Here’s a pop compilation concert show with a difference - it actually happened, sort of, on December 4, 1956. At the Memphis recording studios of Sun Records, four rock ‘n’ roll giants - Elvis Presley (who was originally on the label but had already decamped to RCA before becoming a movie star, too), Jerry Lee Lewis (who had just arrived on the scene), and Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash (both shown here about to defect to Columbia) - got together for an informal jamming session.
Robert Britton Lyons (Carl Perkins), Michael Malarkey (Elvis Presley) and Derek Hagen (Johnny Cash) in Million Dollar Quartet at the Noel Coward Theatre Photo: Tristram Kenton
Million Dollar Quartet seeks to recreate it, and imagines some of the conversations and interactions that might have occurred between the four men and their Svengali-like record producer Sam Phillips, with Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne - who spends most of the evening smiling sweetly - and an additional onstage bass player and drummer looking on.
All of which feels very authentic, passionate and compelling, except that it didn’t happen quite this way. Not even the playlist was the same, as over half of what they sang on the day were in fact gospel songs.
The creators of this show, originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux, try to flummox us by effectively giving us a jukebox of some of their greatest hits instead, like Blue Suede Shoes (originally recorded by Perkins but then made more famous by Presley) and Great Balls of Fire (originally recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studios nearly a year later).
There are also plenty of covers of other songs of the era, like Fever (not recorded by Elvis until 1960, but here recreated as a song for his girlfriend to sing) and the Dean Martin hit Memories Are Made of This (which was not recorded by Cash until 1996).
Nor is the chronology accurate on the facts. It wasn’t until two years later that Cash and Perkins left for Columbia. But if you can put aside the spurious history, the show succeeds triumphantly in making you feel the joy of the music-making. On this score, in every sense, there isn’t a slicker, more polished set of impressionists in town.
The quartet here of Ben Goddard (as Jerry Lee Lewis, thumping at the keyboards with real passion and panache), Robert Britton Lyons (recreating his Broadway performance as Carl Perkins), Derek Hagen (as Johnny Cash) and Michael Malarkey (as Elvis) fully live up to the show’s Million Dollar billing of them.
The West End may already be filled with shows that draw on old pop catalogues, from Abba and Queen to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as Dreamboats and Petticoats and Dirty Dancing, but the market for pop nostalgia is seemingly bottomless, and should be well satisfied by this latest accomplished entry.