When it comes to entertaining audiences, Floyd Mutrux never lacks for ideas. Chicago audiences became very familiar with one of these ideas, “Million Dollar Quartet,” the jukebox musical featuring the songs of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley that played here to appreciative audiences for nearly eight years.
When: June 30-Sept. 9
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets: $35 – $95
Mutrux is now back in town with “Heartbreak Hotel,” a prequel to “Million Dollar Quartet” that follows the early years of Presley’s career as he and Sam Phillips create the music that will shoot him to iconic status.
“The drama revolves around Sam Phillips and Col. Tom Parker, the guy who found him and the guy who stole him,” Mutrux says, adding, “It’s also the story about how a white singer brought the black man’s music to pop radio. As the saying goes, Elvis took rhythm and blues and married it to rockabilly and they had a baby and named it rock ‘n’ roll.”
Also returning is Eddie Clendening, who originated the role of Presley in the initial Chicago run of “Million Dollar Quartet” and transferred with the show when it moved to New York for its Broadway run.
“I’m starting to stack up some years as Elvis,” Clendening says with a laugh. “He was a weird guy, a little twisted up, and that’s what makes him interesting to me. I see him as a regular Joe who was thrown into some very extraordinary circumstances.”
While Mutrux and Clendening began working on “Heartbreak Hotel” in earnest about four years ago, the show has actually been around a lot longer. After a long career as a writer-director-producer in Hollywood (“American Hot Wax,” “There Goes My Baby”), Mutrux became disillusioned with the direction in which the movie industry was heading (“They weren’t making movies that I was interested in making”). Instead he began developing ideas for his production company American Pop Anthology, where he focuses on telling vintage music stories.
In a rambling conversation on a recent evening, Mutrux explained, “I wanted to create a series of plays about the people who made the music that changed the culture of our country. The first one I wrote was ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ but it was too long. So I cut it in half and did the back half first, which became ‘MDQ.’ ”
Mutrux’s trick with these jukebox musicals is wrapping the story around a producer or record label owner who worked with a multitude of artists, thus expanding the roster of popular songs in a given show.
“Heartbreak Hotel” features hit songs by Presley as well as the legends who influenced his iconic music. The song list includes “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Tutti Frutti,” “That’s All Right,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and, of course, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Among the other familiar performers portrayed in the show are B.B. King, Jackie Wilson, Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and Ike Turner.
(Another of Mutrux’s shows, “Baby It’s You,” the biography of Florence Greenberg, the New Jersey housewife-producer-composer behind the Shirelles, a classic ‘60s girls group, also had a Broadway run in 2011. A film adaptation may be headed to the big screen. Mutrux says he has his fingers crossed that Meryl Streep will star. )
Clendening, a songwriter and touring musician with no acting experience before he was tapped to portray Presley, says the whole experience has been an interesting ride and challenges remain every time he steps on stage.
“The challenge always is to not make the portrayal cartoony,” Clendening says. “To make Elvis a real person, to be Elvisy enough so that people recognize what you are trying to do but not go overboard with it.”
Mutrux hopes “Heartbreak Hotel” will settle in for a long run. He says that Clendening is the real deal and you can’t go wrong with the iconic songs.
“Eddie embodies the spirit of Elvis more than anybody on the planet ever will,” Mutrux says. “He carries the show all the way. Whenever he sings, the audience smiles, they sit back in their seats and think, ‘Elvis is in the building.’ ”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.