BY CARY GINELL
Last week we reviewed the Laguna Playhouse’s production of King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story. The show stars Jesse Johnson, a veteran of Lonesome Traveler, the successful Off-Broadway musical that told the history of the folk music revival through songs by the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. The show was a success in several runs at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura.
In King of the Road, Johnson turned to Roger Miller, an inordinately talented songwriter and entertainer who helped take country music to Hollywood through his sophisticated ballads and zany novelty numbers in the 1960s. Johnson was still a toddler when Miller died of cancer in 1992, but he has proved to be a good study of Miller’s performance style and mercurial personality, both of which are on display in the musical. We spoke with Jesse after last week’s Saturday matinee.
VCOS: Tell me how you heard about King of the Road and how you got the role.
JESSE: Well, I played a show here at the Laguna Playhouse about a year-and-a-half ago and the writers and director of King of the Road were in the audience and liked my performance. They mentioned it to my father during intermission and my father said, “Oh, yeah! He’s absolutely Roger Miller!” Then after the show, my dad said to me, “They were totally talking about you playing Roger Miller” and I said, “Who’s Roger Miller?” Then he looked at me like he was going to disown me and said, “You’ve got to listen to this guy,” so I cued it up on Spotify and listened to everything that I could. And I was immediately fascinated with this dude because he was such a character. Then as I started diving into the story, I thought, wow, this is something that I can do.
VCOS: Roger Miller was trained as a country musician. He played backup for guys like Ray Price and Faron Young, two of the biggest stars in Nashville in the ’50s. But after he became a star, he had more mainstream crossover appeal than anyone who came before him, without changing his style. How did you go about understanding his particular charisma, his performing style, and in particular, what he really was at the heart – a songwriting genius?
JESSE: Well, I had a head start because of the songwriting genius part. That had already been done. He had already written these amazing songs. The biggest help was the fact that I knew that he didn’t want to be associated with the country scene as much as the Rat Pack scene. And I know what it’s like to play that, so I researched that. We don’t have a lot of control over what hits in this business, right? So if I were somehow, all of a sudden, pegged as a country-western star, but dug biker movies, I would try to get photographed as much as I could in leather and assless chaps. I never really thought of it in that way, but that’s one way I might go about it. But that was his thing – the Rat Pack vibe rather than the country vibe.
VCOS: Many of his songs appear to be nonsensical on the surface, but in getting to know his music, did you get an impression of a lot of autobiographical material in his songs?
JESSE: Absolutely, and even though they sounded like nonsense, there was a deeper meaning to them. For instance, if you think about You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd, this was coming out in the mi-1960s during the hippie movement, San Francisco, and Haight-Ashbury, so it’s really talking about non-conformity in a really interesting way. And also Chug-a-Lug. That was pretty on-the-nose and outrageous to be singing a song on the radio about drinking, but that was proof of his I-don’t-give-a-shitness character, which is what makes him so fun to play because he’s so devil-may-care and has no regard for rules or conventions of what is accepted. So he wrote outside of that box in a really clever way, and he was so bright and so quick, it allowed him to separate himself from the mainstream in Nashville.
VCOS: What’s the hardest thing about playing Roger Miller?
JESSE: I think the biggest challenge was to keep him likable, because he did have such a dark side that we did not see. One of the objectives of this story is to tell part of it. So you have to see the human in him, you can’t just see someone who’s this unlikable misanthrope, roaming around in his dressing room being awful. You have to see the pain behind it. So I think that was the biggest challenge I faced: how do I play against the traps in this script as far as how much he could come across as an asshole.
VCOS: On stage, he had a very easy-going, affable way of connecting with the audience. Is that a deceptively hard thing to do?
JESSE: I really don’t know. Now how do I say this without sounding hubristic? I didn’t find that to be particularly difficult. You know what you know what you know, and you know it’s gonna work. Right? Like he wrote these things. He was funny. You have an audience that is gonna get it and remember it, and by the way, the worst thing you can do as an actor is push anything. So it’s a wonderful exercise where I can say to myself, “Oh. I really get to lay back and let this work.” Because that’s the way he was.
It’s not a major difference, but there are some subtle things that I would do for a film version of this because for stage, you have to turn it up a little bit because you have to play to the back of the room. On TV, he was very dry and understated and full of subtle little things, even more effortless.
VCOS: How much did you watch of his stuff on YouTube?
JESSE: To tell you the truth, I didn’t watch a whole lot because I didn’t want to do a Roger Miller mimic. I wanted to find out where this character lived inside of me.
VCOS: I think you really reached that balance, where you didn’t cross over from one side to the other.
VCOS: It’s very believable, but we could tell it was still you not doing him, but becoming him.
JESSE: That was the idea.
VCOS: Did you work with Mary, his widow? [Mary Arnold Miller was Roger Miller’s third wife and co-writer of King of the Road with Cort Casady]
JESSE: I asked her a few questions here and there. But that was one of those things that I had to block out for the first little bit, that the person who I was playing, his widow was sitting in front of me, watching. I got the sense from her that she had a real faith in me, so I felt her trust, but for some reason, I subconsciously wouldn’t let myself dive into the crazy-making notion of “Oh, my God, what is she going to think?” It didn’t even occur to me to let that happen.
VCOS: What other ways did you research his personality and personal life. Did you talk to anybody who knew him?
JESSE: My dad knew him.
VCOS: How did your dad know him?
JESSE: From hanging around with Dean Martin and those guys in Vegas. My dad’s an actor and was a man-about-town in the ’70s and ran around with those guys. So he met Roger Miller a couple of times and since he also grew up in the Midwest, I asked him how he got out of Missouri. And what I meant was specifically, how did he get out. Did he take a train or a plane or a bus or a car? Because I was hammering on objects in the script and one of them was trains. We were on a plane coming back from my grandfather’s funeral and I remember telling him I was dealing with this train object so I asked him this question, and it turned into this amazing story about the whole journey which literally had nothing to do with the work that I was doing. But I’ll never forget it. What this did was illuminate what getting out of the Midwest was really like. I didn’t have that. I was born in Southern California and grew up in Colorado and, by comparison, have lived a pretty charmed life. And by the way, you can plug this story into Johnny Cash, Brian Wilson, Ray Charles, it’s almost like they’re telling you, “This is what you do. You get a hit song. Then you get addicted to pills. And then someone dies. And then you fall in love with the girl in your band.” It’s almost like there’s a rule book and I can’t wait to read it: The Musician’s Social Register.
VCOS: I got the connection between Miller and Johnny Cash just by watching this. Their lives were very similar, they got started around the same time period, became hooked on pills, and were saved by a woman who was not his first marriage.
JESSE: Exactly. If you think about it, man, there’s a wealth of information out there. It’s archetypal and the work narrows down to specificity on what he’s like. So I watched a few videos to get his voice, but I don’t smoke three packs a day, so I knew that there was no way I was going to get to the back of the room talking in that smoky, low voice for the entire show. If they shoot a movie, I can probably do it. So I use my normal speaking voice.
VCOS: Is there a movie in the works and if there was, would you consider it?
JESSE: Oh, I don’t know. There’s a weirdness about the fleetingness of fame. This guy was Taylor Swift. And no one knows who he is. I have maybe one or two friends who knows who Roger Miller is. It’s wild, man.
VCOS: He was like a shooting star. He vanished pretty much after the TV show got canceled in 1966. He was still there, making records all through the 1970s, but for a while he stopped writing songs. He did an album in 1973 called Dear Folks, Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately and started writing great songs again. Incidentally, I must compliment you on your scatting. It’s not an exact imitation of what Roger did on his records so I’m guessing you’re really improvising there. Is that correct?
JESSE: Yes, it is. Thanks. I change it up every night. The structure of the show is so fluid, that you have to throw little kernels in there in order to keep yourself on your toes.
VCOS: That’s what he would do.
JESSE: Yeah. And I also tweak the jokes. You know, this one is not landing quite right so I change it up a little. A couple at today’s show were just laughing at everything I did so I thought, cool, those are working now.
VCOS: That’s where the acting part comes in.
JESSE: I guess so. Yeah. But there’s nothing like it. It’s so fun.
VCOS: Well, I hope this show goes elsewhere after you’re done here.
JESSE: I do, too. I’d love to continue on with it and allow it to take shape and even blow it up a little bit. Let’s breathe a little bit more into it!
King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story plays through May 14 at the Laguna Playhouse. For tickets, visit www.lagunaplayhouse.com.