By LAUREN KAY
Last December, at a gig at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC, Dan Mills was focused on boosting his eponymous band. The singer-songwriter-guitarist wanted to impress a gaggle of music insiders in the crowd, and he wanted to show the venue itself that the band was hot enough to handle its larger hall.
Unbeknownst to Mills, a theatrical casting agent from Bernard Telsey Casting was in the audience, watching the young, lanky crooner nail mean guitar riffs with old-school style. Just a few days later, Mills received a call from his team and was quickly thrust into an intense audition process for the Broadway hit Million Dollar Quartet. The show imagines the legendary night when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis met for a jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, and now Mills is in rehearsal as the standby for Perkins. Call it a New York twist on a Tennessee tale.
Mills never set out to be on the Broadway boards. The Rhode Island native started playing guitar seriously at age 16 and also tackled the trumpet as part of a high school Ska band. Joining the chorus and listening to acts like the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and Paul Simon rounded out his early technical training. Then, he attended Ithaca College’s music recording program.
“When I was a kid, I started writing funny satire songs at sleep-away camp,” he says, pushing his throwback bottle-frame glasses up his nose. “Then, because of the bands I was in during high school, I went to college with a slew of songs and experience. When I worked at a hotel right after graduation, I was offered a job playing the bar twice a week, and that’s where I began to craft who I was as an entertainer and a songwriter. I found myself adjusting to the crowd, understanding how a set list should be set up. Little by little, people started requesting less covers, and my songs more. I realized: This is what I want to do.”
Soon, Mills performed as the opening act for both the Steve Miller Band and Taylor Hicks. The bigger gigs encouraged Mills to move to NYC in the summer of 2007. He nabbed a job with Rockababy, a musical mommy-and-me program, and put his current band together.
As a band leader, Mills has been touring the East Coast, recording albums, marketing, and networking. He's still prioritizing his band and music career, but he’s relishing the chance to “only play and perform" on Broadway. “Everyone here is so wise, talented, professional and fun, and they all do their job supremely well," he says. "So I don’t have to worry about anything but the show, and it’s very flattering to be treated that way. And, my day is scheduled so specifically, that when I get home I’m exhausted. So, I don’t feel bad just sitting down!”
Even though he has years of performing experience, Mills is a theatre newbie. (“I was in one play in high school, but it was mostly to meet girls,” he says.) He's found that a Broadway stage demands something different than a concert hall. “The show comes off as casual when you watch it, but everything is orchestrated from when we pick up our guitar to when we turn around. I’m not used to that!” he says. “In my band, I can stop and start as I please, change the set list, chat with the audience. But once the show starts, it’s a moving train and I’m learning how to adjust to that.”
Mills is also tackling the specific persona of Carl Perkins—without falling into flat-out impersonation, which the show avoids. He's scoured the internet for videos and material about the famed rockabilly singer, and he is honing his Tennessee accent.
Though he and the Million Dollar Quartet team are still tweaking his approach, his efforts seem to be paying off: In a recent rehearsal, his cocky portrayal, confident playing and molasses twang blended with the stage veterans around him. “This is Broadway, and the team rightly expects a certain level of talent,” Mills says. “At first I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m messing up all over the place,’ whereas in my band I’m used to being in control. But it’s a good lesson for me to learn to let go and be open. And I’m realizing, maybe I just have to trust all my years of performing and writing, and I can do this."
For more information on Dan Mills, visit www.danmills.net
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in New York City.