Although it constitutes one of the least sexy chapters in the volume, the case of Jukebox Musicals vs. Everything Else in Theater is the American stage’s only significant contribution to the nation’s bifurcated culture wars. The question posed by jukebox musicals’ existence is the same one that hangs everywhere in American life: Are we interested in innovation or in dwelling on a false reminiscence of the past? Sadly, I fear the genre’s unflagging proliferation means the wrong side is winning. That said, it would be unnecessarily stubborn, irresponsible consumer reporting and all-around bad manners not to tell you that the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet is as electrifying as holding your finger in a light socket.
Imagining the fabled day in Memphis’s Sun Studio in 1956 when label alum Elvis Presley (Clendening) dropped in on a Carl Perkins (Lyons) recording session, while Johnny Cash (Guest) and a just-signed Jerry Lee Lewis (Kreis) happened to be on hand, this rockabilly Chautauqua is the only musical I’ve ever seen that shows what made rock & roll frightening to postwar, mashed-potato America. To ears trained on the dulcet harmonies of Your Hit Parade, the noise played here makes Sun’s artists sound like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Written without much condescending narration—and mostly as a love letter to unsung label founder Sam Phillips, the CEO of cracker soul—Quartet puts its authentic rock music front and center. In this acoustically expert re-creation, the four professional musicians channel their respective forebears with a spiritual medium’s accuracy, especially reckless Kreis’s Jerry Lee Lewis, who’s frankly so dead-on it’s ridiculous.