What does a nice Jewish boy from Jersey have in common with a hot headed rockabilly pop star from Louisiana? It’s a question Jason Cohen has been asked quite a few times, and, fortunately, the answer is always easy. Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Cohen is a self-taught pianist who took a childhood knack for tickling the ivories and turned it into a successful career in the performing arts.
Unlike Lewis, Cohen’s career led him to musical theatre. He has since starred in productions of such hit shows as Once, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Million Dollar Quartet – which led him to create Great Balls of Fire, the hit tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis, now playing at Florida Studio Theatre.
We sat down with Cohen to learn more about the creation of this red hot Cabaret and why he finds such explosive inspiration in Jerry Lee Lewis’ catalogue.
You’ve had a long and close relationship with the role and character of Jerry Lee Lewis. How exactly did that relationship begin?
I didn’t know much about Jerry Lee until I began auditioning to play him in Million Dollar Quartet. I think I auditioned for the tour twice before I ultimately had the audition that booked me the job. From there, it honestly was the gift that kept on giving.
I’ve met incredible people and had amazing career opportunities come from Million Dollar Quartet. When I was on tour, I already had a sense that playing Jerry Lee was a great opportunity to combine my skills as an actor and musician. I wanted to take that further and write and create my own work, which has always been a career goal of mine. Also, this music is just incredibly fun to play!
Tell us more about the process of putting Great Balls of Fire together. What sort of challenges did you encounter along the way? Did the show change much from the initial idea to the curtain rising on the opening night here at FST?
I had first thought about “what’s next” just a few months into the national tour of Million Dollar Quartet and began discussing some ideas with Jon Rossi, our drummer. Nathan Yates Douglas called me to play piano for a ’50s concert with him, and it was at that concert that the artistic director essentially said, “If you make a Jerry Lee show, I will program it.” That’s what finally got me to sit down and write the first version of it.
I approached Michael Schiralli to see if he’d be interested in co-writing and directing the piece. It was Michael’s idea to focus on how different Jerry Lee and I are, yet how so much of the past six years of my life have been influenced by him. We’ve found that it really provides a sense of authenticity, honesty, and uniqueness to this piece. And still, we are making small tweaks. We are constantly listening to the audience’s reactions in order to continue improving the show.
What is your process for channeling the energy and spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis?
I think it’s a combination of the music, the audience, and the years of playing this music. Add that to the physical and vocal choices I bring to it – it feels like putting on a pair of jeans that fit just right. Honestly, it’s a very accessible version of myself.
This is your first time performing Great Balls of Fire in the Southeast. What has the audience response been like for Great Balls of Fire? Is there anything that’s surprised you about Sarasota?
The audiences have been extremely responsive and supportive. If I ever speak with an audience member after the show, I always say that we, the performers, are only half of the equation and emphasize how important their role is. Also, I’m pleasantly surprised that a relatively small city has quite a strong arts and culture scene.
Which is your favorite number to perform? What about it makes it so meaningful for you?
This honestly can change on any given night. Each song has something special that I love in it – the driving snare drum in “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” the aggressively fast tempo of “High School Confidential,” the change in style when we play our “New Orleans medley” – though “Rockin’ Robin” is one of my personal favorites.
Some of the most exciting parts are seeing my colleagues and friends be stars with their own songs, such as Nathan singing “You Send Me,” Luke singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” Justin Brown playing a blistering clarinet solo in “Go To The Mardi Gras,” or Jon playing drum solos like he has four hands. I am glad and honored to be able to share the stage with all of them.