One Night Only: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis

It’s one of the most iconic images in music history. The black and white photograph of four young artists gathered around a recording studio piano, each knocking at the door of superstardom, but on Dec. 4, 1956, the million-dollar quartet was just four men sharing a love of music.

The Tony award-winning Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet provides a narrative of that singular moment in rock ’n roll told through the songs of the legendary artists Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The story takes place at Sun Studios in Memphis where, recognizing the weight of the moment, studio owner and the “Father of Rock ‘N Roll Sam Phillips recorded the historic jam session. It would be first and only time the rock ‘n’ roll icons would come together.

“At the time, they were just four young guys who just happened to be traversing the same ground,” says Peter Oyloe, who plays Johnny Cash. “They had all the hopes and dreams of what they wanted to become still yet to come. This is where hindsight is so interesting looking back at the breadth of the exposure this photo has taken on.”

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Million Dollar Quartet hits the stage for one night only March 15 at the Times-Union Center for the Arts. The production tells a story of broken promises, secrets, and celebrations featuring such timeless hits as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “Hound Dog.”

Oyloe stars as the young Johnny Cash before he was known as the Man in Black. On that day in 1956, Cash wasn’t yet a legend but a young, hungry gospel singer trying to make a name for himself. He dropped by Sun Studios by to talk to Philips, who attempts to re-sign Cash to a new contract, unaware he has already inked a deal with Columbia Records. As an actor, Oyloe walked the line to deliver an authentic representation of the man without becoming a caricature.

“It’s a sensitive line that actors have to tread. These are legendary people, but they are also human beings with all the idiosyncrasies that humans have,” he says. “There are certain cues, how they move, gesture, the sound of their voice we look at as signposts for how a person manifests themselves into the world.”

“You had very authentic people becoming the crossroads of all these different genres of music.”

The 1950’s was an important time for rock ‘n roll that helped launch the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Times were changing, and the advent of modern rock ‘n roll served as a reflection of those changes.

“It was a point of transition. The roots being developed became this tree of music. You had very authentic people becoming the crossroads of all these different genres of music. They are all right there at the apex. All that comes after you have to call back to them,” says Oyloe. “’I don’t mean to denigrate the people making music today, but I think it would be hard to have such legends again because of how music is made and listened to. It’s a much different game. But we’ll always have these men because of the spectrum of music they inspired.”

Oyloe is an acclaimed composer and folk musician, having composed the scores to the film In Love With A Nun, and the plays Equus (Jeff Nom. – Best Original Music) and Eurydice. His EP entitled “When the Wide World Roars” is available at www.peteroyloe.com. His own musicianship informed his approach to his role as Johnny Cash.

“It made it more accessible, knowing how I might approach writing a song might play into what goes into writing a song,” he says. “Events, feelings, these things become the little threads of things we create. It’s beneficial in understanding the things that go into the making of music. In my performance track, I really like Folsom Prison Blues. It was his first big hit and presenting it to the crowds is such a special moment.”

This isn’t the first time Oyloe has played the role of a music legend. He portrayed Hank Williams in Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Clarence Brown Theatre and Filament Theatre, receiving the Jeff Award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Oyloe also starred as Williams in sold out runs at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, earning the LCT Award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical, and at the Merry Go Round Playhouse in central New York with George Wendt.

Other credits include Paul Clayton in Search: Paul, Juno, Giorgio in, See What I Wanna See, Orpheus in Eurydice, Michael in The Pillowman, Alan Strang in Equus and The Phantom in Phantom. He has appeared in the film In Love With A Nun, a Cannes Selection, and on NBC’s Chicago PD.

For his performance in Million Dollar Quartet, Oyloe studied the physical attributes that helped create the larger than life persona of Johnny Cash. But he also tapped into the man behind the Man in Black, who was quiet, reserved, thoughtful and introspective in his own time.

“That’s the thing that I’m most proud of. If people have seen the show before or they haven’t, our take on it is a little bit different. Hopefully, we focus a bit more on the men as they were then. We’re trying to be very present instead of trying to project who they would become,” says Oyloe. “I hope there is an authenticity in how we present these young, hopeful men who didn’t know the pain they had yet to endure. They are just arriving, not yet knowing the legends they would become but just four men bonding a love of music and sharing the joy of this creation together.”

About Liza Mitchell

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