in a certain way through your character that in a lot of other musicals you can’t do,” Mead says. “There are certain signature licks that have to be there every single time. Everybody realizes that, so they do them, but it is different every night.”
Now that Million Dollar Quartet has officially opened, Mead is about to embark on a European tour of his own music, but since being exposed to Broadway, he’s made time to check out other shows. “I saw Red. I thought that was fantastic,” he says. “When I come back, I’d really love to see American Idiot. I’d love to see what they did with that. I’d just like to see what other musicals are like.”
Photo credits: The cast of Million Dollar Quartet by Joan Marcus; Chuck Mead by Jim Herrington