Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Big River
The prospect of musical version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had to have been, at one point, ridiculous to imagine. Thinking about it, one might have expected lessons in history and literature, high school tedium brought to life onstage. Also, a story that is largely locked to a space the size of a raft isn’t exactly going to lend itself to the song and dance treatment. Indeed, when such a musical arrived on Broadway in 1985, people balked at the idea and critics weren't exactly enthusiastic. Interestingly enough, Big River turned out to be the hit of the season, running 1,005 performances and winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Permit me to rewind for a moment. Big River did open to mediocre/mixed reviews, in a season where new musicals were neither bountiful nor successful. The Harold Prince directed Grind was eagerly anticipated, but proved an enormous disappointment, so Big River happened to be passable entertainment in a lackluster season where audiences were desperate for something to see. Of course it was the innocuous, family-friendly musical of the season, and it was based on a familiar property. That would be enough to keep it alive for maybe half a season.
Ah, but let me rewind again. Yes, the new musicals of the season were about as exciting as watching golf on television, but Big River was a startling, innovative take on the literary classic AND much more exciting than anything else that season because it was actually good. This was not a mere rehashing of Twain’s tale, but one that was inspirationally and energetically staged by Des McAnuff. McAnuff managed to keep the ambling tale focused and propelling forward with a sense of urgency that was imperative in telling this story about a quest for personal liberation.
What was especially exciting about Big River is that it was expertly constructed by a novice. Roger Miller, who was mostly a country western composer and performer whose only foray into the musical format was writing a handful of down home ditties for the Disney animated film Robin Hood. Yet, his score for Big River was so richly textured, tuneful, even infectious. From the opening "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?"(as thorough an introduction to an entire town as any first five-minutes of Fiddler on the Roof), to the kinetic intensity of "Muddy Water", through the pensive and reflective "River in the Rain", to the jubilant reprise of "Waitin' for the Light to Shine", Miller actually took us on the emotional journey of Huck and Jim as they sailed the river with hope in their hearts.
Book writer William Hauptman wisely trusted Twain's story and stood back to give Miller the room to work his magic. The best book writers always serve in silence and are the unsung heroes of musical theatre. Still, he constructed an expert cutting of the story, keeping all the important points, vernacular, and atmosphere of the novel without ever letting it become talky, preachy or portentous. In the end, he remembered that this book is beloved, not because it makes for great essay writing, but because its characters and themes are relatable and universal. They are also fun. The key is almost always to remember the fun when adapting a beloved novel for the musical stage, something that is often left out of 11th Grade English discussions about Huck Finn.
So, yes, Big River opened to not the greatest reviews in the world, and the musical was essentially limping along until the night of 1985 Tony Awards where it played well on the telecast and then proceeded to rack up a slew of awards. Besides Best Musical, it won for score, book, direction, lighting design, scenic design, and best featured actor (Ron Richardson). The next morning, there was a line for tickets to see Big River that literally wrapped around the block. Clearly there was an audience for the show, and since it ran for two-years, it clearly was much, much more than passable entertainment. How about a live-television production of this show? I think we’d all tune-in.
Interesting Facts About Big River:
- Big River came to Broadway after productions at the American Repertory Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse.
- Big River opened at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985 where it ran for 1,005 performances.
- Among the original cast members was John Goodman who would eventually star on TV’s Roseanne. The cast also included Daniel Jenkins, Ron Richardson, Rene Auberjonois, Bob Gunton, Susan Browning, and Patti Cohenour.
- In 2003, Big River was revived on Broadway by The Roundabout Theatre in conjunction with the Deaf West Theatre. Running a limited engagement of 68 performances, the revival featured deaf and hearing performers working in tandem to tell the story. Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun found arresting and ingenious ways to utilize American Sign Language in the show’s movement. Daniel Jenkins, who played Huck in the original production, appeared as narrator Mark Twain for this revival. The production won a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre and was nominated for Best Revival.