Opening exactly 56 years to the date of the actual event, Million Dollar Quartet is coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center this week. On Tuesday, December 4, 1956, four music icons came together for a jam session. Those four – Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis – and that one fateful night are the subject of the musical. I recently had the chance to sit down with David Elkins, who plays Johnny Cash, to ask him about how he landed the gig, how he prepares for the role, and more.
Elkins says he grew up listening to Johnny Cash, and credits that to his mother, who played a lot of Cash's older stuff for the him. Additionally, his older brother was interested in Cash. He remembers, as a young person in the nineties, the sort of resurgence of popular interest in Cash's works. He recalls, " People were saying all of a sudden, Johnny Cash is cool," but for him it was the case that, " no, Johnny Cash was always cool." All the time that he was listening to Cash growing up, he says, "I didn't know at the time that I was preparing for a job."
Before every even attending an open call for auditions for Million Dollar Quartet, Elkins was a fan of the show. He says, "I was a fan of the show, and I loved it." In particular, he loved the history of the piece, as it is based on true and likely events, and the story of these four men coming together for a chance meeting and jam session. Although it's not an exact depiction of events, Elkins says it's an idea of what likely could have gone on that evening, that it's "an opportunity for the writer to explore the dynamic" of these four men.
For Elkins and fans alike, one of the most interesting aspects of the show is that these four music legends were all at different points in their storied music careers at the time of this jam session and recording. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, was an up-and-comer, and Cash had already recorded a wildly successful single, "Walk the Line." Elkins observes that the four men "were all such dynamic individuals, and to watch them all interact is a lot of fun."
When it comes to playing a real person, and such a beloved one at that, Elkins says, "I don't take it lightly." He says that there's a high expectation when it comes to playing Cash, but that rather than that being a down-side, it's a challenge. He prepared for the role by "singing along to the recordings that you'd expect," and also tried to get to the core of Johnny, and understand his "core beliefs and foundations." Elkins noted a family connection to understanding Johnny's perspective on life. He told me, "part of my family, is from rural Arkansas. My grandma grew up 200 miles north of Johnny, picking cotton just like he did. I heard lots of stories about Arkansas when I was growing up. I'd go down there and visit in the summers, and I heard all sorts of stories about cotton and rattlesnakes in the field. I met a lot of her friends and a lot of family and I had a good sense of the real people and those folks." He continued, "Not to overdo that, make too big of a leap or a connection, but I did know people of his generation, born in the same area. I felt like I had a good sense of their priorities being with their family and their faith."
Million Dollar Quartet features a variety of different songs made famous by each of its four participants, including "Blue Suede Shoes," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Hound Dog," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Elkins says that a fun part for him is watching the other guys perform.
Million Dollar Quartet runs from December 4 – 9. For tickets and more information, visit www.dpacnc.com.