You might wonder how a country songwriter whose recordings included such novelties as “Dang Me” and “King of the Road” managed to find success in the musical theater. There's an enormous divide separating those two worlds and very few have managed to bridge the gap.
Given Roger Miller's lack of familiarity with the genre, it was a gamble to set his sights on Broadway. But in 1985, he defied the odds and produced “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Inspired by Mark Twain's 1884 novel, the folksy musical earned seven Tony Awards, including one as Best Musical, and enjoyed a 2½-year run on the Great White Way.
Lyric Theatre will close its 50th anniversary season of musicals this month with “Big River,” a production starring Alex Enterline as Huck Finn and Derrick Cobey as the black slave Jim. Together, these unlikely companions set out on “a grand, mysterious adventure” set along the mighty Mississippi River. Michael Baron directs and Ashley Wells choreographs.
“I got into the play and ideas just seemed to come to me,” Miller said in a 1990 interview with The Oklahoman. “I felt a great kinship to it, and I could just hear the songs. I kind of knew where the music (should come in) and what temperature a song should be in a certain place.
“I (also) really felt like I pulled a lot from my own boyhood. I was the same kind of kid (as Huck) who wanted to smoke and not go to school. Without sounding corny, I sort of mentally just stood in the middle of the field down in Erick, OK (where Miller grew up), for a lot of it and I could feel the wind blowing, the heat of a summer day and the flies swarming around me.”
As preparation for playing the devious but big-hearted Huck Finn, Enterline tracked down a copy of Twain's novel, a sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Both works make use of slang and regional dialects that provide considerable local color.
“I wanted to figure out what it was like to live back then (circa 1840),” Enterline said. “The Internet was a big help. I read about the hardships people had and what an amazing feat it was for Huck to have a friend at that time who was African American.”
“Big River” employs a device known as breaking the fourth wall, a term used to describe a character who steps out of the confines of the narrative to speak directly to the audience. Though infrequently used in the musical theater, it can be an effective tool that allows a character to establish added rapport with the audience.