Broadway Honky Tonk
Former Lawrencian and BR549 frontman Chuck Mead hits Broadway with 'Million Dollar Quartet'
There aren’t many people who can be considered in the same league as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. But Chuck Mead is frequently spoken of in the same breath as those titans of American music – sort of.
Mead, Lawrence’s former honky tonker-about-town, best-known as the frontman of Grammy-nominated country rock band BR549, is one of the creative forces behind the Broadway musical about those icons, “Million Dollar Quartet.” The show offers a fictionalized account of the legendary night when Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis all met in 1956 at Memphis’ Sun Studios for a jam session. Mead got tapped to bring his considerable rockabilly expertise to bear in recreating these raucous recordings for a live audience.
“I’ve always known that music since I was a kid playing in my folks’ country band,” says Mead from his current home in Nashville.
“I sang Carl Perkins and Elvis tunes with them, so I was really familiar with it. When I moved down here to Nashville, I got to know Carl Perkins. I also got to know W.S. Holland, who was the drummer for Carl Perkins and later on the drummer for Johnny Cash for years and years. I got to be friends with all these guys because of my band BR549, and that’s how I got the call from Colin Escott, who’s the author of the play. He called me up out of the blue about five years ago and said, ‘Would you be interested in being the musical director for a Broadway musical?’ I was like, ‘A Broadway musical? About what?'”
Once he got over the initial shock, Mead signed on to provide musical arrangements and supervision for recreating the music of these rock pioneers. “Chuck was the perfect music director for ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ because he kept the music real,” says the show’s director, Eric Schaeffer. “The music never became slick because Chuck kept it all real – that’s the heart of the piece.”
The show began modestly, premiering in 2006 at a small theater in Daytona Beach, Fla. It had a stint in Seattle, then graduated to Chicago, where it’s still running today. But that was just the opening act for this rock show masquerading as a musical. “Million Dollar Quartet” opened April 11 at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater and has already garnered quite a few accolades. The New York Times calls it a “blast of explosive vitality,” and it’s received three Drama League Nominations, including Best Musical. All of this despite, or more than likely because of, the show’s break with Broadway conventions.
“Ironically, it’s pretty un-Broadway,” Mead says. “They wanted it to be real rockabilly. So we went in there and really played it like the records. We didn’t do bar band versions, and nobody stuck their thumbs in their pockets and started singing ‘Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City’ (from “Oklahoma!”). Usually, when they do country music on Broadway, that’s what it’s relegated to. But our little hillbilly play is really enjoyable. You’re out of there in an hour and 40 minutes and then in the bar next-door drinking. It’s great.”
That untraditional approach to musical theater on the Great White Way was precisely what the producers were seeking.
“I didn’t know Chuck’s band, but upon meeting him, I instantly respected his insights and talents,” Schaeffer says. “We made a great team because we came from opposite directions but met in the middle to create a very entertaining theatrical event. The show has made me a huge fan of rockabilly music and the amazing artists who write and record it.”
Being the toast of Manhattan’s theatrical world is the last thing Mead, a self-described “crotchety old hillbilly,” ever expected.
“I had no idea I’d be on Broadway, but it’s a wonderful experience and I hope I get to do it again. And I hope I get to do another show like this,” Mead says. “I know record producing, and that’s basically what I did, only with live guys every night.”
While he may have never anticipated this, perhaps a man from his childhood in Lawrence named Millard Denny foresaw Mead’s future career in the theater.
“Mr. Denny was my high school theater instructor at Lawrence High,” Mead recalls. “I had only tried out for a play one time in high school, and he cast me as the lead guy in ‘Paint Your Wagon.’ He … had an enormous amount of confidence in me, so I did it, but I never did another theater production until now. So yeah, it’s a tremendous experience and I just hope that Millard Denny is looking down and saying, ‘Hey, good job!'”