In this first of three features on the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of Big River, co-producers/directors Beverly and Kirby Ward discuss their vision for bringing the Tony Award-winning adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the intimate Rubicon stage.
VCOS: Would you consider Big River a “golden age” style musical or is it something more modern?
KIRBY: I think it’s more modern. It’s got very challenging subject matter because it’s placed in a very, very dark era in history. The older, more traditional musicals didn’t deal with dark subjects.
VCOS: Well, look at Rodgers and Hammerstein. They dealt with race in South Pacific and even Nazism in The Sound of Music.
KIRBY: They did indeed and they were ahead of their time. In 1928, Hammerstein did Show Boat, which was a lot about race.
BEVERLY: And they were the first to put a mixed race cast on stage, which was unheard of. Show Boat was, like, groundbreaking.
KIRBY: But what’s interesting about this show is that although it takes place in 1850, the score is not from 1850. It’s more contemporary.
BEVERLY: There’s bluegrass, there’s gospel, there’s straight country-western, there are patter songs, which were Roger Miller’s stock-in-trade.
VCOS: I like to call the music an Americana score because it mixes all of these traditional roots-like elements, which was Roger Miller’s musical language all along.
BEVERLY: Oftentimes, when someone does a period piece now and they use contemporary music, the music is very definitely from right now, but Roger Miller wrote songs that sound right for the piece in his voice, so it was contemporary in that way. But it is definitely not pop.
VCOS: Roger Miller was not really country. It had a greater sophistication to it, and his goofier songs really had a lot of jazz and scat singing in it.
KIRBY: I’ve heard people describe him as the intellectual country artist.
VCOS: He wouldn’t have liked that.
KIRBY: (laughs) He wouldn’t? But I’ve heard country artists who knew him say that. His lyrics are clever and cerebral and he uses a lot of word play.
BEVERLY: Which makes his songs such a great fit for Mark Twain.
VCOS: I consider him one of the handful of geniuses in country music songwriting.
KIRBY: I kind of look at Big River as a play with music, really. There are some very rich characters in this story and the acting takes real acting ability.
VCOS: Do you consider the characters constructs or do you treat them as real people?
KIRBY: I’m treating them as real people. I try to. That’s how you get to the story. Huck is a real person dealing with a real situation, so I have to determine how he would react to it. But Big River is kind of a timeless treatment because at times, Huck addresses the audience as if they are an audience in 1850.
VCOS: We wonder what Twain thought about these characters when he created them. Were they real or were they supposed to represent the times?
BEVERLY: I think Mark Twain deeply understood that archetypes are archetypes for a reason. Those people genuinely existed, and if he treated them in a fluffy or light and don’t take them seriously, even when they seem like caricatures, it won’t work. They are not caricatures. They have to be dealt with as – where is their true humanity? Are they good, bad, funny, touching, whatever, where is their truth.
VCOS: Did you study treatments of the characters in the novel?
KIRBY: I’ve read it many, many times so my approach to it is to really look at the characters, look at the situations, and try and tell the story as well as I can. I don’t consider myself a Mark Twain scholar of any kind…
BEVERLY: You know, we went on this trip with patrons to Hannibal, walking in the steps of Twain. Kirby wasn’t able to go with me, which was a bummer, but we had this wonderful breakfast where we met with this man named Henry Sweets, who is THE Mark Twain scholar. And what was very interesting was that he said that when you’re married for a long time, a person shares thoughts and stories and Kirby knew a lot about Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain. And at this breakfast, Henry would say something and I’d say, “I’ve heard Kirby talk about that!” That was really interesting to me. You know your stuff, so I consider you a scholar.
VCOS: When you’re dealing with someone of the stature of Mark Twain, does that make you a little more cautious when you’re handling his material and the huge legacy he left?
KIRBY: Yeah, and maybe that’s why I love this show so much because when William Hauptman wrote it, he was very, very true to Twain’s words. If I were writing the show myself, yes, I would find that daunting, to put Mark Twain’s work on stage. After all, he is one of the greatest of our literary geniuses. But I didn’t have to do that. Hauptman did it for me, and he did such a nice job. Many of the words and scenes in the show are taken right from the book. So it’s been my job to get into the heads of these characters and figure out how to represent what went on in this stories in a visual fashion. To me, Huck represents what was good about America. He has a good heart and a good soul, but is born in a time of slavery and has been taught the structures of slavery, meaning that it is illegal to help a slave escape and all these things. So he’s reacting to his own conscience.
VCOS: Using Oscar Hammerstein’s song, Huck was “carefully taught.”
KIRBY: He was. And he was taught that owning slaves was just and you don’t help escape slaves. And he tries to live like that, but when he helps this slave, he feels like he’s going to hell.
VCOS: Is he helping him because his conscience tells him so or is he just naturally rebellious against all norms?
KIRBY: You see, that’s what’s so great about the show! He’s not rebelling for the sake of rebelling. He’s rebelling because the goodness in him is seeing the situation and reacting against what he’s been taught. And that’s why throughout the show he feels like he’s damned to the fires of hell. He says, “I don’t care! I guess I’m a bad person.” That, to me, makes him such a great character, because he is so conflicted about right and wrong.
VCOS: What were you looking for when you were casting for this show?
KIRBY: I love natural actors who are not theatrical, if you know what I mean. They have to have some vulnerability and I think Huck is a very vulnerable character. He’s a kid searching for the right path. So that’s what I look for. Someone who can be hurt if things don’t go quite right and who can stand up and make a statement. Casting is tricky.
BEVERLY: I did a lot of the pre-screening of actors. They send in videotape through an online service called Actors Access, and I know what Kirby wants, so it was all about finding people who were more about “being” than “acting.”
KIRBY: And for Huck, he talks to the audience a lot, so we needed someone personable so that when he turns to the audience to talk, you have to like this person. And he’s talking right to you.
VCOS: The quality of the singing voices are not really important except for Jim. He has to have a big voice.
KIRBY: Yes, he does.
BEVERLY: And these vocal arrangements they have for this show are beautiful. But each person in the cast has to have a really good ear, so even though we tried to find people who were actors first, it was very important they were musical as well.
KIRBY: As far as the Jim character goes, there has to be a certain dignity or nobility to the character. He is doing something that he knows he could be lynched for, and in the process, becomes a role model for Huck, almost a fatherlike figure. So I was looking for someone with those particular qualities, and we got him in David Damane. He was a great find.
BEVERLY: Casting is such a funny puzzle because we started maybe two months before we started rehearsal. And by the time we cast the final person in the show, it was the night before we started because it took us that long to find just the right people. We saw so many people and finally, two weeks before we were supposed to start, we put out another call. Maybe there was someone we hadn’t seen yet. So we put out another nationwide call because we still hadn’t found our Jim or our Alice. And that’s how we found David.
In our next installment, Beverly and Kirby talk about the unusual and evocative immersive staging, in which audience members, some of whom are seated on stage, almost become part of the action. Big River plays at the Rubicon Theatre Company through November 10. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.