TALKING WITH DIRECTOR ERIC SCHAEFFER
Million Dollar Quartet Original Broadway Cast; Photo: Joan Marcus
Eric Schaeffer is the director of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. He is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Winner of the 2007 Arts Founder Award, six Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Direction, and six Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Musical, Schaeffer wass the 2002 Washingtonian of the Year. He has directed on and off Broadway for National Tours and Regional Theaters at the Kennedy Center and in London and Los Angeles.
EXTRA: What does a director do?
SCHAEFFER: I am the captain of the ship. I work with everyone on the design team from the music department to the sound design. I am involved in casting, and I make decisions every step of the way. I move the actors all around the stage to make it seem natural and tell them what to do and when to do it. I add all the lighting on top of that. Everything. Have to get everyone rowing in the same direction.
EXTRA: You’ve directed many musicals, but what was your background with rock and roll?
SCHAEFFER: None, which is why I wanted to do it. I had never done a jukebox musical before. I was familiar with the songs but not with the back story. It was an exciting challenge to be able to do that.
EXTRA: Were you into rock and roll as a kid?
SCHAEFFER: Not really. Every Saturday night I had to watch the Lawrence Welk show with my grandmother. But I loved music all types of music. I loved Johnny Cash music and the Elvis movies. I was familiar with all those things.
EXTRA: You’ve directed the Chicago, New York and London productions, but now with the tour do you direct each production before it goes up, or do you have an assistant?
SCHAEFFER: I direct each one of them. This is the kind of show where the music is so interwoven into the story that the audience should feel like they are a fly on the wall. The show needs a special care and attention to it. We direct each production and go back and check on them. It is important to keep that heart and soul in the storytelling.
EXTRA: Are you in on casting?
SCHAEFFER: Oh yeah. I do all the casting as well. This is the hardest show I have ever cast. They have to act, play an amazing instrument and sing as well these legendary rock and roll songs. The company we have for the tour come from Los Angeles, Nashville and New York. We really scoured the country to find the best people.
EXTRA: Everyone has to actually play the instrument that their character plays.
SCHAEFFER: In the beginning people thought the actors were faking it and playing to a tape. So we actually had to change the pre-show announcement to say, “these guys are really playing the guitar” so the audience knows this is happening before their eyes.
They are a band. To create that band they all have to work together in a way that is totally different than just doing a normal musical.
One of my favorite moments is when they are all gathered around the piano singing “Peace in the Valley.” It is a cappella [without musical accompaniment] and just a beautiful moment. Jerry Lee Lewis said “we all going to go to hell for playing rock and roll.” And it is interesting because all their roots are from the south and from the church. Jerry Lee started playing in the church. Religion was a huge part of what they dealt with.
EXTRA: Who is your favorite character?
SCHAEFFER: I would say Sam Phillips. You realize what a pioneer he was, how he could take someone and turn him into an amazing performer. He created a sound no one else was creating and he was the only one who knew how to do that. The magic that he created in this little garage was amazing.
EXTRA: They never came together again did they?
SCHAEFFER: No this was the only time. They all went their separate ways. Carl Perkins never got the fame and fortune he deserved, he was always the number two guy. Elvis went out to Hollywood and became a star in Vegas. They all just went on different paths with their own lives. It was an amazing night to think that these four legends were in one room at one time and you knew it was never going to happen again.
EXTRA: What does the audience walk away with?
SCHAEFFER: The audience will have a great time with all this music. But I think people come thinking it’s going to be a great rock and roll concert but what they don’t realize is that there is this great story behind it. The story of how these four guys got together and how they were like a family and the whole artistry behind what they did. It is actually a very touching, moving story and on top of that you get the rock and roll concert that you really want. These guys are one in a million and it’s amazing to see it before your eyes.
Carl Perkins’ son came to the opening on Broadway. He came up to me and said, “my daddy would be really proud of this.”