Robert Britton Lyons Feels Like a Million
Robert Britton Lyons has played the “King of Rockabilly,” Carl Perkins, in Million Dollar Quartet – the popular musical about the famed Sun Records session that brought together Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis — since the show’s first workshop production in Seattle. He has since gone on to play the role in Chicago, on Broadway, in the West End, and, now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, where the show resumed performances on July 28 after closing at the Nederlander Theatre in June. TheaterMania recently spoke with Lyons about his music background, his long run in this musical, and working with Melissa Etheridge.
THEATERMANIA: How has the transfer been from Broadway to New World Stages?
ROBERT BRITTON LYONS: It’s been amazing. I really love how this show plays in the more intimate theaters. This stage is not as deep as the Broadway stage, we lost about five feet, but it’s the same set. And the jokes actually land stronger here at New World Stages.
TM: What did you do during your break between Broadway and New World Stages?
RBL: I traveled around a little. I saw Paul McCartney at Yankee Stadium. I was singing and writing music.
TM: You have taken in this role in every production of this show since 2006. What has this journey been like?
RBL: This was completely unexpected. If you had asked me five years ago about my five year plan, I would have told you that I would be working a day job and trying to form a band. This has been shocking and humbling. I get to play music professionally and act. I had taken drama classes in high school, but this was new to me. This is a dream job.
TM: Had you ever planned to be a professional actor?
RBL: I loved acting. I actually did drama for all four years of high school. I was in productions of Hamlet and West Side Story. It was in junior year of high school that I started to grow my hair out. I was listening to Led Zeppelin and thinking the rock lifestyle is cool and that I could be like Robert Plant. So I completed a year of community college and then dove head first into playing music and working day jobs. I was doing that for 10 years before this came up.
TM: When did your interest in music come about?
RBL: I come from a musical family. My grandma had a piano, along with other instruments. I would grab the bongos. My parents are into music, so I had an early introduction to music. I learned to play the saxophone in the fourth grade. From there, I started playing the harmonica and then about five years later, I learned the guitar.
TM: Other than Robert Plant, who is your musical idol?
RBL: Wow. I have a lot of them, but I am going to say my uncle, Evan Groom. He passed away in 2001. He was the professional musician in the family. He taught and played the guitar. He had a ton of gigs in his town. When he died, I was just beginning to get into the guitar. I would have learned so much from him.
RBL: I was able to approach the role with a little more freedom. People have expectations of who Elvis is. Some people know who Carl is, but for the most part, the others were more famous. Early on, the creators gave me the opportunity to find out who Carl Perkins is, on my own. The audience members who come to see this show and don’t know Carl can leave with an interest in him.
TM: What kind of research did you do on Carl?
RBL: There is a small amount of YouTube footage of Carl during the era, so I reviewed those videos, but the biggest help for me was Chuck Mead, our musical director. He knew Carl, and Chuck is a musician. His passion is the music of this era.
TM: What did you learn about Carl Perkins along the way?
RBL: I learned that he was an incredible generous and gracious man. Carl had his own demons in the form of alcohol. He was an amazing guitar player.
TM: You had the chance to meet Carl Perkins’ son, Stan. What was that experience like?
RBL: I met Stan on opening night. Eric Schaeffer, our director, came up to me before the show and said, “Do you know who is in the audience?” and I thought, probably a lot of people who want to see the show. Eric said, “Stan Perkins is here.” He came to our party and we talked at length. He gave me incredible compliments and is such a nice guy.
TM: On Broadway, the show had a lot of guest stars who came to perform during the encore, including Melissa Etheridge. What was it like to work with her?
RBL: Melissa is incredible. We had our songs worked out prior to the show, and she walked in for a quick rehearsal. It was like any band rehearsal. She wasn’t controlling; she was laid back. And I think she had a blast.