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Warner Theatre recalls the night four legends made music history

The cast jams in the national tour of "Million Dollar Quartet." (Courtesy Warner Theatre)

WASHINGTON — It was the greatest jam session in recording history.

On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis united at Sun Record Studios in Memphis for a night that became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Now, it’s your chance to relive this historic moment as the national tour of the Tony-winning Broadway show “Million Dollar Quartet” hits Warner Theatre for two lively shows this Sunday.

“Carl Perkins … was putting down a single, ‘Matchbox,’ so he was in the studio to record that. (Label owner) Sam Phillips had these guys stop by. So it was this one night in history — the only night in history — when they’ve all gotten together to jam,” says Evan Buckley Harris, who plays Johnny Cash.

All four famous artists were relatively young at the time.

“They were all pretty much newcomers. Johnny is actually the oldest one and he’s only 24 years old at the time. You have Elvis and Jerry about 21-22 years old and Carl was 24, but he was a few months younger than Cash … They’re all kind of new to it, getting their feet wet in the industry,” Harris says.

The jukebox musical features an array of legendary songs, including Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” Presley’s “Hound Dog” and Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.”

“You’ll get hits from each one of these guys, along with some of their earlier gospel tunes … One of the great things about the show is that even if you don’t know the story of it and exactly what happened, you’ll come in knowing these songs. People just love it … They get up and sing and dance and the just know all of them. They hear the first few notes of the song and just go crazy,” Harris says.

But singing such famous songs presents its own set of challenges.

“We really wanted to get that honest 1956 version of that person down pat as best as possible without going caricature or imitation … Most people are used to seeing the ’70s Elvis in Vegas, or most people are used to seeing the ’60s version of Johnny Cash, so that’s been the trick really, is making it as honest as possible to the 1956 version of these guys,” Harris says.

So how did Harris hone his inner Johnny Cash?

“I had heard his music really all my life … Like everyone, I’ve seen the movie ‘Walk the Line’ … So after that movie came out, I really started looking into what his life was really like and his family life, and when I got this role, I did even more research. I started watching interviews with him, watched a ton of live footage to get his style down,” Harris says.

If you thought Harris had big shoes to fill in his portrayal of The Man in Black, co-star Skip Robinson has even bigger shoes to fill in portraying the undisputed King of Rock ‘n Roll — Elvis.

“He’s been doing Elvis stuff for a long while now and has covered a lot of his music … Vocally, it’s just there. You hear the guy sing the first note and it’s wowing. He always get an applause right there. He’s got the hip swivels, he’s got the lip thing going on, he gives the whole image real well,” Harris says.

While Elvis landed a hit with “Blue Suede Shoes,” the song was originally a Carl Perkins tune, making Christopher Wren an all-important piece to the “Million Dollar Quartet” puzzle.

“The guy can play the guitar. He does a fantastic job nailing all those solos. A lot of it is Chuck Berry style, because that was Carl Perkins, a lot of his inspiration. So you’ll see a lot of that Chuck Berry, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ playing style, which is really cool … He’s another huge driving force in the show.”

As for the high-energy, ivory-tickling Jerry Lee Lewis, actor Jason Cohen takes on the most acclaimed role of all, as original cast member Levi Kreis won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

“(Cohen) just is Jerry Lee Lewis in real life. On and off the stage, the guy is just as wild in all the best ways. And that really translates onto stage. That’s one of the biggest things for Jerry Lee Lewis, he’s really the fuel of this show in many ways, and Jason does a very good job with that,” Harris says.

Rounding out the cast are Jackie Goode as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne and Matthew Scott as record label founder Sam Phillips, who also serves as the show’s narrator.

“He does a brilliant job really driving the show and just motoring these scenes along … and really gives a heartfelt performance … Dyanne’s kind of a tricky one, because she was there that night, but she wasn’t really a singer. So that was something that was really added for the show,” Harris says.

From start to finish, it’s a one-of-a-kind chance for audiences to enter a time machine.

“You’re gonna see a true ’50s rock ‘n roll concert and you’re gonna get a feel of what it was like ’cause it’s so different from a concert nowadays. These songs were so simple, yet they were the major influencing factor for rock ‘n roll nowadays. That’s what the audience is gonna see, and that’s what we aim for them to get out of it — to feel like, ‘Wow! We really just saw these guys perform live.'”

‘Million Dollar Quartet’ performs twice on Sunday. Click here for ticket information. Listen to the full chat below:

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