Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2012

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Elvis? Maybe. But Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnnie Cash… Who are they?

“Young Japanese have likely heard of Elvis Presley, but the rest are mostly unknown here,” says Tokyu Corporation’s Yukiko Wada of this all-American trio of stars, who are depicted along with Presley in the musical Million Dollar Quartet.

Tokyu chose the musical as the second to reach its striking new Orb Theater, which opened last month inside the glitzy Hikarie retail palace in Shibuya. The firm gave Metropolis the chance to tour the Orb and meet Tony-nominated sound designer Kai Harada ahead of the theater’s opening last month.

On December 4, 1956 the four rock ‘n’ roll giants Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Presley gathered by chance at Sun Records in Memphis for what would be their only jam session together. Million Dollar Quartet is the latest “jukebox musical” to arrive in Japan and depicts the legendary meeting by way of four actor-musicians performing songs like “Blue Suede Shoes.”

“It’s important that young people understand where it all came from,” explains Harada about the show. “There is one song, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” in which Jerry Lee Lewis starts on piano, then Carl joins in with his version on guitar that’s a bit more rockabilly, and then Elvis takes it further. You see in just five minutes how rock ‘n’ roll developed.”

“Young Japanese listen to the Beatles who were influenced by Perkins, or Japanese bands that were influenced by the Beatles,” continues Tokyu’s Wada. “Perkins’ and the others’ influences have been carried down to the present, so I think people will relate to it musically. We hope Million Dollar Quartet will introduce the type of young Japanese who shop at Shibuya 109 to Perkins, Cash and Lewis.”

The son of a Japanese cellist who went to New York classical music school Julliard and ended up working in Nashville with Presley and Cash, Hirada says it’s vital for young people to get a change from a diet of heavily processed pop music.

“These days music is so mechanical, that to feel the raw energy coming from the stage is very important,” he says. “With Million Dollar Quartet, my goal was to make it sound as pure as possible.”

Written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, the show debuted on Broadway in 2010 and ran for more than a year before heading to London’s West End. Considering the pricy Shibuya location, Tokyu has managed to keep tickets remarkably cheap—even less than it costs to see a typical musical on Broadway.

Wada says Orb was purpose built for musicals with an aim to draw a younger and less moneyed clientele than that which patronizes its nearby Bunkamura Orchard Hall. “Tokyu already has Orchard Hall which is a classical-oriented venue,” she says, “so we decided to create a musical theater for Hikarie.”

The remarkable, spherical design of the theater—it seems to float inside the vast, 100-billion yen Hikarie box—was inspired by the previous building to occupy the site. “The original structure had a planetarium,” Wada says. “But then a new planetarium was built elsewhere in Shibuya, so we decided to go in a different direction. Still, memories of the old planetarium loomed large.”

  • Tokyu Theatre Orb, Sep 5-17 (listing)
  • Next up for Orb: Beatles-based jukebox musical Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway comes to the theater in November