Million Dollar Quartet is a show about musical legends. Based on the true story of one night in Memphis when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash found themselves in an impromptu jam session, the one-act musical is really a play with music as the characters navigate their way through their biggest hits and their simmering personal resentments. In a story about legends, Outstanding Performance in a Musical nominee Tyler Check stood out for the charming relatability of his Carl Perkins in the Drayton/Mirvish production. By focusing on the details of his musical style and the honesty of his emotional journey, Tyler made the least famous man in the band the star of the show.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first one, for sure. I was around [theatre] for a long time growing up, but the thing that was a defining moment of “Now this is an interest” is when I saw Phantom, when it was [in Toronto] the first time. I remember there was just something about that show, and the grandness of it. I remember after “Music of the Night” where they wake up, and he’s still singing. I was like, “They’ve just been going hard for 25 minutes”, and I was just rooting for the characters, but then you’re also like, “Someone’s doing that. Someone’s onstage belting that out.” That was kind of the melding of the skill versus getting lost in the moment.
“Think of Me” straight to the end of Act One is pretty perfect.
Yeah, exactly! It’s like sport, almost, but it’s through an artistic thing. I love all those mega musical shows. I think they’re wonderful. And it’s all about what you want out of your part, I guess.
What age did you start playing guitar and singing?
I started playing guitar in Grade 5, so I guess that would be 11. I took lessons for probably two years, and just started developing it on my own. I really started playing when I was at Sheridan, because that’s when I started picking up a bunch of other instruments, and teachers were like, “Hey, this is gonna be important in a few years, so learn as many instruments as you can.”
Singing, I was a little later to. That wasn’t until probably about Grade 10, when I started doing musicals. I was more into sports, and then got into them a little bit. We did West Side Story, and I started singing for that. My parents hadn’t heard me sing until they saw me onstage.
So you’re not a shower singer, or a dish-doing singer?
I wasn’t, no. It was always, like, “Someone’s starting to sing. Everyone turn and listen or be quiet.” As opposed to now, where you sing because it’s just like talking.
Were you a Carl Perkins fan?
A little bit, as a guitarist. I liked the people that liked Carl Perkins inspired. The Beatles were hugely influenced by him. They’re quoted saying that if there was no Carl Perkins, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles – that kind of thing. Especially because he was a big supporter of the Les Paul guitar, his style of guitar that he played. I’ve always loved that, [and] people like Slash and other guitarists that I really look to got their influence from him. So that’s what I knew of him, but I didn’t really dive into it, obviously, until this show.
How did you get involved with Million Dollar Quartet?
I had auditioned for a couple of them, because it happened everywhere this past year. This was the year of Million Dollar. I had auditioned for a couple as Elvis but that never really felt right, and then I did an audition for Marathon of Hope, for Drayton Entertainment. And at that audition, I had my guitar, and I played a song – because it was like, “Do you play any 50’s-style rock?” So from my Marathon of Hope audition, I got involved in Million Dollar Quartet. Then after that, I just sent in a self-tape of electric guitar. That was that.
What sort of research and practice went into doing the mimicry of the real-life legend?
Carl’s still, of the four people, probably known the least. So the cool thing was really paying homage to him in little moments, but really more exploring what he meant as an idea. Elvis, people knew the hips, and [Johnny Cash], people know the voice and certain mannerisms. There weren’t a lot of huge mannerisms for Carl. It was more, “How do I feel when I watch him?” and then trying to present those same kind of emotions onstage. Because the thing about him that’s not heartbreaking but a little bit sad is that he was such a skilled musician, but he didn’t have that it factor. Elvis was a star from the first moment he went onstage, but Carl didn’t have that. So it was more with the music that I tried to really be like, “Okay, that’s a Carl Perkins riff”, or “what’s something that I can give a shoutout to for any of those musicians in the audience?” It was cool to almost have more of a personal bond with specific people, as opposed to bigger audiences.
Because he’s not as well-known and has some of the more emotional storylines, did you feel like you were more playing the person than the legend?
Yeah, I think so. He’s kind of a common man – an every man in that scenario, because you’ve got these big names, and you also don’t really like Carl at the top. He comes in and he’s kind of mean, and he’s being mean to Jerry Lee, who everyone loves right away because he’s such a crazy character. But I just tried to keep it real, and keep it human, and realize that I think that’s something we can all relate to- wanting something so bad, but maybe just realizing that it’s not right, or wasn’t the path that you thought you were going to be on.
It’s a small cast for a musical. Tell us a little bit about working with those guys.
Oh, it was amazing. Very rarely do you get to do a show with the same group of people for 250 shows. To also go through different venues was so incredible, because a lot of the time in theatre, you know this person, and you can have a really strong connection with someone, but it’s almost in one spot. Like if you do a show with someone in Calgary, you only know that person in Calgary, whereas the fact that we got to do it in Calgary, and then in Toronto, and then at all the Drayton theatres – we just learnt so much more about each other, especially with it being such a tight cast and a really kind of evenly distributed show, as far as what everyone’s doing. Everyone has to bring their own stuff to it.
Also, the fact that we’re all playing onstage. It was awesome to just have that “I got your back, you got my back if something ever goes down”. We’re the musicians, and we’re the actors, so it’s really up to us. Once those lights go down, we make the show happen every time together, and we need every person to be doing their job. It was really cool.
Did the show ever change or evolve between remounts?
100%. With it being a show about that group of friends, those people that were together in the music, our director Alex Mustakas was really amazing about always keeping the integrity of the story we were trying to tell. As we got tighter as a band, and as stuff started to grow, there became more moments of us looking up, where we weren’t focused on our hands, or whatever it might be that allowed for growth that was natural. Like bands would do in any situation. So those little moments got to grow a lot.
What [the show was like] after Calgary- 80 performances- to by the end of [the Toronto run], was vastly different. All with the same intention, though. But you can refine all those tiny, tiny little moments. This is just the way I like working, but discovering moments and then always keeping them flowing in the sense that I could pretty much explain to you, from the curtain up to curtain down, everything I was doing at every second, because it just became that well of an oiled machine.
In terms of those moments when you’re not the focus, where maybe Elvis is downstage doing something, what were some of the little details that you put in that we might have missed?
For example, there were tunes when Elvis first showed up. Clearly Carl’s not super pumped to see him there, so at the end of something like “That’s All Right”, when everyone’s having a good time and Elvis is done his first number, there’s a look specifically between me and Sam, when Sam’s like “look, Elvis!” And I’m giving him a look like, “This wasn’t cool. This was my time”.
Same where Johnny’s doing a bass-y song. Elvis and I could be joking around about, like, [deep voice] “Oh, his voice is so deep”, or little things like that that you know would happen with those guys in a recording studio. I think it was always that fine line, because there was that respect with that group of people. We always knew when it was at the place – “This is helping to tell a more well-rounded story,” or “Okay, now this is taking away focus from the person whose moment it is to shine.” So we were all able to toe that line really well, of “This is an interesting moment, but maybe it’s too big for this moment, where it’s supposed to be about Elvis”, or something like that.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yeah. There was this one medley when Johnny Cash’s “Sixteen Tons” transitions into my character doing “My Babe”, and within that, there’s also a moment where Elvis had a section, and Jerry Lee’s doing this awesome piano thing. And it’s really the first moment where it’s the four guys all coming together to do something. Because “My Babe”, the tune that Carl does, isn’t a song that’s really well-known by him. So it’s really the first time that the four of them are all coming together to do something that’s uniquely the four of them. It’s not, like, “let’s all play ‘Hound Dog'”, or let’s all play ‘Folsom Prison [Blues]'”, or “let’s all play a Jerry Lee tune”. It’s everyone doing something that’s not any of theirs. There was always a switch. It felt like in that moment in the show, everyone’s like, “Okay, the introductions are done, and now we’re going”.
You do a podcast called Let’s Grab Coffee about Canadian theatre. Who have been some of your favourite interviewees so far?
It’s been really cool going back. Both Michael Rubinoff, at Sheridan College, and Mitchell Marcus with Musical Stage Company have been really incredible, because I have so much respect for what both of them are doing for theatre in Canada at the moment. I’ve been able to have both of them on twice, a year apart each time. Those have been really nice benchmarks for me, because as I’ve grown involved in the industry, the podcast has grown a lot, too. Both times I’ve finished the second interviews, it’s like, “All right, we’ll see you in a year”. Like, “let’s sit down and do this again”. They’ve been really cool.
I did a really awesome interview with R.H. Thomson. That was one of my first interviews with someone of that generation of performer, but also a little bit more outside the musical theatre world. We had a very interesting conversation, and it was where I first started to realize that I wanted the podcast to be discussions, as opposed to interviews. So it was the switch from, “I’m going to ask you a question, you answer my question,” to “Let’s bring up a topic and discuss,” because he was the first one to turn around and be like, “Well, what do you think? I’m going to turn this on you.” And that feeling just completely changed how I saw that podcast.
You also write musicals. What are you working on right now?
Currently, one of my writing partners Tristan Hernandez and I are working on a musical that we started back at Sheridan, thanks to a class that Michael Rubinoff and Robbie Gontier at Sheridan started, where you wrote these 15-minute musicals. And we wrote one.
It was kind of based on the experiences I had working at summer camps in high school for kids with special needs. So we wrote a show called Liam: The Musical, about an 18-year-old boy with non-verbal autism, and how he discovers that he can type, and his story through that. We’ve gone through a couple drafts of that, and we’re heading down to New York to workshop that in the summer. So we’re getting some orchestrations in order for that, because that’s gonna be our first time doing that with more than just piano. It’s gonna be a fuller band, with some horns. To hear the music flushed out will be really cool for that.
This will be our second year working for Suitcase Theatre. We write these hour-long theatre for young audiences shows, that I tour through schools in the GTA. So we did one last year about the Canada 150, and we’re working on one this year about cyberbullying. Social media stuff. So that’ll be interesting.
What else are you working on now, or what’s your next project?
Next for me, it’s the writing thing. I’m taking some time doing that, and then this summer, a country revue show with Drayton Entertainment called Kings & Queens of Country. So we’re doing that at the Drayton venue, the Grand Bend venue, and then their Penetang venue King’s Wharf. So that’s touring around through some of the summer.
Are you playing a specific country artist?
Kind of. This one’s a little bit more of paying tribute to, and with subtle things, like we all start with “Folsom Prison”, so we all start in our Johnny Cash blacks, and we do that kind of stuff. But I also do Glen Campbell in that one, and there’s some John Denver, and lots of wonderful musicians. Kenny Rogers. There’s Willie Nelson in the show. It’s all the great country hits. Again, like we were talking about before with mannerisms and things you can throw in, for superfans, they’re gonna be like, “Oh, I see what you did there”. But everyone can really just come enjoy the music. That was what my dad said when he saw it, because he’s not a country music fan at all, and he’s just like, “I don’t like country, but I liked that country. That was okay.” [laughs].
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for this. This was great. After doing the show and hearing about this, was my first time really seeing My Entertainment World and everything. I think it’s amazing what you guys are doing, in the same way that I try to bring awareness with my podcast. I love that you guys are getting these interviews and getting these human side things of the people that you meet with in so many different disciplines, too, which I think is incredible to see on the Interview Series and all the different awards. It’s very cool. It’s bringing the whole community together, so thank you for that.