Elvis May Leave The Building - Laura Hedli Wall Street Journal August 11 2011
Eddie Clendening was taken with the sound and soul of the '50s from a young age. Growing up in Colorado in the 1980s, he began combing his hair into a pompadour when he was in middle school. In 1999, at 16, he started his own rockabilly band, Eddie and the Blue Ribbon Boys, after listening to artists like Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran.
"What I like about it most is that there's no bull—," he said of the '50s rock sound. "There's no effects, no autotune or voice correct. It's just a real, raw American art form."
In 2008, his passion for the roots of rock 'n' roll was tapped in a way he could not have predicted. That fall he moved to Chicago to star as Elvis Presley in "Million Dollar Quartet," the jukebox musical loosely based on the 1956 gathering of rock legends Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis in Memphis. He had virtually no acting experience on his résumé.
Almost 1,500 performances later, Mr. Clendening's role in the show remains the same, though the venue has consistently changed. Last spring, "Million Dollar Quartet" transferred to the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street, where it played 523 times (including previews). Two weeks ago, it reopened 10 blocks north at New World Stages, joining "Avenue Q" and "Rent" as onetime Broadway shows now getting a second life off-Broadway.
The change of scenery comes with a new six-month off-Broadway Equity contract, but this could be Mr. Clendening's final chapter as the King. He does hold the rights to first refusal once his current deal expires, meaning he could stay at New World Stages indefinitely. But, he said, "it's always nice to go out on top. And the top was on the Broadway stage at the Nederlander."
Mr. Clendening, 28 years old, has expressed regret over not being cast in a touring production of "Million Dollar Quartet" that will go on the road in the fall, saying he's always felt most at home when not tied down—he didn't stick with formal music lessons, though he does still perform with the Blue Ribbon Boys.
While the official casting announcement has yet to be released, the show's press representative, Aaron Meier, confirmed that the touring Elvis will also be played by someone with a music background. But he may be an Elvis impersonator—something Mr. Clendening has told producers he has no desire to be. In fact, he was initially against playing Elvis in "Quartet."
"I thought it was something I was going to hate," he said. "It's a musical. It's kind of fruity. I'm a rock 'n' roll singer. I just wanted to be as vocal as possible about trying to make it a bit more true to the spirit that I like about all that stuff, as opposed to the sock-hoppy cartoon that the 1950s has kind of become."
Growing up, teachers sometimes called Mr. Clendening "Fonzie," which only contributed to his distaste for caricatures of that time period. When he became a performer, his resemblance to Elvis led him to worry that he'd be accused of mimicry.
"I don't know if he liked the association with Elvis," said his mother, Marci Gehl. "I don't think it was a horrible thing, but as a young and up-and-coming rockabilly lover, the genre was about so much more than just Elvis." Then there was his distaste for choreographed theatrical performances. Broadway was never a dream for him. But the jukebox nature of "Quartet," which is in part a rock concert, turned out to be a perfect fit for Mr. Clendening, as well as for cast mates Lance Guest (Johnny Cash) and Robert Britton Lyons (Carl Perkins), who were also part of the original Broadway cast.
"What I like is that, I think for the guys, it got less gimmicky," Mr. Clendening said. "They're more comfortable now wearing the skin [of these rock icons]." Performing the same material eight times a week for more than three years helped him grow onstage as an actor as well as a musician.
The change of venue has helped, too. New World Stages seats 360, as compared to 1,214 at the Nederlander, making for a closer relationship between the cast and the audience, getting back to what it was like in Chicago. "I think my performances have been better than they were in a while," Mr. Clendening said. "The potential for things to go wrong is back, and the danger is there again because it's more focused."
On Broadway, Mr. Clendening, accustomed to engaging the crowd during sets with his band, often felt detached while playing for the Nederlander audience. It became only more apparent at the end of the show's Broadway run, when "Quartet" was playing to an average of 45% capacity in its final five weeks.
Mr. Clendening believes the musical is better suited to the space at New World Stages, but even with the transfer, his comfort with the direction of the "Quartet" enterprise—four separate productions will be operating in the fall—has begun to wane. The concerns of the industry, as they did with the man he portrays, are taking a toll. "It's gone from a sort of underdog family project to now being run more like a business than it was before," he said, adding that there are so many people involved that it has come to feel more like a corporation where he clocks in and out. "It just doesn't seem as personal as it used to be."
But with his strong ties to Elvis and his friendships with his cast mates, Mr. Clendening is struggling with how to follow up what is essentially the only role he's ever played. He plans to approach the producers about going on tour with "Quartet," or he may stay in New York. Whatever happens, he won't be so quick to dismiss opportunities, Elvis impersonation included.
"The fact that I've enjoyed this job so much has shown me that it's in my best interest to not immediately judge things," he said. "I'll take it as it comes."
Posted by Eddie Clendening