Thursday, November 3, 2016

Behind the Scenes of FST's "Million Dollar Quartet" -- Part 1

It's no secret that I love theater. It's all too easy, though, to consider a production for a few minutes after the curtain has dropped and move on with my life. This is one reason I enjoy the Behind the Scenes classes at Florida Studio Theatre so much. Hearing from the director, production manager and dramaturg, seeing the first read-through of a show, watching the production develop -- it gives me a much deeper appreciation of how many moving parts there are in bringing a play to the stage. Plus it's a ridiculous amount of fun.

"Million Dollar Quartet" is the third production for which I've been taken behind the scenes. While I'm not a fan of any members of the quartet -- Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash -- I thought it would be fun to watch a musical take shape.  It has been a blast. 

Jason Cannon
Associate Artist Jason Cannon has been charged with leading the Behind the Scenes program. He also happens to be the director of "Million Dollar Quartet." Jason shared with us the background on the show and why it was selected to kick off FST's Winter Mainstage season.

The appeal, of course, is the music. If you don't know the story, Carl Perkins had a recording session with Sam Phillips at Sun Records on Dec. 4, 1956. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis ended up joining him on the recording. Johnny Cash also stopped by that afternoon, but only for about ten minutes. So Cash's inclusion in the recording session in the show diverges from history.

This "memory play" in which Sam recalls his history with each of the singers apparently wasn't particularly well-received in New York. FST believes this is because it's a show best performed in a smallish venue like FST.  With only 237 seats in the Gompertz Theater, audience members will feel a part of the recording session.
Sam Phillips

We learned about Sam Phillips' role in the start of rock 'n' roll. Phillips wanted to get the records of African-American artists on radio stations, but the public wasn't ready. So instead, he found white musicians with a similar sound. This led to an interesting discussion of music appropriation -- think white rappers and German raggae artists.

Phillips was known for wanting "perfection imperfection" in his musicians. He wanted the music to be real and gritty. The phrase "go cat, go" in "Blue Suede Shoes" was not originally in the lyrics. But it came out in the recording session and Phillips decided to keep it.  (While on the topic, I also learned that "Blue Suede Shoes' was written--and first performed--by Carl Perkins. But Elvis hit TV with the song first on the "Ed Sullivan Show," so everyone considered it his song.)

Michelle Pruiett (Dyanne), Kroy Presley (Brother Joe)
 and Joe Ditmeyer (Sam)
We had a fascinating discussion with James Ashford and Jason about casting and Actors' Equity Association rules. FST generally casts a show about eight weeks out from the start of rehearsals, with auditions both locally and in New York. While that might seem to be cutting it a bit tight, actors can quit a gig on two weeks' notice for a better job. If they walk two weeks or less before the show opens, the actor has to pay the theater. But further out than that, the theater has to scramble.

While FST has a strong track record with its actors, it's not because they're getting rich working there. As a smaller theater, FST has a LORT (League of Resident Theaters) D classification. On average, actors at FST make about $650/week (plus housing). I'm stating the obvious when I say that's not a lot of money. Jason shared that one actor got a barrista day job once his show had opened to supplement his income.

Brandyn Day (Jerry Lee), Hunter Brown (Fluke)
and Joe Boover (Elvis)
FST had an ample number of actors to choose from in casting the show. FST's goal was to find actors who had the "flavor" of the icons but who wouldn't play them as cartoons. More than 35 actresses auditioned for the role of Dyanne, Elvis' girlfriend at the time. Michelle Pruiett got the nod.  Joe Boover, who plays Elvis, has been cast in the role in two other productions. Kroy Presley on bass has done the show before as well. The rest of the guys are new to "Million Dollar Quartet."  At a recent rehearsal, Brandyn Day was blazing on the piano as Jerry Lee Lewis introducing Sam and the other guys to "Great Balls of Fire." I can't wait to hear the rest of the cast in action.

"Million Dollar Quartet" may not be the most thought-provoking show you'll see this season, but it will be lots of fun. (Have you gotten the sense yet how much I'm enjoying this class?) Stay tuned for more "behind the scenes."  

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