Harken back to a cold Tuesday afternoon in December 1956, when rock and roll was still just finding its way—and when Southern preachers decried the new genre as sinful and straight from the Devil himself.
Four men got together that day at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, the small label that had launched each of their careers—Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins. With Sun Records owner Sam Phillips in attendance, the four legends reminisced and held an impromptu jam session. When word got out about the gathering, they became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. The foursome never reunited again.
Today, Million Dollar Quartet is a rollicking musical playing in New York, Chicago, and touring the U.S. The production tells the story of that gathering, and is not only a fantastic slice of rock history, but makes for a great evening of terrific live music—including songs made famous by each of the four men, such as "Blue Suede Shoes," "I Walk the Line," "Great Balls of Fire," "Hound Dog," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and many more.
We caught one of the Chicago shows recently, and then sat down to talk with Shaun Whitley, 31, who plays the role of Carl Perkins. An affable young man who ditched his native Alabama accent when his family moved to Chicago, Whitley—who has also been in shows with Chicago's Provision Theater, a Christ-centered production company—talked about Million Dollar Quartet, his character, his upbringing, and his faith. Our conversation ended on an unexpected note. Read on to see why.
Are you guys having as much fun on stage as we did in the audience?
Definitely. Every performance is different. That's one of the coolest things about it. You can say the same words and sing the same songs, but because of the different energy with different audiences, it changes. It's always interesting and new. It never gets boring.
How did you get this role?
My agent got me the audition, and I was so excited, because I'd heard about this show, hoping I'd get a chance to be in it. I had originally auditioned for the Jerry Lee Lewis part in 2008 when it first opened at the Goodman, but didn't get it. But a couple of years later [after the show had moved to the Apollo] the Carl Perkins understudy role came up, and I just poured my heart into it and got the role. And when the lead role opened up in January, I got the part.
What have you learned about Perkins as you've played this role?
One of the main descriptions comes out of the mouth of Johnny Cash, who said that Perkins was the consummate Southern gentlemen. Despite all of his disappointments—especially his lack of notoriety, but the respect amongst his peers was bar none—he never really lost sight of being a good person. He did have his trials with alcohol addiction, so he had his demons there. And once he left Sun Records, his career never really came back, so there's a lot of sadness in his life. So I have to wonder, How I would feel if I had really put my heart and soul into everything to kick off this new genre of music and everybody else got the glory except for me? How would that make me feel? So, I like the Carl Perkins character a lot, but I also feel for him.
What else have you learned about these guys?
They all had a very strong spirituality and connection to their faith, though it was like there was a separation between their music and their faith. I think they always struggled with that dichotomy of doing stuff that people were saying was ungodly and from the Devil, but they were still enjoying gospel music and still believing.