Sunday 23 February 2020

Interview with actor Peter Duncan

Ahead of smash-hit show Million Dollar Quarter's Cheltenham run, SoGlos talks to actor Peter Duncan about theatre, musicals and rock 'n' roll.

Following a sold-out season on the West End, Million Dollar Quartet is set to have Everyman Theatre audiences ‘All Shook Up’ between Monday 2 and Saturday 7 October 2017, and SoGlos gets the lowdown about the show from actor Peter Duncan.

Discussing his role as legendary record producer Sam Phillips, the songs that get audiences dancing in the aisles, and the revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll movement, Peter reveals what to expect from the smash-hit musical.

How’s the tour of Million Dollar Quartet going so far?

It’s good! We’ve just done week in York, then we’re going to East London, and then Cheltenham. I did the show earlier this year for four weeks, and now we’ve got another few weeks on; it’s great!

With music from the likes of Elvis and Johnny Cash, it sounds like audiences can expect a feel-good show!

It is; you’ve got the stories attached to the beginnings of the lives of these massively successful musicians and the rock stars they became.

The play’s set in 1955. My character Sam was trying to get all of the musicians together to get one of them to sign a contract. They got jamming and they just stayed there all day, singing songs – and that’s what became the famous moment of reality, because of what they all became.

You've got the stories attached to the beginnings of the lives of these massively successful musicians and the rock stars they became.

There are such iconic songs in the show; what’s it like to emulate the music of legends like Elvis?

The four actors that play those parts are trying to get the feel behind it, certainly the way they sing the songs and play the instruments is very much in the style of the time.

The guitars and amps are very much like the ones they would have used, so the sound that’s created on stage is very like the originals, both vocally and musically.

But, they’re not like Elvis impersonators; when the actors sing they sound like the originals, but people don’t always know what they speak like; it’s like listening to Bob Dylan on his radio show, this wonderful, lyrical, clever man who’s written all of these wonderful songs, but when he speaks it’s a different feel.

What kind of audiences have you had?

They tend to be people who were around when the musicians were; generally they’re people who were at the height of their youth when Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were knocking out these songs.

It was the beginning of the rock and roll era. People wanted to stop it because they thought it was anarchic and too over-the-top.

Do you find there’s a favourite song during the show?

Not really because the songs are broken up with storytelling. But certainly towards the end of the show you get a concert feel where the story is wrapped up and the audience knows what happened.

We do about 15 or 20 minutes of the biggest hits like ‘Great Ball of Fire’ which is the finale; people generally get up, dance and cheer, and ask us to come back for more!

People generally get up, dance and cheer, and ask us to come back for more!

Can you tell us a little bit about the role of Sam Phillips?

Sam was a guy who began his career in radio, and was a cameraman, working behind the scenes a bit and doing some broadcast. You can imagine, this is the early 1950s and everything was in its infancy.

He’d always wanted to record music as well as just play it, he understood the background of the people and he played a lot of rhythm and blues music. And then he decided with the money he had that he’d build his own studio, which he literally did with his own hands.

He bought an old car part store where they repaired cars and converted it into a studio and then started getting people in to record – obviously on tape in those days! He’d bring in different people and try them out, he’d kind of audition people and see what they sounded like.

In terms of what the story is about, the four stars all had different aspirations; Elvis wanted to be Dean Martin, Johnny Cash just wanted to sing gospel songs, Jerry Lee Lewis was a force unto himself, and Carl Perkins was one of the first guys in the rock and roll movement.

They were all very poor people and were escaping something, they used music as a way of getting out of the difficult world they were in. Rock and roll was a real revolution! It was exciting for the kids in those days, they’d found their rebellion.

It sounds like it was an exciting period for music; was this what drew you to the role and play?

The story part of the narrative is really good, and that’s what is interesting about it; in some ways, the audience don’t expect a story quite as much as they get.

They hear all of these great songs and in some ways it looks like it’s just a gig, but it’s not. It’s a story of how things started; you see Sam try to nurture Elvis and meet the guys for the first time when they come to his studio – and that’s interesting. It just works – people get more than they expect.

So the show isn’t just for people who call themselves as fans of the music, but for everyone?

Well, rock and roll has always been the music that crosses the generations. The kids now still get up and dance to rock and roll songs in its purest form.

Lots of musical genres, such as rhythm and blues, developed from rock and roll, really. I wouldn’t say it’s more sophisticated but the roots are very different. It came from America and influences The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and that whole generation all evolved from this music.

What’s the most important aspect of a musical?

I think people are initially impressed by the fact that everything in the show is live; we have a drummer and a double bass player, so everything you hear is live without any backing singers and so on!

And a live show creates such a good atmosphere…

It’s much more than that – nowadays there’s so much going on that isn’t absolutely live, but the warmth of guitar and drum playing when there isn’t anything else, and there isn’t anything overlapping… it is just real!

You’ve had such a varied career; what is it about theatre that you love?

Well, I started in theatre; my parents were theatrical and did summer seasons and pantomimes so I grew up in that world. I’ve jumped around a lot but it’s like the music – theatre happens in the moment to the people in the room.

Even in this world of high technology, there’s still something about being in a dark room with a bunch of people and it’s genuine – I don’t think that will ever change!

Have you been to Cheltenham before?

Yes I’ve been a few times, I was there will Birdsong a few years ago, which was very contrasting to the role I’m playing now!

And finally, what can audiences expect from Million Dollar Quartet?

Well… they’ll have a good time!

For more information see Million Dollar Quartet, call (01242) 572573, or visit directly.

By Kathryn Purvis

© SoGlos
Thursday 28 September 2017

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