Even after he got a phone call that would land him on Broadway, Billy Woodward wasn’t quite sure how his next gig was going to turn out.
“I went to see the show in New York, and I was a little bit apprehensive,” said Woodward, remembering the first time he saw “Million Dollar Quartet,” the jukebox musical written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott.
“I was worried I wasn’t going to like it. I thought it might be a little cheesy, but when I finally saw the show I was blown away. I said to myself, ‘I’d love to be a part of that.’ ”
Woodward got his wish. After serving as the understudy to Eddie Clendenning in the role of Elvis Presley on Broadway, he is now one of the four leads in the national touring production. The show dramatizes the recording session put together by producer Sam Phillips in December of 1956. Along with Presley, the other musicians are Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Million Dollar Quartet” opened on Broadway in April of 2010 and closed in June of 2011, earning three Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.
‘Million Dollar Quartet’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $70-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
Plenty of chances
Woodward got plenty of opportunity to perform as Presley on stage, giving him the rare distinction of having his first-ever theatrical performance actually come on Broadway.
“I had never done any acting professionally, and in college I was in the background of a few student films, but that was it,” he said. “Certainly never any stage work. After about a month of being an understudy, I got the word about 40 minutes before show time on a Saturday night that I was going on. They whisked me away backstage, we ran through a few things while they were doing costume and my hair, and then I was on stage. It was like an out-of-body experience. I wish I could revisit that feeling. It was incredible.”
With the help of director Eric Schaeffer and stage manager Robert Witherow, Woodward made it through his first show in pretty good shape.
“They were both incredibly helpful to me,” he said. “They coached me and told me how to tap into places I needed to be for certain things to happen. Acting is such an incredible craft, but I think it came a little bit naturally for me. It’s been something I was thinking about since I was a kid.”
Woodward’s turn as Elvis wasn’t his first time impersonating “The King,” and it wasn’t his first time performing on stage either. He has owned the spotlight many times as the lead member of Billy Woodward and the Senders, a popular R&B/rock ’n’ roll band in the Baltimore and Washington area. And for the fun of it, he decided to participate in the 2010 Night of 100 Elvises at Baltimore’s Lithuanian Hall.
“I had never done any kind of Elvis tribute, but it was easy for me to tune into that old-school rock ’n’ roll thing,” he said. “I thought it would be fun. My father was a huge Elvis fan and I grew up listening to his music.”
As it happened, a representative from Relevant Theatricals, the company producing “Million Dollar Quartet” on Broadway, showed up and saw Woodward do his Elvis act.
“The one rule the Night of 100 Elvises has is that once you go through that door that night, the only songs you do are Elvis songs,” said Woodward. “We just went out there to have fun, and then the next week I got an email. I called my girlfriend and told her, ‘You’re not going to believe this. That Broadway show wants me to be Elvis.’ ”
Just a week earlier before the Night of 100 Elvises, Woodward had made another important decision, deciding to leave his job at an animation studio in D.C.
“I had become art director, and had worked on stuff for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic,” he said. “But at the same time, I never gave up my music and our band started doing really well and was getting bigger and bigger shows. I kind of came to this fork in the road and had to decide. Do I want to sit behind a computer all day or focus on my music?”
Woodward, who grew up in Calvert County in southern Maryland, chose music, and no one would argue with the decision now.
“I got a guitar when I was 12, but really didn’t start playing until I was 17,” he said. “I really got the bug for it and I realized it wasn’t going to happen automatically. You had to learn, so I ended up teaching myself how to play.”
Woodward, who just turned 30, got a degree in media arts and animation from the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Whether he ever uses it again only the future will tell.
“At this point, I’m just kind of riding this roller coaster of life and seeing where it takes me,” he said. “I just had a nice reunion with the band and it was great to go and play in some of the clubs we used to in the D.C. area. We’re going to do something in the future, so I’m definitely not done playing with the Senders. But I’m also on this tour through May, and then I’ll probably head back to New York and see what other work I can find.”
Expected to appear on stage in the Proctors’ production along with Woodward are Benjamin Goddard as Lewis, David Elkins as Cash, James Barry as Perkins and Vince Nappo as Phillips, the man who brought them all to the Sun Record studios that day in 1956 in Memphis. While there’s plenty of great music, the story also merited a Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical.
“There’s a very good story line to guide you along while at the same time filling out the show with the great hits from that era,” said Woodward. “It all takes place on that one night, December 4th in 1956, and takes you through the relationship between those four guys and Sam Phillips. There were a lot of bigger labels courting those guys, so it’s a pretty interesting story.”
During his time in the Broadway production, he also served as an understudy for the Johnny Cash role but never got to perform as the “Man in Black.”
“Something would have had to happen to two guys for me to go on, and it did almost happen once,” he said. “I considered myself ‘emergency Cash.’ I felt like I was ready, but I never had to do it.”
Steeped in Presley
While he was always an Elvis fan, since joining the cast of “Million Dollar Quartet,” Woodward has become something of an expert on the rock ’n’ roll legend.
“I’ve watched DVDs of every time he was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and with YouTube these days you get plenty of opportunity to see him,” he said. “I watched him on ‘The Milton Berle Show,’ ‘The Steve Allen Show.’ I’ve revisited all his old movies.”
His favorite Elvis movie?
“Easy,” said Woodward. “ ‘King Creole.’ It was originally going to be for James Dean, and it was going to be a boxing flick. They reworked it for Elvis, added some songs, but also wanted to show he could be a serious actor. It wasn’t just a vehicle for his records. But the sound track was phenomenal, and I’ve always adored the movie. It was before they hit the formulaic spin of ‘Blue Hawaii’ and some of his later movies.”