Give It Up for Elvis!

As The King gives it up in a new Off Broadway play

Poster for The King: The Final Hours

Forget that old adage that suggests Elvis has left the building. In fact, Elvis is busier than ever. Rumor has it that Elvis has sold more records since his death just over 40 years ago than he did while alive. It’s not surprising actually; Michael Jackson will likely claim the same distinction as far as posthumous honors go in the years to come.

It’s a strange thing, this fascination with departed icons and the cult of devotion that springs up around them. In Elvis’ case, it has a lot to do with the timeless quality of the music. Lately in fact, there’s been a flood of new releases tied to the Elvis brand — A Boy From Tupelo, which documents his early performances from 1953 – 55, The Searcher, a soundtrack to the HBO documentary offering several dozen seminal songs and a full disc of tracks influenced by The King, and, most recently, Where No One Stands Alone, a collection of gospel songs that recently gave Elvis his first album to scale the gospel charts and land at number one.

The latter is especially significant in other ways as well. It features newly-recorded backing tracks as well as a duet with his daughter Lisa Marie on the title song, reconfigured in the studio in the same way that allowed Natalie Cole to be reunited with her dad Nat, and Nancy Sinatra to sing alongside Frank.

That said, what may be of most interest to the rabid Elvi out there is a new off-Broadway musical, The King: The Final Hours, which imagines what was going through Elvis’ head in the hours before his death on that fateful and fatal August morning in 1977, when he sat for the final time on his throne — in this case, his toilet — and made his final exit, at least as far as his mortal coil was concerned.

Written by publicist and budding playwright Mark Macias, the play is touted as “a historical and artistic look at the personal struggles Elvis faced throughout his life,” as told through imagined conversations he might have had with God and the people he loved the most. The producers make a point of saying that it’s not sanctioned or affiliated with Elvis Presley Enterprises, thereby allowing them to weave an unfiltered narrative, blemishes in all.

The show makes it bow Off Broadway on October 17 and will initially have a 10 day run at New York’s 60 seat Producer’s Club Theater. If it goes well, the producers plan to bring it back to a larger theater in early 2019.

As preparation for the piece, Macias did his research and uncovered a few facts that are often overlooked in most retellings of the Elvis epoch. He discovered that Elvis’ lifelong obsession with drugs began when he was introduced to uppers during his stint in the army. Few people know that he had a twin that died in childbirth. It’s also notable, especially in light of recently unearthed sex scandals, that Elvis dated two women at the same time — a Hollywood starlet and a 16-year-old girl.

Like Elvis, the show’s star, Brett Bullard, also grew up outside Memphis. Macias’ credits include his role as an Emmy award-winning producer, a former executive producer with NBC, a senior producer with CBS, an author, a contributor to CNBC, head of the New York-based public relations firm Macias PR, and a self-professed Elvis fan.  

“When I was in high school, I’d get drunk, play the piano and pretend I was Elvis to entertain all my friends,” Macias admits.

Nevertheless, as a journalist, the written word is what motivated him most. “I grew up in the media,” Macias says. “So writing was always in my background.” He also read every book he could find on Elvis and says that as a schoolboy, he even did book reports in class on what he had read.

“The thing that always disappointed me when I was reading these books and watching the documentaries is that they were always one-sided and they never went into his struggles as a person,” Macias reflects. “They would always glorify him, and for good reason. He was a tremendous artist. I never heard those stories about why this man who had everything — fame, money, good lucks, charisma, talent — wasn’t happy. So I was always fascinated by what took place in his final hours.”

It was a lunch with a director friend a little over three years ago that provided the genesis of the play. The two worked together to bring The King: The Final Hours to fruition.

“This is an artistic interpretation of what went through Elvis’ mind in his final hours,” Macias insists. “But it’s also historic. As he reflects on his life and the decisions he made –good and bad — there are historic facts. The morning he died, he played gospel music on his piano. He tried to wake the people up in his house to play racket ball at 2 a.m, He asked his brother-in-law to pick up drugs at the pharmacy. So all that historical information that has been recorded in the past is in there as well.”

The play finds Elvis on the transom between life and death, offering amends to Ann-Margaret and wife Priscilla, and turning to his mother to provide comfort as she eases him into the afterlife.

“Elvis had flaws that nobody saw,” Macias says. “This story explores some of those personal failures that he had as a human. If a play is going to succeed, it has to be a great story, a new story, something that hasn’t been told. And I believe this does have that.”

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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