OGUNQUIT — Floyd Mutrux, a filmmaker and director with a 50-year resume in New York and Los Angeles, came east to launch his new musical about Elvis Presley and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll because he was looking for a theater that felt authentic and a business and creative partner equal to his enthusiasm and energy.
He found both in the Ogunquit Playhouse and its executive artistic director, Bradford T. Kenney. The two are teaming up for “Heartbreak Hotel,” which makes its premiere run at the playhouse through Sept. 30. The musical is a prequel to “Million Dollar Quartet,” which Mutrux wrote about the 1956 recording session at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, with Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Heartbreak Hotel” tells Presley’s story leading up to that recording session. Murtux, who wrote and directs the musical, chose Ogunquit for the premiere because he likes Kenney and loves the low-key setting of the historic, 85-year-old theater, which feels 20th century in the best possible way, he said.
“It’s not glamorous,” Mutrux said. “It’s unglamorous in a way you discover that something is untouched. It’s like ‘Paradise Lost.’ It’s like 1953.”
As Mutrux spoke, he sat in a sturdy wooden chair in Kenney’s office, overlooking a shady green garden where theatergoers linger before shows and during intermissions with drinks and conversation. It was this same chair, Kenney said, where Bette Davis reclined when she starred here in the early 1950s, teasing the crowds from an open window as they waited to enter the theater.
Mutrux enjoyed hearing that story because it means that links to the past are tangible and real. Those links and the nostalgia that accompany them are the basis of the success of “Million Dollar Quartet” and, Mutrux expects, will be for “Heartbreak Hotel.”
“Memory Lane is open for business,” he said. “That’s clear. From ‘Mamma Mia!’ to ‘Jersey Boys’ to ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ the audience is there.”
That certainly is true at Ogunquit. Kenney tried to produce “Million Dollar Quartet” when regional rights became available following its opening on Broadway in 2010, but he had to wait until 2015. The wait was worth it. “Million Dollar Quartet” sold 23,384 tickets at Ogunquit in 2015, becoming the most popular musical in the theater’s history. Kenney produced it again in 2016 and set a new record.
It was during that time that he and Mutrux became friends. Kenney appreciated Mutrux’s vision for storytelling and respected his long career in both film and on stage as a director, writer and producer. For his part, Mutrux liked that Kenney shared his enthusiasm for translating America’s musical stories into stage productions, as well as his aesthetic choices. He liked Kenney’s work and his work ethic.
“He’s as close to anyone I have worked with who has extremely good taste – and that’s because he has my taste,” Mutrux said.
“Heartbreak Hotel” follows an 18-month arc, beginning when Presley worked as a truck driver until he became so well known he couldn’t walk alone in New York. It navigates the early years of his career, when he meets record producer Sam Phillips, until “Colonel” Tom Parker changes music history by turning Presley into a movie star. “It’s the drama of the man who discovered Elvis and the man who stole him,” Mutrux said.
The musical includes Presley songs like “That’s All Right,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” as well as the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and others who influenced him. As a subtext, the musical tells the story of America’s shifting culture during that time and the integration of black music into the lives of white people.
The production incorporates video from the 1950s and will feel like a mash-up of rock ‘n’ roll, the movies and Broadway, Kenney said.
The subject is fertile turf for Mutrux. In 1978, he made the movie “American Hot Wax” about pioneer rock DJ Alan Freed. In 2009, he wrote the jukebox musical “Baby It’s You!” about the singing group the Shirelles. “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Million Dollar Quartet” are the latest in his anthology of American Pop musicals.
WHAT: “Heartbreak Hotel”
WHERE: Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St.
WHEN: Through Sept. 30
TICKETS & INFO: $52 to $105; ogunquitplayhouse.org, 646-5511