"You know, I hate the term 'jukebox musical' - truly hate it! - because it suggests that you just take a bunch of songs and stick 'em on the stage. No theatregoer wants to pay money just to hear a bunch of songs. That's a concert, no matter what you do with staging it."
It's a familiar rant for The Grandfather of the Genre. Richard Maltby, Jr. winces at that title and begs for a lighter sentence - "oh, 'Father,' please" - but you do the math: If the success of 2001's Mamma Mia! prompted the drop of the recent litter of song-catalog musicals, be advised that Maltby was on the case a full generation earlier.
His first - indeed, the first - "jukebox musical" copped the Tony for Best Musical of 1978, Ain't Misbehavin'. He did that with Fats Waller songs. With Bob Fosse dances, he created his second, which got the Tony for Best Musical of 1999, Fosse. ("I saw Fosse's dances as dialogue. As far as I was concerned, it was all storytelling. That was what held that show together.") Maltby won a Tony for directing the former and a Tony nomination for directing the latter; in between, he made Tony bids for directing 1983's Baby and 1985's Song & Dance.
Maltby's special gift for finding worlds in words is a natural outgrowth of his primary profession. He's the lyricist half of Maltby & Shire, the tunesmiths who gave Broadway Big and Baby and Off-Broadway Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever.
David Shire, like Maltby, is the son of a bandleader. They, in fact, sealed that unique link with a song, "If I Sing," which they put in Closer Than Ever. The lyric changed in mid-creation, from Maltby's father to Shire's. "David went home for a visit at the end of his father's life and found his father couldn't play the piano for the first time in his life. All of his life that's what his father did. So David sat down and played the melody of this song about his father, and his father seemed to understand that this was like a legacy."
Between the tinkering and retooling of Take Flight, their new musical about the invention of the airplane, Shire composes for the movies (the song he gave "Norma Rae," "It Goes Like It Goes," got an Oscar), and Maltby lapses into directing musicals (a natural progression). "It's because I'm a lyricist that I believe that songs have dramatic content and that people really listen," he declares almost apologetically. "I feel like an old fogy."
The old fogy's latest foray in this direction is deep-reading the songs Johnny Cash wrote or sang, mining the drama buried just under the words and putting that on a Broadway stage: Ring of Fire is now in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
In the last year of his life, Cash green-lighted at last his movie biography ("Walk the Line") and gave William Meade permission to do a Broadway show based on Cash music. Meade ran directly to Maltby, who, though a country mile from Cash's C&W milieu, was "struck by the content" of his songs. "I think he was a genuine poet. He wrote from the heart, about people - that's why the songs are dramatizable. I was surprised - as I think audiences will be - by how sexy, funny, honest, touching the songs are." And, in an odd way, he sees no overlap with the film, which focused on the facts of Cash's life, not his art. "You would hardly know from the film that his songwriting was significant at all. I wanted to put onstage the man, and the life, revealed in those songs."
With 38 songs (out of a possible 1,500), Maltby fashions an invisible narrative. "There is in Ring of Fire, certainly - and, to a lesser degree, there is in Ain't Misbehavin' - a story but not a plot. Johnny Cash's story is present in the show, but it's not a biography. If you look at it, you'll see it's not necessarily his life but a life that exists inside the soul. What was in his songs was the story of a kind of life that you lead - a life that he led - ultimately, a deeply American kind of life - a hard life, tied to the earth, tied to the simplest values that hold people together - family, children, marriages, faith, land, earning a living, getting through the day. That's what he was really writing about.
"These are songs that are often sung with nobody particularly paying attention to what they're actually singing. Sometimes, in the midst of a love song, there's a line that shocks you, it's so real. There's a song called 'Daddy Sang Bass,' which is almost a hoedown, where it's mentioned that his brother died and that the family has dealt with a tragic event. What's that doing in the song? Well, it's what the song is really about. It's about hard lives, lived with dignity and joy, surmounting obstacles. There's always these amazing things country songs have. They tell it like it is. They don't gloss it over with euphemisms or empty sophistication. It's 'What are your shoes doin' under her bed?'"
But Ring of Fire extends beyond country-western borders, he insists. "It's hard to tell people it really isn't a country show. I secretly think it's because the division between the red states and the blue is a lie. There's more that binds us together than separates us. Basically, what ties us together as Americans are the same values. The slogan of 'family values' has been picked up by an unfortunate element that has wrapped itself in false piety when, in truth, those values are present in just about everybody. That's why the show isn't just officially American but profoundly American."