Roger Miller’s Tony-winning musical Big River returns to New York in an Encores! revival February 8–12. Below, producer Rocco Landesman offers a rollicking account of the show’s unlikely creation.
As Huck Finn says in Big River, “If I’d a knowed what trouble it was to enact this history I never would a tackled it.” We certainly didn’t know, my wife Heidi and I, what we were in for, as we drove from our home in Brooklyn to a rare Roger Miller concert at the Lone Star Cafe in lower Manhattan over 20 years ago. Could Roger Miller, we wondered out loud, write a Broadway musical?
The American musical and country music, we had long felt, were much closer in form and spirit than was generally thought, with their emphasis on lyrics in the service of storytelling and hummable melodies. Roger, I knew with total certainty, was a genius, the greatest American songwriter; he could do anything.
But what would be the story, or as we say in the theatre, the book? Heidi: “How about your favorite novel?” And then it seemed obvious. There was a natural affinity, we felt, between the voices of the authors of “King of the Road” and the most famous journey novel in American literature, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Broadway and country, Roger Miller and Mark Twain. Obvious? Maybe. Easy? If only we’d a knowed.
In The Season, William Goldman’s legendary account of the 1967-1968 season on Broadway, he observes that Broadway veterans always handicap a show’s chances by checking the “past performances” of the people who are doing it. What’s the track record of the producers, writer, director, actors? Well, Big River was directed by Des McAnuff, who had never directed a Broadway show. The book was by William Hauptman, who had never written the book for a musical. Roger Miller had never written the score for any musical, had only seen two of them in his life (he later loved to say, when recounting how the show had come about, “Rocco made me an offer I couldn’t understand”). And the producers? We had never produced a show of any kind; not on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, or summer camp. Because the racetrack’s tote board can only show two digits, the odds were 99-1.
The first production, at the American Repertory Theater in February 1984, had only seven songs; it was subtitled “A Play with Music.” There were more songs in the production at La Jolla Playhouse later that year, and a full score when we opened on Broadway in April of 1985. The A.R.T. production was encouraging; I’ll never forget watching the faces of the A.R.T. actors when Roger, playing his guitar, sang “Free at Last” for them. That was the first moment when I allowed myself to think, “Maybe this will work.”
Still, we needed a success in La Jolla to raise money. That production felt more like a musical and was enthusiastically received by the reviewers in the major papers in San Diego and Los Angeles. There was one dissent, a review in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. This show is intended for Broadway, that reviewer said, but the producers are delusional. There is so much wrong with it he wouldn’t even know how to begin to fix it. I’m happy to report that that reviewer’s career as a theatre critic would be permanently over within a year, but to this day I remember his name: Jack Viertel.
There were so many moving pieces, Heidi’s magnificent set design the one constant. Only one actor from the La Jolla production came to New York: our Pap Finn, played by a plus-sized but obviously talented diamond in the rough named John Goodman. The musical direction and orchestrations changed. The score came together not in the usual workmanlike manner but in fits and starts, with long silences and sudden bursts.
Roger hated writing to order and even more, to a deadline. He once said to me, “You want tomorrow? You can have Earl Scheib tomorrow. Rembrandt takes time.” Des McAnuff’s alchemy, somehow managing to blend an eclectic mix of songs that were inspired but not always on point, into an actual score, amazes me more with each passing year.
Roger stopped to give me a hug on his way to the stage to accept his Tony in June 1985. Des, Bill, Ron Richardson (our Jim), and our lighting designer Richard Riedel got their Tonys, and Heidi, who earlier that year had given birth to our son North, got two. With our co-producers Michael and Ed and Sherman (the Dodgers), two of my best friends and earliest investors (Rick Steiner and Tony Fisher), and our friends and families, we celebrated well into the next morning. Again, Huck said it best: “It had been like the fortune [Jim] predicted for me long ago. Considerable trouble and considerable joy.”
Rocco Landesman is President Emeritus of Jujamcyn Theaters. From 2009 to 2013 he served as the chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts. This article is reprinted courtesy of Playbill.