At the age of 71, “Million Dollar Quartet” playwright Floyd Mutrux is still churning out ideas. His next show, “Boy From New York City,” is focused on the life of record label maven George Goldner. A show featuring the music of Fats Domino is in the works. And a Las Vegas project that will allow him to rotate in his various jukebox musical titles is in the planning stages. “Sometimes,” the loquacious Mutrux allowed in a recent interview, “I have too many ideas.”
Perhaps. But a surprising number of Mutrux’s ideas seem to pan out, albeit with some complexity in the execution.
Currently touring the U.S. — and sitting down in New York, London and Chicago — is “Million Dollar Quartet,” a hit show that devolved into disagreements between Mutrux, who came up with the idea of doing a show about Sun Records and its stable of young stars, and Gigi Pritzker and Ted Rawlins, who eventually produced the show on Broadway. The show has done so well (Asia is next), that everyone seems to have put those disagreements behind them now. “Floyd has a thought a moment,” Pritzker says dryly. “But he really put a lot of meat on the bones of ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ ”
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In September at the Pasadena Playhouse, Mutrux — who began his career in Hollywood back in 1971 as a screenwriter, before moving into directing and producing — will open “Boy From New York City,” another jukebox musical (directed by wife Birgitte), on the life of Goldner, who owned several record labels between the 1940s and the 1970s, and who worked with the likes of the Shangri-Las, the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. “He had a ton of hits and was this great-looking, entrepreneurial guy,” Mutrux says. “And he had a fabulous love affair with a Puerto Rican hat-check girl.”
His current plan is to open an “American Pop Theater” at a Las Vegas casino. “We’re going to have a permanent theater on the Strip doing shows about American pop,” he says. “Million Dollar Quartet” could play there. So could “Boy From New York City.” So, he says, could his 2011 Shirelles show, “Baby It’s You,” even though it did not do well on Broadway. Mutrux dismisses the lousy reception afforded “Baby” (“The show was not ready to open until at least the second week, and “Spider-Man” was getting all the ink,” he says) and is full steam ahead on a potential road company for the title, which celebrates such Shirelles hits as “I Met Him on a Sunday.”
After “Boy From New York,’ the next Mutrux idea is for a show about the Fats Domino tour in 1958, as narrated by Irving Feld, titled “The Fat Man Sang.”
“Imagine the summer of ’58,” Mutrux says. “We’ll tell the story of black and white acts across the south. Fats even went to Little Rock, where the guards stepped aside.”
The use of Feld as a narrator is a key part of the Mutrux strategy. All of these shows share one signature device, in use since he directed the 1978 biopic “American Hot Wax” — taking an underexposed, striving, behind-the-scenes figure in the music business (Florence Greenberg, Feld, Freed, Phillips) and using their struggles to form the book of a jukebox musical. The use of producer figures, who worked with multiple artists, allows the show to contain a lot of popular songs associated with different stars.
As Mutrux sees it, a lot of the iconic rock ‘n’ roll movies — say the Elvis film “Heartbreak Hotel” — don’t make very good musicals. And rights to the life stories of individual artists are often tied up. Moreover, merely stringing together hits is problematic. But if you can hook iconic rock ‘n’ roll songs around the various suits and promoters who found the acts in the first place, then you’re in business. Globally. Exhibit A: “Million Dollar Quartet,” now headed to Asia and equally likely to attract Johnny Cash fans as Elvis types. “I like the stories of the behind-the-scene people that created the music that changed the culture of our country,” Mutrux says. “I want to keep making them.”
You might argue that the genre is finite. Mutrux is hardly the only one in the business: Berry Gordy is bringing his autobiographical “Motown: The Musical” to Broadway next spring. And by the time MTV appeared in the 1980s, the eccentric, entrepreneurial individuals whom Mutrux likes writing about tend to drop out of the story in favor of big corporations.
But Mutrux has a head start and, of course, a lot more stories to tell of the pre-VJ era. “I’ve got at least seven or eight more of these,” he says.
“Floyd has found a way to reinvent himself more than once,” says his agent, Jeff Berg. “He’s gonna have a long run.”