As he wraps up his run in the season-opening production of “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Clarence Brown Theatre, Levi Kreis can’t help but feel as if his character has influenced his career choices moving forward.
As one of the original stars when the production opened on Broadway, Kreis nabbed a Tony Award for his role as Jerry Lee Lewis, aka “The Killer.” The “Great Balls of Fire” singer was one of four early rock ’n’ roll icons present at Sun Records studios on Dec. 4, 1956. A serendipitous turn of events led Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash to the studio that day, and photographs and an impromptu recording session would document the moment for posterity.
“Million Dollar Quartet,” which takes its title from the newspaper caption in the Memphis daily that ran the following day, tells the story of that day, but while the four fictional stars may get marquee billing, it’s the character Kreis plays in the Knoxville production — Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips — that’s made a significant impact on him.
“Sam Phillips has been a lighthouse for me recently to find my way back to what my musical roots are,” Kreis told The Daily Times recently. “I’ve got new music coming out (this month), and another single in November, and then a new album in January — and all of that wouldn’t be happening without diving into Sam’s philosophy. He liked to say, ‘If you ain’t got something different, you ain’t got nothing at all,’ and I’ve thought a lot about that lately.”
In some ways, it’s a full-circle journey for Kreis, who will perform two special concerts, titled “Broadway at the Keys,” on Sunday and Monday evenings at the Clarence Brown. Born to Ronnie and Connie Kreis, he grew up in the East Tennessee community of Oliver Springs, attended Vanderbilt and Belmont universities in Nashville and moved to the West Coast to pursue a career in show business. Roles in films like “Frailty” and “Don’t Let Go” led to a 1997 national tour of “Rent,” and in 2000, his involvement in a scuttled production led to him being recruited for “Million Dollar Quartet.”
He’d been a fan of Lewis since childhood, when he used to do a rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” for family functions, and when the show’s producers discovered he could also play piano, his role was never in question. For a young guy who was on his way up, the cocksure part of one of rock ’n’ roll’s pillars was a perfect fit, he said.
“With Jerry Lee and developing that, I was at a time in my life like Jerry’s character was at age 20,” he said.
“Everything that sort of became the caricature of who he is later on does not exist, and I always believed that he was rather oblivious to what might be considered arrogance by other people. He just kept it very honest, because he just really believes in himself and really believes (stardom) is going to happen.
“In a way, at that time, he’s innocent and wet behind the ears, but he’s certainly sure he can do his job. I wanted to let the audience enjoy that he might be coming off a little too strong and not realizing it. There’s a youthfulness and purity in a 20-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis, and that’s exactly where I was in my own life as an actor at the time. I knew I had it — I just wanted someone to give me a chance to prove it!”
“Million Dollar Quartet” was that chance. After test runs in other markets, it opened on Broadway in April 2010 and was immediately handed three Tony nominations, including one to Kreis for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, which he won.
With his star on the rise, he began releasing albums, performing concerts under his own name and earning placement deals for his songs on the big and small screens. By the time he moved back to East Tennessee a few years ago, he had made an impression — including on a 2005 episode of “The Apprentice,” in which the competing teams were charged with packaging and selling his music to XM Satellite Radio.
Music, he added, was his intended career path early on: In college, he wrote for Christian music labels before leaving Belmont and finding a place for his songs on secular labels on the West Coast. While figuring out his next steps, East Tennessee native and actor Dale Dickey suggested he contact the Clarence Brown. He did, and they told him of developing “Million Dollar Quartet” to launch the 2019-20 season. Looking for an older role, he lobbied for playing Phillips.
“I played Jerry Lee at 20, but that was a while back, and I didn’t know if I would have wanted to put my body through that,” he said. “So I threw out there that I’ve always been in love with the story of Sam Phillips, and I think it would be really interesting and fun for me personally to play the ringleader.”
In preparing for the role, he started digging into Phillips’ philosophy about music, and that, in turn, led to a renewed love affair with his own creative abilities, he added.
“Cut to now, I’ve released seven albums. Because of acting and touring, I’ve stayed on the road,” he said. “My music is licensed with television shows — ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and more — and I’ve built a career as a singer-songwriter. But I fell out of love with it, and when it came time to looking at new singles and a new album, I realized, I’m not going to do music anymore if I can’t find out who I am and how I can fall back in love with this. And while I didn’t know how, I just new that Sam would know.”
“If you ain’t got something different:” That idea began to percolate, and as it did, Kreis began to reflect on his childhood growing up in Oliver Springs. His family, he said, were devout Baptists of a fundamentalist bent. Church was a regular part of weekly, if not daily, life. Songs of praise and worship were the first ones he sang as a public performer, at age 12. And while his sexuality had separated him from a Christian music career, the love for that music was still there.
“This new record borrows a lot from the influences of growing up in churches and listening to gospel music — specifically black churches, and how my influences, from inception, were the great black gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe,” he said. “That’s where Sam came in, because I don’t believe Sam saw color lines. Take Elvis, for example: It was OK if there was a white kid whose environment informed him musically in a way that was different than the other white kids. There was a permission there to be who you were, even if it was different.
“I feel like diving back into that has allowed me to go back and write songs directly drawn from my knowledge of black gospel music and all the records my granddaddy played growing up and all the churches I sang at growing up, as a tow-headed kid at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. It was the first time I stopped writing for TV licenses and started creating it for myself, and Sam helped me get there.”
It’s called “Bad Habit,” and in some ways, it echoes the musical sentiments of the great Ray Charles, who also took music from the Southern church and secularized it. The title track is a nod to surrendering his troubles (one of the most prominent lyrics: “I’m not that strong by myself / that’s why I’m asking you for help”) to a loving, caring Higher Power. It may not be the fire-and-brimstone deity he was taught to fear as a kid, but it’s a God that offers love and acceptance, and for Kreis, that’s a balm for all wounded souls.
The upcoming concerts at the Clarence Brown, however, will be drawn from more familiar material, he added.
“I’m giving them a special show that I toured with two years ago, in conjunction with an album called ‘Broadway at the Keys,’” he said. “I wanted to reimagine some of our most-loved Broadway classics from a singer-songwriter sensibility, because those lyrics really do tell stories. I think so often that Broadway, with the bravado it has, often forgets that you can strip all this down and almost rediscover the lyrics in an entirely different way.
“It’s not just a way to tie in my experience with the Clarence Brown Theatre for the Clarence Brown audience — it’s also an opportunity to weave in a lot of East Tennessee storytelling. It’ a hilarious journey from Oliver Springs to Broadway, and the audiences at those shows are going to hear about it!”