On December 4, 1956, music producer Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records in Memphis, got singers Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins into his studio for a jam session. He recorded the session and played it for visitors for years. It was finally turned into a Broadway musical, The Million Dollar Quartet, in 2010. The smash musical has now pulled Santa in from his sleigh and become The Million Dollar Quartet Christmas. The play opened Friday, November 18 at the Bucks County Playhouse, across the Delaware River from New Jersey in New Hope, Pennsylvania and will run through January 1, 2023.
I saw the original musical the week it opened in New York way back when I, and most of the critics, did not see how a jam session could become a hit musical, but it sure did. Now, with the sounds of the 1950s and some 2022 reindeers, it is one of the big holiday shows in the New Jersey area.
This is to the amazement and not to the amazement of one of its stars, Jason Cohen, who plays the flamboyant Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire).
“Here you are in a musical featuring four of the great singing stars of, well, a hundred years. You have some of the best songs ever. What’s not to like? I think that in the play, like in their careers, the four win you over with their physical movements and personalities as well as their voices and songs. Think of Jerry Lee with that bobbing head of his and those fingers banging away on the piano keys with all his super hits songs. Elvis with, well, anything. You blend all of those guys, and all of that wonderful music, and you’ve got to have a good show,” he said.
He thinks the Christmas theme in this Bucks County Playhouse show is a good idea. “Christmas is just three weeks after the December 4 date of the actual jam session, so a holiday version of the show fit right in. It is not just a Christmas show.”
“We’ve got a little something for everybody,” said Cohen. “The framework of the show remains the same, but we added a lot of holiday songs. People should enjoy it.”
As Jerry Lee Lewis, Cohen claims he is right at home. “Jerry Lee was a singer from Louisiana and I’m a Jew from Jersey. We’re perfect together,” he laughed.
Ironically, Cohen was not a Jerry Lee fan until he was signed for the show. “I knew all about ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ who wouldn’t, but not most of his other music. I knew how flashy he was, but did not understand about his wild appeal to people until the first rehearsal for the show.”
Jerry Lee Lewis died last week (October 28, 2022).
“I was sad, like most Americans, but I, like them, saw his as a very heartwarming. He was from the past, all of our pasts, and, well, put on great shows for people,” said. Cohen. “I, everybody in the music business, will carry the torch for him.”
Cohen was in a past production of the regular show, but never in the holiday show. “All new for me, “ he said.
He loves the role.
“Here I am, what, some sixty years after the date of the jam session. I still feel like I am very much like Lewis. He tried to combine the songs with the flash. I’ve done that in a way, all my life, trying to combining the two,” he said.
He paused. “These guys were real giants of the entertainment business. They have great stories and, in a way, in this musical, we tell them. I mean, they were GIANTS.”
He thought for a moment. “They were all first, too, Elvis and his swinging hips. Lewis and his piano. A pianist rock star? Whoever heard of such a thing. He was. Elvis had his hips going like they were their own machines. Ahh, that was brand new back in the ‘50s. Today we see it as perfectly normal, but today’s people are copying these guys. The show is not just a tribute to them as singers, but as musical pioneers,” said Cohen.
Cohen has a busy winter. He is working on a Jerry lee Lewis show right now in Asbury Park (rehearsals) and will star in several other musicals over the next few months. He will continue to star in the Million Dollar Quartet shows throughout the winter.
He likes to reminisce about the show. “It has been around, in some city, just about all the time since it opened in New York. I’ve becomes friends with many of the actors in the show, and at least gotten to know who all of them are. We are so many starring in the show in so many places that we call ourselves ‘the Million Dollar Quartet Mafia. We are growing in numbers, too.”
He also wonders about the fans – all of them.
“We have older fans who were contemporaries of these guys, but we also has a huge number of fans who are in their teens and twenties today who know all of their music,” he said with a bit of amazement.
You could say, honestly, that the two songs they all know, really, are the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire.”
The musical is at the Bucks County Playhouse (70 S. Main Street in New Hope, PA) through January 1, 2023. Tickets are available for purchase online.
PHOTOS BY Joan Marcus