The new musical that was a sensation when it played a discreet and well-reviewed test run at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre in fall 2005 takes for its marquee the title of one of the hit tunes of American singer-songwriter Cash. But the musical conceived by William Meade and created and directed by Richard Maltby Jr., drawing on a cache of Cash songs, is not a biography of The Man in Black. (Unlike the current feature film, "Walk the Line," which recounts a section of Cash's experience.)
In 38 musical numbers, a mosaic of American experience is pieced together in Ring of Fire, the creators say. There's a scene about keeping the love fires burning in middle age ("While I've Got It On My Mind"), there's a scene with generations of a family sharing a meal (and sharing music) in "Daddy Sang Bass," there's the second-act opener about life travels ("I've Been Everywhere") with no less than 14 guitars in a line, played by the 6 actors and 8 musicians who make up the company.
Defining Ring of Fire — which begins at the Barrymore Feb. 8 toward a March 12 opening — is a challenge for marketing folks, press agents and even the creators. An unhelpful earlier subtitle, The Johnny Cash Musical Show, was dropped, perhaps because it suggested a Cash biography or sounded a little too much like a TV concert special starring Cash.
"It's not a concert at all," Tony Award-winning director Maltby ( Ain't Misbehavin', Fosse) told Playbill.com. "[Producer] Jim Freydberg wants the tag to be 'ask anyone who's seen it,' because in a way, you can't describe what it is. It's a book musical without a book — a play made up of songs."
At the center of the show are six principals paired off to make three couples: young, middle-aged and older, played by Beth Malone and Tony Award-winner Jarrod Emick, Grammy Award-winner Lari White and Jeb Brown, and Jason Edwards and Cass Morgan. The Cash lyrics conjure life experiences that are then applied to the characters.
"It's not abstract, it's very specific," Maltby explained. "But it's variable: The couples progress through life. If you know Johnny Cash's story you can see the contours of his biography in the show. But it's not only his story. A lot of people have said to me that they saw their own life in the show, which I think is true, too."
What is Ring of Fire "about"?
Maltby said, "It's about home and family and getting together and loving somebody and having a backyard and generations living together, it's about what holds you together in the face of a hard life, it's about the really basic family values."
Cass Morgan, a Broadway veteran of Beauty and the Beast and the country-fried Pump Boys and Dinettes, explained, "You kind of get the story of a young man who falls in love with this woman, and then they get married and then they reach the golden years of their lives. The way the songs are staged and the way it's designed, you travel deeply into their lives. And there's a continuity as they pass through the journey of the material. You identify the three women, and the three men — it may be three facets of the same person. The stories are very specific, but that's the secret of universality — the specific details. You start with the family and you pull back and you see the community they're in and then you see what the country is like."
Actors and musicians freely commingle in Ring of Fire.
"The whole band's on stage the whole time, there's no pit," music director Jeff Lisenby, a veteran of the Nashville music scene, said. "We had to learn the choreography, be in different places on stage at different times."
Is it the most exposed he's been in a performance venue?
"Yeah," he said with a laugh. "I'm used to sitting in a pit, just conducting a band and not having to think about anything else. We have to wear costumes, the whole bit."
Making her Broadway debut as a choreographer, Lisa Shriver, who has worked as an assistant to Susan Stroman, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and John Carrafa, said Lisenby was treated with kid gloves when she encouraged him to walk, dance and navigate the stage as he played the accordion.
What kind of dance activates Ring of Fire?
"It was a tricky project because Johnny Cash is not a 'mover,' per se," Shriver told Playbill.com. "We mostly just started with a story — the story the lyrics were telling, and knowing it was set in a certain community, with a certain vernacular. We tried to develop the vocabulary of the dance from the story itself. While we do employ a lot of 'country elements' that you might see in typical country-western dancing, I certainly didn't set out to create 'a country-western number.' A lot of the performers are not dancers, they're actors. We wanted to create movement that was organic to them and organic to telling the story."
The physical territory of the show is heartland, small-town and Southern, so the choreography draws on cake walk, two-step, polka and clogging.
"Nothing ever looks 'choreographed,'" Shriver said. "The movement is deceptive. It's actually completely staged, fully choreographed, but one goal I had was to not make it look so. It looks like regular people getting up and doing something just because. We tried to keep it sincere and worked to not make it too glossy or too 'Broadway.'"
The Ring of Fire company includes musicians David M. Lutken, Randy Redd, Eric Anthony, Laurie Canaan, Dan Immel, Ron Krasinski and Brent Moyer.
The show's song list includes Cash's "Country Boy," "A Thing Called Love," "Five Feet High and Rising," "Daddy Sang Bass," "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line," "I've Been Everywhere," "The Man in Black," and his final hit, "Hurt."
Ring of Fire's design team includes Neil Patel (scenic production designer), David C. Woolard (costume design), Ken Billington (lighting design), Peter Fitzgerald & Carl Casella (sound design) and Michael Clark (projection design).
Richard Maltby, Jr. won a Tony Award for conceiving and directing the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin'. He co-conceived and directed the dance retrospective Fosse which won the Tony Award for Best Musical. He was the co-author of the international smash hit musical Miss Saigon and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance.
Ring of Fire is presented by William Meade, CTM Productions, GFour Productions, Robert Cuillo and James B. Freydberg, who also serves as Executive Producer.
For ticket information, call (212) 239-6200; outside metro New York (800) 432-7250 or visit the Ethel Barrymore Theatre box office at 243 W. 47th Street. For more information, visit www.ringoffirethemusical.