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.
“This whole show is about relationships with the people Huck is telling the story to,” Enterline explained. “So the audience becomes another character he can connect with. It's like speaking to friends in the audience.”
Even in the 1880s, “Huckleberry Finn” was considered controversial because of its use of racial stereotypes and ethnic slurs. But Twain was a satirist who believed nothing was off limits, and scoffed at societal conventions throughout his narrative.
Cobey, who made his Lyric Theatre debut as Coalhouse Walker in the 2011 production of “Ragtime,” said that despite the way African Americans are portrayed in many contemporary plays and musicals, he's drawn to certain characters because of their ability to affect change.
“There's almost a childlike honesty in Jim because he says what he feels right then and there,” Cobey said of his character. “He's not book smart but he's common sense smart. He's the kind of person who has to figure out the best way to deal with a difficult situation.
“The ‘n' word is used a lot in ‘Big River' but I think the audience needs to hear how it was used and how nasty it sounds. Unfortunately, the same thing continues today, from Paula Deen to Trayvon Martin. The world is never going to be perfect but we can keep educating people through material like this.”
Twain rarely passed up an opportunity to poke fun at tradition, a device “Big River” book writer William Hauptman decided to employ in the musical's opening scene. A reincarnated Mark Twain delivers the following message: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
It's a clever way to let audiences know that what they're about to see isn't some heavy, thought-provoking drama with complex characters. And while “Big River” doesn't aspire to anything remotely lofty, it does attempt to impart an important message.
“Ultimately, I think ‘Big River' shows that we're all human, we all have heartbeats and that working together is an important message to be reminded of,” Enterline said. “It's a matter of finding out what's right and what's wrong for each individual.”