REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
When country music star Roger Miller received an unprecedented six Grammy Awards in 1965, he responded in typical fashion by delivering a quip: “It took me seven years to become an overnight sensation.” Miller’s quick wit and masterful musical ability are central features in King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story, a new musical based on the late songwriter/entertainer’s life that premiered at the Laguna Playhouse on April 19. The show is the result of a collaboration between television writer Cort Casady (Kenny Rogers as the Gambler) and Miller’s third wife, Mary Arnold Miller, best known as being the sole female member of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.
Country music and Broadway haven’t meshed well over the years. Western-themed musicals such as Oklahoma!, Li’l Abner, and Annie Get Your Gun had standard scores penned by Broadway mainstays like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin, but it wasn’t until Roger Miller wrote Big River, the Tony-Award winning 1985 musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that a country music star successfully crossed over to Broadway, writing original songs in the vernacular of a country music songwriter. Now Broadway is returning the favor with Casady and Mary Miller’s stage musical, which uses eighteen of Roger Miller’s songs to help illustrate his roller coaster life.
Although jukebox musicals have increased in frequency on Broadway, few based on country music paragons have made it to the stage. Two of the most notable ones are Lost Highway, a 2002 Off-Broadway flop based on the life of Hank Williams, and Always…Patsy Cline, a well-regarded 1998 play that has flourished in regional productions. Although King of the Road has some obvious problems, in general it is an entertaining, mostly accurate portrayal of one of the most complex and successful entertainers in country music history. (Miller’s life strongly parallels that of Johnny Cash, who underwent a similar transformation, from a debilitating addiction to pills to sobriety, thanks to the love and support of his second wife, June Carter.)
Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1936, Roger Miller grew up in the small town of Erick, Oklahoma. When Roger was only thirteen months old, his father died of spinal meningitis. With his mother unable to care for Roger and his two brothers, the three children were separated and shunted off to live with three of their uncles.
King of the Road uses Miller’s feeling of abandonment and loneliness as a child as a device to explain his self-destructive behavior throughout his life, which included bouts of prodigious amphetamine consumption as well as alcoholism. The story takes place at two pivotal moments in Roger Miller’s professional life: on the set of his short-lived 1966 NBC television variety show and twenty-five years later in 1991, when he performed for the last time, at the Birchmere Theatre in Alexandria Virginia.
In 1966, Miller was riding high on his recent Grammy success, which had gone to his head. Affable and charismatic on stage, Miller was a terror off-stage, belittling members of his band and proclaiming himself “the world’s greatest entertainer.” The authors of King of the Road provided the story with an antagonist, Roger Miller’s younger teenaged self (an outstanding performance by eighteen-year-old Braxton Baker), who lectures the older Roger on his arrogant manner and tries to get him to recognize his self-destructive tendencies that led him to destroy two marriages and threaten his career and his physical well-being.
Jesse Johnson, best known for playing John Wilkes Booth in the blockbuster 2012 television movie Killing Lincoln, is a perfect fit for the adult Roger Miller. Johnson had never heard of Miller when Roger’s widow brought him on board to star in the musical, and subsequently studied Miller’s recordings and YouTube videos voraciously. His singing and vocal mannerisms come startlingly close to the real thing, without showing any evidence of mimicry. Johnson has an easy-going naturalness for the role; in the show, he becomes Roger Miller, right down to his deft guitar picking and inventive, jazz-like scat singing, trademarks in madcap ditties like “Dang Me” and “Do-Wacka-Do.”
In between songs, Johnson and Baker act out scenes from Miller’s life in two sets on either side of the stage: a kitchen and a dressing room. In the kitchen set, we watch a young, rebellious Roger dream of leaving Erick to start a career in music, as well as battling with his first two wives. In the dressing room, an older, more successful, but miserable Miller pops pills, threatens his younger self, and snaps at his loyal sideman, guitarist Thumbs Carllile (Trevor Wheetman).
The episodic nature of the flashbacks range from effectively emotional to clichéd and clunky (In the most blatant of the latter, Miller’s first wife Barbara yells, “I’m tired of your cheatin’ ways!” while throwing dishes at him), but overall, we get a well-rounded portrait of a complicated man severely damaged by the abandonment from his family and forced to go it alone during the early stages of his career.
Roger Miller was taught to play guitar by country star Sheb Wooley, who eventually married Miller’s older sister Melva. The story plays fast and loose with details of Miller’s early career in the 1950s. It ignores his early recordings for the Texas-based Starday label in 1957 and a short-lived stint for Decca the following year and claims that his career began as a sideman, playing fiddle in Ray Price’s band in 1963 while Miller was working as a fireman. (In truth, this occurred five years earlier, after he had already established himself as a promising Nashville songwriter.) But mostly, King of the Road takes great pains to get details of Miller’s career correct, including obscure facts like writing songs for the Disney animated film Robin Hood (for which he also voiced the part of the narrator, the rooster Alan-a-Dale) and detailing his inspiration for writing “King of the Road,” his biggest hit. It was after he played a date in Davenport, Iowa and was heading toward Chicago when Miller saw a road sign that read, “Trailers for sale or rent.” Several weeks later, he was still thinking about that phrase when he was in Boise, Idaho, where he bought a statue of a hobo in a thrift shop, and stared at it until the rest of the song came to him.
In addition to the title song, the show’s score includes other Miller hits like “Chug-a-Lug” and “Engine Engine No. 9” as well as some unexpected surprises, including “The Moon Is High (and So Am I)” (one of the wackier songs from his first album for Smash records, Roger and Out), the cheery “Walkin’ in the Sunshine,” and the catchy “It Happened Just That Way,” a track he first recorded for RCA Victor in 1963. Three songs from Big River are also included, with Johnson singing beautifully on the musical’s signature number, the exquisite “River in the Rain.”
As a songwriter, Roger Miller can best be compared to another Oklahoma product, Woody Guthrie. Miller’s genius for quick-witted repartee was reflected not just in his whacked-out novelty songs, but also in ingenious turns of phrases in introspective and poetic songs of pain and loneliness. King of the Road uses two of these, both written in 3/4 time: “When Two Worlds Collide” and “Husbands and Wives.”
The script is peppered with actual Roger-isms, such as his poverty growing up (“We were so poor, we spelled it with five o’s – pooooor.”), Erick, Oklahoma (“It was too small to have a town drunk, so we all took turns”), views on marriage (“You give them a ring and they give you the finger”), his limited education (“Korea – Clash of ’52”), songwriting (“I’m kind of a Jekyll and Hammerstein”), and his third marriage (“It’s a mixed marriage. She’s Presbyterian and I’m bipolar”).
The small, eight person cast includes, in addition to Johnson and Baker, the four members of Miller’s backup band (Trevor Wheetman on guitar, drummer Matt Tucci, bassist Omar D. Brancato, and pianist Kevin F. Story) and two female performers (Lindsey Alley and Brittney Bertier) who portray the various women in Miller’s life, including his three wives. Bertier was especially good as Miller’s third wife Mary, who sings her own composition, “I’ll Cry Just For You,” the only non-Roger Miller song in the show. The talented guitarist Trevor Wheetman was an inspired choice as Kenneth “Thumbs” Carllile, the only musician of the four band members based on a real person, although it was a shame Wheetman wasn’t allowed to play lap-style, like with a Dobro, with his thumbs, an unusual technique that gave Carllile his nickname.
Although Roger Miller died from lung cancer in 1992 at the young age of 56, he lived long enough to experience his most satisfying achievement, the conquering of Broadway with Big River. Late in his career, Miller was asked how he would like to be remembered. In typical Miller fashion, he responded, “I just don’t want to be forgotten.” With any luck, King of the Road will help grant Miller’s wish.
King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story plays at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach through May 14. For tickets, visit www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Later this week on VC On Stage, we talk with Jesse Johnson about playing Roger Miller.