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Miller Astonished Self, Critics With 'Big River'

September 04, 1987|MARK CHALON SMITH

There was a time when Roger Miller thought he had as much business composing the score for a major Broadway musical as, well, roller skating in a buffalo herd.

But Miller--a country/pop troubadour best known for such humorous 1960s chart climbers as "King of the Road," "Dang Me" and "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd"--surprised himself and the New York theater establishment when his 18 songs for "Big River" won a Tony two years ago.

The show, based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," eventually raked in seven Tonys and is still playing to full houses at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, and has catapulted Miller from a good ol' boy minstrel who hadn't had a top record in years into a Broadway prince.

Clearly tickled by it all, Miller, 50, mused on how such a thing could happen and on the vagaries of "Big River" during a recent telephone interview from St. Louis, where he was booked for a week-long concert engagement. The musical makes its Southern California debut in a national touring production opening at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday and running through Sept. 19.

"I have to say that it all came as kind of a shock, coming from left field the way it did," Miller said, the words slanted by his lazy Oklahoma twang. "It was my first exposure to musicals, my first time with a Broadway producer, and I didn't really see myself as that kind of a person.

"It was pretty heady stuff. . . . What I can tell you is that I'm sure glad it came by because, looking back, I wouldn't have missed any of it for the world."

He probably wouldn't have been involved at all if it weren't for Rocco Landesman, "Big River's" producer, who had decided from the show's earliest moments that only Miller would write the songs. A fan since the '60s, Landesman believed Miller's Americana-steeped imagery and language were needed to give the musical the right rustic atmosphere.

Landesman approached Miller in 1982, but the songwriter wasn't that impressed with the idea. His lack of Broadway experience--he had only seen two other musicals in his life, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and the movie version of "Oklahoma!"--and his outsider's status made the project seem daunting. And then there was the question of Twain. Miller shyly admitted that he had never read "Huckleberry Finn" and was only remotely interested in the story.

Landesman kept prodding, and eventually Miller agreed to look at the playbook written by William Hauptman. He liked what Hauptman had done, and it led him to the novel. Almost with each page, he said, came inspiration and ideas. Miller told Landesman that he would write the score.

"In the end, it didn't take much convincing; the songs just started coming to me, along with the music, and I realized I could write the production stuff that was needed," he said. "The novel got me thinking about my own people and experiences growing up in Oklahoma, working in the cotton fields as a boy, the pain and stuff of living (in the country). I found I could use a lot of that in the songs."

"Big River's" characters are poor, folksy and simple, like the people Miller encountered in his hometown of Erick, Okla. Miller's home didn't have electricity until he was 8, and he didn't use a telephone until he was 17.

"I knew the meat of the story because my people were like the Twain people, and I tried to use that to make the songs accessible," he said. "I felt that theatrical people aim at the critics a lot, but I wanted to raise the people out of their seats (with the songs). The critics can't deny it when you do that."

Miller didn't need to fret. Although some reviewers sniped at his score (WABC-TV's Joel Siegel said Miller had "rewritten 'King of the Road' six times and tried to pass it off as a Broadway score"), most embraced it as original and engaging. Newsweek's Jack Kroll, for instance, succinctly described the songs as "beautiful" and the musical as "bringing an American treasure to life with color and nobility."

Much of the score's success, Miller believes, comes from his natural affinity for "light and airy" styles and a far-ranging knowledge of country music. The songs--from the evangelical "Free at Last" (inspired by the words on Martin Luther King Jr.'s headstone) to the comical "Hand for the Hog" (an argument for the pig as man's best friend)--have the flavor of waltzes, square dances, fiddle-playing hoedowns and gospels.

Considering Miller's musical roots, the influences were predictable.

Miller's earliest hero was Hank Williams, whose songs inspired Miller to buy his first guitar (for $8). Miller listened to the country and Western stars of the day, learned as much as he could and, after serving in the Army, journeyed to Nashville.

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