By Brian Robin
Director James Moye On the Night the Legends Descended
Former President Bill Clinton, along with his daughter, Chelsea, and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky were in the Nederlander Theatre audience one night for Million Dollar Quartet. In any other theatre at any other time, the former leader of the free world would have been the center of the celebrity universe.
Instead, for the better part of the evening, the Clintons were relegated to the chorus. Courtesy of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Yes, that Jerry Lee Lewis. The lone surviving member of the “Million Dollar Quartet,” Lewis attended the performance, then jammed with the production’s band after the show. And James Moye, who played Sam Phillips in the Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet, had a front-row seat for this bit of history.
“It was a pretty exciting night of theatre to have him there and performing as a living legend and as someone we were paying tribute to in the show. But he didn’t tell us what he thought of the show,” Moye remembered wistfully. “Jerry Lee is definitely the star of the show and the show highlights him but it highlights some of the less flattering aspects of his personality, so I’d be curious to know what he thought about the show. He seemed to have a good time and he seemed very happy to be there.
“Having the President come back stage with his family was very exciting and it was great to meet all of them. You could tell Chelsea and her husband were ready to go, but President Clinton sat around and talked to everybody. He told stories about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and how much Johnny meant to him growing up in Arkansas and when he was governor of Arkansas. It was quite entertaining.”
When it comes to making Million Dollar Quartet an entertaining night of theatre, Moye is your go-to. The director of Outside SCR’s production of the musical, Moye’s history with the work makes the Virginia native the ideal guide to take you into the Sun Record Studios on Dec. 4, 1956 and introduce you to music history.
Moye’s background with the musical began on Broadway, when he stepped in for Hunter Foster and took the role of music impresario Sam Phillips. He reprised the role off-Broadway, playing Phillips for more than a year, one of the highlights of a career that began at James Madison University when Moye segued from a potential law career to the theatre.
“I was lucky. I went to a public university that had a small theatre program, so I had the opportunity as a non-major to do a lot of things because they had such a small program,” he said. “Had I gone to a conservatory or something like that, it wouldn’t have been as easy. I was able to take what I wanted to and it benefited me greatly in terms of fueling my passion for the arts.”
Eventually, that path took Moye full-circle. He was awarded the 2017 JMU Distinguished Alumni Award for the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Before that, however, it also took him to a casual meeting with good friend and future SCR Artistic Director David Ivers one night in New York. There, Moye told Ivers he wanted to direct.
He’d get his chance in 2016 with the Flat Rock Playhouse production of Million Dollar Quartet outside Asheville, N.C. Moye would direct Million Dollar Quartet at Flat Rock again last spring, that theatre’s first production coming out of the pandemic.
What got Moye that first Flat Rock directing gig was his Million Dollar Quartet bona-fides. That theatre was having problems securing the rights when Artistic Director Lisa Bryant—a friend of Moye’s—reached out seeing if his Sam Phillips Broadway coattails could help.
“I told her I’d be more than happy to, and—oh, by the way—could I interest you in directing it,” Moye said. “She said ‘I didn’t know you were interested.’ I helped them secure the rights and she liked my vision and knowledge of the show. That’s what got the ball rolling for me as a director.”
From there, Moye went to the Marriott Theatre outside Chicago and directed that theatre-in-the-round’s production in the winter of 2019. Playing Elvis Presley in that cast was Rustin Cole Sailors, who reprises that role in SCR’s production.
Moye went back to Virginia in the summer of 2021, helming the Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke’s production, as that theatre came out of the pandemic.
So this is Moye’s fifth time directing Million Dollar Quartet and the first west of Chicago. Sam Phillips plays your guide/narrator in Million Dollar Quartet. And with his background, knowledge and vision of Escott’s and Mutrux’s work, Moye is the ideal guide to take you through a picturesque summer evening of theatre under the stars.
“I’m so grateful to hear from some of the cast members that they were very excited to do this production. They said they wanted to work with me because they’ve heard from other actors who did this show they really enjoyed my production and my take on the show,” Moye said. “They wanted to work with me as a director. It’s always good to know you have people who want to work for you. It’s easier to get the cast where you want them to be as a unit.
“Our Carl Perkins, Armando Gutierrez, is from Orange County. This is his first show at SCR. Rustin Cole Sailors performed in Once. There will be some hometown flavor that people will really appreciate here at SCR. … It’s a thrill to direct here because I know SCR is a wonderful regional theatre with a great reputation. To work at a place like SCR is incredibly meaningful to me because it’s such a wonderful theatre. The support I’ve gotten from staff and the creative team is so impressive. All the folks who are lucky enough to be subscribers or ticket buyers are fortunate enough to have a theatre as wonderful as SCR.”
But one question remains unanswered. So what did Jerry Lee Lewis play that night when he sat in with the band?
“Even though we did ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ during the show, he turned around and did ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire,’” Moye remembered.
See Moye’s entertaining vision for Million Dollar Quartet July 30-Aug. 21 at Mission San Juan Capistrano.