Million Dollar Quartet is the new smash-hit musical inspired by the famed 1956 recording session that brought together rock ‘n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for the first and only time. We spoke to Scott Moreau, who plays Johnny Cash, about his experience in playing such an iconic character.
Q: Tell me about how you landed the role of Johnny Cash.
A: I auditioned for the show in late 2011 while it was still on Broadway. I am a huge Johnny Cash fan. So when I saw the casting notice, I got on a train from Pennsylvania and went to New York City with my guitar to audition. After the first audition, I didn’t know if anything was going to come out of it. But they called me back a couple of weeks later, asking me to come in again and I did. I took four subsequent trips after that and I ended up getting the job.
In the first two years of the North American tour, I was the understudy for Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips. I didn’t take over the role of Johnny Cash until last year.
Q: How has the experience been?
A: It has been a dream to play someone whose music and life story I have admired for so long. For me, not only do I get to play this role which is a dream come true, but we get to uplift a lot of people and bring them back to a happier, simpler time that they really want to reminisce and remember.
Q: What has been challenging for you in playing such an iconic role?
A: It’s vocally challenging. I’m not a bass – I’m a baritone with a lower voice range. It’s challenging to put that timbre on my voice and be able to sing all the lower notes in the show. Of course, now it’s a little bit easier because of muscle memory and I’m used to it.
The other challenging thing is we’re fighting against 50 years of history. The show takes place in 1956 and Cash is the oldest of the four at the time at 24 years old. I don’t think anyone has a clear idea of what Johnny Cash was like at 24. When they think about him, they remember all the things that he gave us before he passed away and all his later works. Similarly with Elvis, people remember him in a white jumpsuit and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The challenge is to illustrate to the audience that these guys were kids at the time and they had barely started in their careers.
Q: How has playing Johnny Cash influenced you in your life?
A: I had the opportunity to meet a lot of important and interesting people that had come to see the show, such as members of the Cash family, or family and friends of the family. It was very intimidating, yet very heartwarming. It’s intimidating because they were around him all the time and they know what he was like and they know what he sounded like. So they are going to be a little critical if they don’t see what they like or hear what they want to hear and that can be a little nerve racking.
Once I met them and knew that they were pleased and that they liked the way I’m portraying someone that they held dear, it gave me validation. The feeling that I’m doing justice to him is the best feeling I can have.
Q: What’s your favourite part of the musical?
A: I would say “Walk The Line”. It’s a very personal song for me and it was a personal song for Cash. It’s a challenge to sing it and play it every night, but it’s also an honour to do so.
Q: What can we expect to see at the show?
A: Quite a few things. One of the coolest parts of the show is that you not only see what these guys were like at the time in 1956, but we also have a series of flashbacks to show you what it was like the first time they walked in to the studio. The first time they enter the studio, they were just kids begging Sam to listen to them and their music and to just wanting him to record them.
We also get a little bit of education – the one member of the quartet that people do not know as well is Carl Perkins. That’s unfortunate because he is one of the more influential musicians out there. He heavily influenced The Beatles and Eric Clapton to the point where Paul McCartney said “if there was no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles”. By telling Carl’s story in this show, we’re letting you in some of this inner drama, like the fact that he and Elvis butted heads quite a bit. He was not pleased when Elvis recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” because it was a hit track, and Carl was trying to make a name for himself.
Though the show only takes place in one day, the action on stage obviously can’t just do that. There’s been some dramatic license taken in the musical and you’ll see eighteen months of history told within one night. For Cash, you’ll see that he is making the hard decision to leave Sun and spread his wings at Columbia Records. What you’ll see at the show is him having to tell Sam Phillips he’s leaving.
But what people are going to see above all else is a tribute to these guys and a reverent way of playing all their music. We’re not playing to some track and we don’t have an orchestra. We are the band that’s up there. Also, once you think the show is over, it’s not. We have four more songs as an encore and that’s much more like a concert setting. We encourage people to get up on their feet and clap and dance.
See Scott Moreau and all the other amazing cast members of Million Dollar Quartet perform on February 10 and 11 at The Centre.