"It’s an ambitious show, physically at least" – Des Mcanuff, director of Big River
Twain's timeless classic sweeps us down the mighty Mississippi as the irrepressible Huck Finn helps his friend Jim, a slave, to escape for freedom at the mouth of the Ohio River. Big River documents their adventures along the way, with The King and the Duke, buried treasure, mischief, and the morality of Huck helping and befriending a runaway slave. Other characters from the book include Widow Douglas and her stern sister, Miss Watson; the uproarious King and Duke, who may or may not be as harmless as they seem; Huck's partner in crime, Tom Sawyer, and their rowdy gang of pals; Huck's drunken father, the sinister Pap Finn; the lovely Mary Jane Wilkes and her trusting family. With Roger Miller’s score, this journey down the Mississippi provides a brilliantly theatrical celebration of pure Americana.
The story of Big River’s success can be described in one word: timing. It was 1985, in pop music the popular artists included Cindi Lauper, The Culture Club, and ABBA to name a few, Broadway was no better. The new shows nominated for the Tony for Best New Musical were Leader of the Pack, The Grind, and Quilters. In short Big River saved Broadway in 1985 because "Big River is the first musical of the season that an audience can attend without fear of suffering either profound embarrassment or terminal boredom." (Rich, NY Times) That was written in a favorable review in the New York Times. Admittedly by those involved, Big River had its share of problems. It had a rookie director Des McAnuff, country music’s "King of the Road," Roger Miller writing his first Broadway libretto, and Book by William Hauptman adapting the most controversial American novel "Huckleberry Finn."
"Huckleberry Finn" is possibly the most talked about, debated, and banned books in history. One month after its first publication it was banned in Concord, Massachusetts citing that it was "rough, course, inelegant, trashy and vicious." More recently it has been banned from libraries in Waukegan, Ill. and Fairfax, VA. It is horrifyingly American to the point that it turns people off to it because it is too honest to how life was in the slave times. In an interview with Des McAnuff he referred to "Huckleberry Finn" as a "brilliant and formidable attack on racism, slavery, greed, hypocrisy, government, the church – there’s almost no institution that Twain doesn’t attack." (Interview)
Roger Miller is not the first to write a score about the Adventures of Huck Finn and his friend/runaway slave Jim, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane wrote songs for a defunct movie that was to star Gene Kelley and Danny Kaye as the Duke and King. As well as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson from a Broadway musical incomplete at Weill’s death in 1950. Big River was released in 1985 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Twain’s masterpiece. Before that could happen though the show was tried out at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre and at La Jolla Playhouse in CA. It finally opened at the Eugene O’Neill on April 25th, 1985, and ran for 1,005 performances.
Big River opened to primarily favorable reviews (15favorable-2unfavorable) but that statistic is misleading because although some reviews considered favorable, also pointed out all the things that were wrong with it. Critic Allan Havis from Stages summed it up best when he said, "Watching Big River is akin to visiting a Disney theme park. The show is a painless castration of its material." While Clive Barnes of the Daily News said "It’s amiable, tuneful, rambling and almost totally uninvolving." Clive Barnes writes, "It’s well-done chiefly for its simplicity, straightforwardness and general grasp of theatrical varieties." Those were the favorable reviews.
On a more refined critical level from some of the same critics their claims are substantialized. Frank Rich backs his statements up with facts the most in his review, that is more like a critical essay than a review. He states that Big River is "not up to the high water mark. Too many times, especially in the 2nd act the flow of the mighty river slows to a trickle." He also claims that Huck and Jim disappear for long periods, (example, the end of Act 1) and the focus has shifted away from them. I did not find this to be true upon viewing the recording in the Lincoln Center archives but I did not even see the original cast so who knows if the production was changed. For the most part though, I concurred with the critics’ "scholarly" opinions.
One of the areas of consideration to why Big River is both innovative and truly American lay in the themes that it explores. The story itself delves into a troubled America in a time of change. Before the emancipation proclamation freed the slaves, before schooling was widespread, when people for the aforementioned reasons were exploited for their ignorance to the world around them. One of the main themes in Big River is the relationship between Huck and Jim. At this time, it was pretty unlikely that a boy like Huck would befriend a slave the way it happens in the play. I do not think that the writers were going for reality in this case but more of a "glorification of reality" to make it easier for the audience to except. Their relationship doesn’t really start off really not until they are both holed up on Jackson’s Island about 30 minutes into the show. They knew each other (Jim was one of Huck’s family’s slaves) but there is no sign of friendship when they set the stage for the first time. I forgot to mention it before but it always bothers me that Jim is not introduced in the first scene that introduces every other character, I think that would establish his character earlier and make his friendship with Huck easier to understand because it wouldn’t come out of the blue. Then from there, they help each other because they are both running away from something. That is their initial bond, they need each other for help. The conflicts that make their relationship work for the audience are the morality issue for Huck, and just the fact that it is dangerous. That’s what makes the relationship strong and worth watching unfold from a dramaturgic point of view.
This lack of education characteristic is the first issue that is addressed in the opening. "You better learn to read, and you better read your Bible, ‘cause you’ll never get to heaven if you don’t know how!" These are the first lyrics the chorus sings together and it clearly illustrates the mentality and the priorities of the people that we’re going to be dealing with for the coming hours.
The characteristic leads to the naivete that allows Huck and Jim to be duped by the Duke and King along their travels. I think it is meant to be a statement of how poor off those without schooling can be. Knowledge is power and Huck does not have the power to get out of that situation where the King and Duke use him in their money making impersonations and freakshows.
The physical production that I saw (The Lincoln Center Archival copy of the Broadway show ((not the original cast))) was all in all, kind of sloppy. The harmonies were not clean, the acting was fake, and I know it was the 80’s and all but some of the secondary characters weren’t even audible because of lack of microphones. There were some interesting "effects" used all throughout. The backdrop was acclaimed both by critics and audience members and the sets slid on like modern sets do. One very interesting effect was during the barrage of Huck/Jim raft scenes they encounter a boat of slaves that attempted to escape and are going back, "Crossing to the other side." They are behind a scrim and Huck is looking at them through a spyglass toward the audience. What the audience sees is that behind him is the boat and there is a circular hole in the scrim to illustrate the spyglass. So you are seeing them as Huck sees them. Act II just plain gets boring. As Frank Rich wrote in his review, "In the second act Miller turns to cliche, arbitrarily inserted numbers written for the pop charts rather than Big River." (Rich, NY Times)
This was after all Roger Miller’s first attempt for the stage, and difficult material to work with being that he was somewhat limited by the confines of the story (the parts that were used). From the critics he got mixed reviews, Frank Rich called it a "Truthful score," (Rich, NY Times) While Howard Kissel of Woman’s Wear Daily adds it’s "just fine for your car radio to while away hours on the highway but has no strength in the theatre. The music is monotonous and the lyrics uninteresting. Neither tells us anything more about the character than we already know." (Kissel, Woman’s Wear Daily) Mimi Leahey of The Westsider calls the score "not altogether suited to the Broadway orchestra…" but still "a welcome breath of fresh air." (Leahey, The Westsider)
Performing Roger Miller’s score is very fun, speaking from experience. That "fun" is what made Big River a success in a season of Broadway failures. Critically both a success and a wash, Big River did receive 10 Tony nominations and 13 Drama Desk Awards. Three of which were for outstanding performances (male) from Rene Auberjonois (Duke), Daniel Jenkins (Huck), and Ron Richardson (Jim). Ron Richardson won the Tony. Other overwhelmingly acclaimed performances came from Jennifer Leigh Warren (Alice’s Daughter), and William Youmans (Young Fool).
With a book by William Hauptman (who won the Tony for Best Book) the difficult task of adapting the most American of all novels is a daunting task. Twain’s novel has carried along with it controversy since it was first published in 1884. It has been banned in different parts of the country at different points of history. Hauptman’s book, though not wholly true to the book is generally inoffensive and a little campy. Frank Rich recalled that the book had, "too many of the books antidotes, most often rush or truncate them and lose all of their comedic value." (Rich, NY Times) Another critic for the New York City Tribune pointed out that "Jim, toward the end of the show tells off a white doctor that is treating Tom’s gunshot wound – a natural enough exaggeration to strengthen his character, but an improbable one given the temper of the time." (Syna, NYC Tribune) I believe the most accurate review of the book for my tastes is by Allan Havis of Stages who wrote that, "Sincerity, a good ear for regional dialect with sardonic wit and horseplay. But the net effect remains presentational, as kindly ‘show and tell’ about the classic novel." (Havis, Stages)
Up to this point, I feel bad because I think that this might come off as a bashing of Big River. That was not my intention but when you go deep into a musical, one gets so particular about every minute detail. Did the audience like Big River? Generally yes. It is not put together like a fine German engineered car but it has many elements of things like fun, Americana, no shortage of "show-stopping" numbers, innovative sets, etc.
I personally did Big River when I was 15 at Harrisburg Community Theatre in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and it was one of my favorite theatre experiences of my life. I had so much fun doing that show night after night. I enjoyed going to rehearsals and everything. One of the things about that experience that left a mark on me that I didn’t even realize until later but I met a lot of interesting people from so many interesting backgrounds. Think about the character breakdown for a moment. There are elderly people, middle aged and young people, black and white, educated and uneducated. My point is that it allowed me to meet and become friends with people from different backgrounds other than the white suburbia that I come from. That is invaluable to me both as a performer and a person. The whole experience changed my outlooks on things. Will Big River stand the test of time? I don’t think that it will be revived on Broadway in the near future. No, but how many community and regional theatres find it attractive to be able to have such a varied group of people on a stage at once in a show that the audience is going to be entertained for. Yes, the show deals with hard issues such as slavery, but it is dealt with much concern and tact. The audience doesn’t go around witnessing beatings of slaves like in Roots or anything, Big River is practically wholesome family entertainment and that is attractive to smaller theatres.
I think the reason it is wholesome family entertainment is because at the core, Big River is about friendship, growing up, and learning through actions. The friendship formed between Huck and Jim is so unlikely in the south, at this time of history. That’s why it’s so interesting and why the book is read in High Schools across the country. Along the course of the two main characters journey down river we see their relationship strengthen from happenstance acquaintances, to the closest of friends. I think this is best illustrated in "Worlds Apart." It very clearly makes the statement that they although they come from different backgrounds and are of different race that the worlds they live in are different to both of them. The first line that Jim sings is, "I see the same stars through my window that you see through yours…but we’re worlds apart." I think that’s why Jim respects Huck’s friendship so much is because he knows that Huck shouldn’t be his friend, but that doesn’t matter to him. Their friendship transcends the prejudices of the people that they live among. It almost seems like an "equality of the races", "everyone should love each other," "save the earth thing." I think most of that comes from Twain though, many things in his book are meant to raise such questions within the reader.
The one sure thing that Twain’s novel and Big River have in common is the fact that they embody the American spirit in their respective mediums. If you can say one thing about Big River, it’s the fact that it’s truly American. The obvious is the fact that it is based on the quintessential American story by the American writer. It takes place in America in a defining moment in American history; we fought a war over slavery that posed brother against brother for Christ’s sake. The score encompasses the truly American styles of music, country and gospel. I almost feel silly comparing what is American about Big River because I can’t think of a thing about it that isn’t American. I think that is the point of the whole thing; it was made to be American. Much like something that George M. Cohan would do at the turn of the century.
Big River, although full of problems in every aspect has a lot of things going right for it too. It opened on Broadway in a year that patrons were pleading for a new musical to come out that they could go and see and come out with a smile on their face. Big River is fun to listen to, had some interesting effects and was able to do what I believe to be it’s true intention, to convey the story of Huckleberry Finn to an audience of all ages and backgrounds, to educate them to some classic literature. It has its shortcomings, yes, but it has good intentions. Howard Kissel wrote,
"As a classics illustrated version of Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ the musical Big River is commendable. It gives you all the important scenes, the key themes, the flavor. But the whole thing seems perfunctory – at no time watching the show do you have the feeling, as you do reading the book, do you get all the excitement and promise of America in the mid 19th century, all the questions about what it is to be an American are reflected in the story about a restless boy and a runaway slave sailing down the Mississippi."