Million Dollar Quartet | David Elkins Is Johnny Cash

million sqIt’s probably important to mention that we don’t do “impressions” of these guys; rather, it’s more interpretations.

 

 

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Million Dollar Quartet, the Broadway hit that was nominated for three Tony Awards (and won one) when it opened in 2010, is currently supporting an open-ended run in both Chicago and Las Vegas, and a national tour headed for the Fox Theatre in St. Louis on April 23. It tells the story of one special night at Sun Records in Memphis—December 4, 1956—which found Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash in the studio at the same time. Sun founder and owner Sam Phillips was there, as well, and some of the guys’ jam session was recorded for posterity. The show is the dramatized version of that moment in history. 

I had a chance to talk with David Elkins who plays Johnny Cash. Elkins is a Kansas City native, now based in Los Angeles. He played football, basketball, and track at Pembroke Hill Country Day, and he wasn’t active in music at school. He studied business and international studies at Kansas University, and he took a Master’s degree in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological School in Pasadena. He hasn’t been ordained, but his deep spiritual nature allows him to identify with Cash. In fact, his grandmother grew up in Arkansas, picking cotton, just like Johnny did. He’s a longtime fan of his character—even before liking Cash’s music became “cool.” He did a tribute show called Ring of Fire, and after a performance in Durham, N.C., he was approached by a nephew of Cash’s who touched him deeply by telling him that he didn’t think anyone could do his uncle justice, but that Elkins “nailed it.” This show is his first big tour.

How does your education inform your work on stage?

My religion grounds me, and it’s very important to me. I wanted to explore more of the history and why I believe what I believe; to be with students and professors who are like-minded people, interested in trying to glorify God in their lives and serve others. It was such a blessing, and [Fuller] was a wonderful place to indulge my curiosities and be intellectually challenged. I just love learning, and I hope that translates to everything I do, not just performing, but certainly to that also.

You don’t have any formal theatrical training?

No.

Really? That was what I kept looking for in other interviews you’ve done. That explains why I couldn’t find it. What about formal music training?

No.

You’re killin’ me here! Seriously?

I just come from a very artistic family. My sister is a painter, my brother a sculptor (though he’s not doing that right now), my mom sings in church, and my dad is musical, too. We looked at art as a private expression, and honestly, it never occurred to me as something to do for a career. It was always just a creative expression. Oh, once the tour started, I took a voice lesson.

Um, one?

Yeah, they paid for one lesson—someone to give me breathing techniques and warm-ups, but she just ended up saying, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” I didn’t see her again. I think once we were up on stage, there wasn’t a reason to make it formal.

Well, no one trained Johnny Cash, either.

Right. I saw this show and loved it, and I thought I could play [Johnny Cash] so I signed up for Google Auditions, and went in when I got an alert that they were casting for MDQ. I didn’t have a resume or a headshot—I just went in.

Had you any experience in non-musical plays?

No. I’ve always had an interest in theater and film, and I love to read plays. I like Shakespeare, so I wasn’t completely unprepared for the stage, but formal training and experience? No. I did have to audition several times, and I finally went off to do the tribute show so I could send in some tapes. They’re always casting, I hear, for Chicago, for Vegas, and for the road. Eventually they called me back. It was a surprise.

A lot of actors just fainted!

[Laughs] I did always have a sense that this was something I could do, [but] for whatever reason, the timing was never perfect. Now it is. And I don’t want to minimize Ring of Fire. It was in the Sierra Theatre in Sonoma, California, which is just a beautiful part of the country. I took another open audition for it, and when I was cast, I did also explore the area—camping and rock-climbing—but I was also learning everything about being in a theater. I didn’t know what a call sheet was; I didn’t know how to turn on the microphone. I just learned so much. For example, the choreographer asked me to do something called a “grapevine,” and I had no idea, so I fell back on basketball, and said, “You mean like a fast break” or a “weave”? Big laugh, of course, but that was pretty much right, and after that, they told me how to move using basketball terms. [Laughs]

Well, for a Johnny Cash fan (and I’m one, too), you’re livin’ the dream.

I am. I don’t know what it is about Johnny’s music that just cuts through people. It is so powerful.

Now you’re playing him at 24, and there was so much yet to come, including the whole “Man in Black” persona. He, like you, was a spiritual man with a strong faith, yet he didn’t lead an exemplary life. Any reservations about playing him?

Oh, no. I don’t judge him.

I knew that’s what you’d probably say, but I wanted to get it in.

We’re all there, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s an honor, and I think his core faith comes through in the show, but it also gives hints of the shadows to come. It’s probably important to mention that we don’t do “impressions” of these guys; rather, it’s more interpretations. This is only one night, after all. My grandmother’s stories were about a hard life, and that’s what Johnny had mostly lived up to this point. For example, he wanted to play basketball in high school, but he couldn’t because he had to get home to pick cotton. I felt like I understand the fabric he was cut from because I did know people from that generation and that region, and that made it immediately accessible for me. 

This show is such a wonderful, tightly knit depiction of these guys when they were just starting out. [Author note: Elvis, as 21, was already a huge star; the rest were not.]

I wouldn’t be looking for you to do anything else but Johnny Cash at 24. He did become a man of many contradictions later on, though, and I expect the seeds were there in his younger days.

He really was. He could sing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, then turn to hymns and gospel. There was also a western side to him. He loved western movies, and everything about the Old West, even the gallows. He had songs about unrequited love and hangovers. [“Sunday Morning Coming Down” is about both.] He sang all his songs with equal gusto. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” is one of the most beautiful songs I know. And even in periods of life where he wasn’t doing what he knew was the right thing, he came back around to the faith of his childhood eventually. And when he finally did, he claimed it was what made him whole again. He did the Billy Graham Crusades. He clung to the promises of scripture because they changed his life, and the love of Christ because it anchored him for the rest of his life.

How long have you been out with the show now?

I joined in November, and we’re done May 15, so about five months into a six-month tour.

I usually ask touring artists what they want to do in St. Louis, but you probably already know.

Oh, yeah. I have a buddy who worked at Chaminade [Catholic Preparatory School] for some time, and he’ll be there. And I’ve got about 20 guys from Kansas City coming in, so I’ll leave it up to them. My mom is coming up from where she lives now in Osage, Missouri.

After this commitment ends, do you plan to stay with this show business thing? It seems to be working out pretty well for you?

I plan to maintain my tutoring business, which I love [a job he started before going onstage]. I do a lot of private tutoring for high school kids. I do voiceover work, so commercials, video games, animation, documentaries—whatever it is. I still consult with nonprofits, which I’ve done for a long time, too, regarding marketing, strategic partnerships, and educational initiatives. I will find what opportunities come my way and what opportunities I want to create.

It’s good to have that kind of control, and, as we discussed before, the “real life” you had before gives you more options. It sounds as if you’re planning to keep a foot in both worlds.

I don’t know any other way to do it. | Andrea Braun

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