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.
Lyn Cramer directs Lyric's production of “The Will Rogers Follies,” with Amy Reynolds Reed as choreographer and David Andrews Rogers as music director.
Joining Orr in this third of four musicals during Lyric's 50th anniversary season is Kristy Cates as Betty Blake Rogers.
In recent years, Oklahoma City has become something of a second home for Cates, a California native who has appeared in previous Lyric Theatre productions of “Snapshots,” “Boeing, Boeing” and “Ragtime.”
The latter afforded Cates an opportunity to play a character known simply as Mother, an early 20th century woman whose dissatisfaction with life led her to exert a surprising degree of independence.
“I feel like Betty sort of picks up where Mother left off,” Cates said. “Betty was an independent-minded woman who was happy to get out of Arkansas. She's working, she's living with her sister and she's not actively seeking a husband.
“I also think Betty had a spark in her that was palpable. Someone like Will Rogers wasn't going to fall in love with someone who didn't have that extra something. It was easier in that era for a woman to be a shrinking violet, find her man and raise their children. Betty knew she was meant for something more than just a simple life.”
“The Will Rogers Follies,” which is subtitled “A Life In Revue,” explores 35 years in Rogers' life. It chronicles his diverse pursuits, from leaving Oklahoma for Argentina to his stint on the roping circuit.
He also was a featured performer in Vaudeville and became a headliner in numerous editions of Florenz Ziegfeld's “Follies.”
Rogers had an easygoing charm and a lifelong fascination with people. As he set off for Argentina at age 19, he reportedly said, “There's a whole lot of people out there, and ... I knew I wanted to meet as many as my time on earth would allow. Because people are what life is all about.” His Oklahoma twang and disarming sense of humor also made him a favorite with audiences worldwide.
“He made fun of every major political, religious and social leader in the world,” Orr said. “But he wasn't mean spirited. He laughed with them. He said he was in the ‘cheering up business' and wanted to make people's lives better whenever he could.
“The Industrial Revolution opened the world for him to travel and that had to be exciting for a young boy who grew up in an isolated environment. This was also a time that saw the birth of celebrity. Everything seemed to come along at the right time for him to become a success.”