Two years ago, Billy Woodward was just another young guy channeling Elvis — in a place that featured more Elvises per square foot than perhaps anywhere else in the world. But among the scores of singers who made the 2010 Night of 100 Elvises possible, Woodward alone would be taking his act to Broadway in the coming months.
"It just so happened that there was a talent scout in the audience," says Woodward, who has spent the past year as the understudy to star and world-renowned Elvis tribute artist Cody Slaughter in "Million Dollar Quartet," which opens Tuesday at the Hippodrome. "They liked me, liked what I did, and contacted me within a week. I went up and auditioned in New York and got the gig."
This week will be sort of a double homecoming for the Calvert County native. Besides coming to Baltimore with the show's touring company, he'll also be returning to the show that got him to Broadway in the first place. Woodward may only get to be Elvis at the Hippodrome if Slaughter can't perform, but he'll definitely be in the building Saturday when the Lithuanian Hall is filled with the 19th annual Night of 100 Elvises, Baltimore's annual tribute to the young truck driver from Tupelo, Miss., who helped revolutionize American music.
Channeling the King may sound like a heavy responsibility for a Southern Maryland guy who only started singing like Elvis about two years ago. But the 30-year-old Woodward sounds undaunted, though reverential.
"I always feel a responsibility to ensure that the integrity of the guy is there," says Woodward, who grew up in St. Leonard. "He was a genius. I want to make sure that comes through."
The musical, which premiered in 2006 and opened on Broadway four years later, is based on a studio session in 1956 that teamed Elvis, for one afternoon only, with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Woodward has spent over a year as an Elvis understudy, first on Broadway to Eddie Clendening, then on the road to Slaughter. But unlike many understudies, who wait in vain for the star to break a leg, Woodward was called on to perform, on a Broadway stage, almost right away.
"I didn't learn about it until 15, maybe 30 minutes beforehand," he says. "I was actually in the office at the theater, and they said, 'Get suited up, man.' It was just kind of a whirlwind. When I think about it, I get goose bumps, it was so fast. Next thing I knew, the curtain was going up, and I was singing 'Blue Suede Shoes.' "
Woodward has been called on to play Elvis several times — last January, for instance, while Slaughter was touring with his Elvis tribute act. "We have probably the top Elvis tribute artist in the world," he says. "He goes and does some other stuff, so it kind of gives me some extra time to hit the stage. That's nice, and fortunate."
Truth is, Woodward says, he was probably more nervous at that first Night of 100 Elvises. He had just given up his job, as an art director at a Washington-area animation studio, to concentrate on a music career. Woodward and his band were doing their own original material when, on a lark, he decided to be one of the 100.
"I'd heard about it, and I thought, 'Wow, that would be really fun, to go in and pay tribute to the guy,' " he recalls. "I grew up listening to and adoring his music. My pops was a big Elvis fan."
Channeling Elvis that first time wasn't easy, Woodward says. "I was a ball of nerves. I'd never done anything like that before."
But clearly, from the moment he launched into his first Elvis number, "Trouble," something clicked. The set also included "Suspicious Minds" and "An American Trilogy."
"When Billy performed, my husband turned to me and said, 'This guy is really something,' " remembers Night of 100 Elvises volunteer Stacey Mink. "He had a really special energy and was definitely tuned into the Elvis frequency."
Woodward was hooked. "The crowd was unbelievable," he says. "You know, it's fun to jump into Elvis' shoes for a second, to feel what that would have felt like."
But being Elvis is no small responsibility, he hastens to add. "I should probably be a bit more nervous when I go out there," Woodward says, "because it's such huge shoes to fill. After all, he's the King of rock and roll."
If you go
"Million Dollar Quartet" runs Tuesday-Saturday at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. through Saturday, with additional shows at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2. Tickets are $30-$95. Information: france-merrickpac.com.
"The Night of 100 Elvises" runs Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at the Lithuanian Hall, 851-3 S. Hollins St. The music begins at 7 p.m. each night. Tickets are $55 per night in advance, $65 at the door. Information: 410-494-9558 or nightof100elvises.com.