As director of the University of Oklahoma School of Drama, Tom Huston Orr devotes much of his time to administrative responsibilities and directing student productions. But this week, he'll step on the other side of the footlights to star as the title character in “The Will Rogers Follies” at Lyric Theatre.
Recreating Rogers' larger-than-life, public persona is not an entirely new undertaking for Orr, who just completed his 10th year at OU. While living in New York, Orr put together a one-man show about the man who also was known as “The Poet Lariat of the United States.”
“I'm excited about being a Will in this show who can really rope,” Orr said recently during a rehearsal break. “I was spinning a rope when I was 12 years old. Years later, I would practice on the rooftops of buildings in New York and people would watch me from their windows.”
Orr's fascination with Rogers ultimately led him to audition for “The Will Rogers Follies.” But at 27, he was too young to play the popular entertainer. Casting directors were looking at actors in their 40s. Orr's dream never faded, though, and two decades later, he's finally age-appropriate.
The musical's title role places enormous demands on a performer who, in addition to acting, must sing, dance, tell jokes, demonstrate his skill with a rope and play various musical instruments. It's a set of responsibilities Orr said he doesn't take lightly.
“From the trick roping and harmonica playing to the singing, dancing and my leading lady's voice, I have a few things to step up to,” Orr said. “Will has been an incredibly important figure to me my entire life. I actually grew up near the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Fort Worth.”
While many actors approach their craft with the idea of stepping into the persona of another character, Orr takes the view of a sculptor who chips away at a block of marble to reveal an image concealed within.
“I don't look at acting as stepping into character; I think more about calibrating what comes out of you,” Orr explained. “I think we all become everything we play in one way or another. You kind of throw the dimmers a certain way and let out the parts that need to come out. I have to make sure to give audiences 2½ hours of honest time with Will Rogers, not Tom Orr.”
Rogers was a much beloved public figure who possessed a phenomenal work ethic. In one year's time, he starred in four, full-length motion pictures, delivered 52 radio shows, wrote 365 newspaper columns, gave 151 speeches and visited 19 countries on five continents.
Not bad for a guy from rural Oklahoma who never made it past the 10th grade. Rogers would ultimately become known as “Oklahoma's Favorite Son,” a common man who was equally at home in the company of U.S. presidents or hanging out with ordinary citizens.
Rogers' life story, which was embellished to suit the needs of a big, splashy Broadway musical, first came to life on stage in 1991. Helmed by master showman Tommy Tune, “The Will Rogers Follies” earned six Tony Awards, including one for best musical, and ran for more than two years at New York's Palace Theatre.