‘Huckleberry Finn’s Big River’ is presented by Adventure Theatre in co-production with The Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, in association with Rogers and Hammerstein Theatricals and First Stage. William Hauptman wrote the book and Roger Miller wrote music and lyrics. New arrangements and orchestrations by William Yanesh and directed by Michael Baron. All performances are at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County, Maryland and
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I had a chance to ask the Tony Award winning playwright, William Hauptman a few questions.
Playwright William Thornton Hauptman was born in Texas but raised in the Midwest. He earned a B.F.A. in Drama from the University of Texas and an M.F.A in playwrighting at Yale University School of Drama. He has taught playwrighting at Adelphi College and Yale University School of Drama. He received numerous grants for his writing. He won an Obie Award for Playwrighting for “Domino Court/Comanche Café” in 1978, an NAACP Freedom Foundation Award and an Emmy nomination for “Denmark Vessey” a PBS teleplay. He went on to write “Big River” in 1985 with music by Roger Miller in for which they both won a Tony Award. In addition, Hauptman received Boston Theater Critics Circle Award for Best New Musical and San Diego Theatre Critic’s Circle Award for Best New Play. He also won the Los Angeles Drama League Award for Distinguished Playwrighting in 1986. He also relieved the Jesse Jones Award for Best Fiction by a Texas Author from the Texas Institute of “Letters for Good Rockin’ Tonight and Other Stories” in 1986. Other plays by Hauptman include “Heat” and “Shearwater.”
Was it difficult to transform Twain’s classic to the stage? What was easy about it? What was difficult? Please cite examples.
Transforming Twain’s classic to the stage was pretty easy–the first time. Although, surprisingly just before the Broadway opening some people got cold feet about the title and the fact that I’d used the N-word maybe 10 times. I felt everybody was confused but me, but it was important to show the world what Huck and Jim
This version, the TYA (Theatre for Young Audience) version, was written almost 35 years later and doesn’t use the N-word at all. Gradually I’d begun to feel the show didn’t need it, and for a time there was an appendix attached, Big River Errata, explaining this. Of course, it was out of the question for the TYA version. In the end, I think, we have a show that is about freedom and enslavement, but not about prejudice.
The New York Times, reviewing the Encores production of the adult show two years ago, said, “It’s getting hard to be funny about prejudice.” I wasn’t aware we were doing that.
I think of this show as a fitting companion piece to Spielberg’s Lincoln, by Tony Kushner, with contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin.
What was it like to work with the other great writer, Roger Miller? I grew up with his music. It seems the music in “Big River” has a strong connection with his other works. Did he try to keep it consistent or did he want it to be distinctive from his top 20 songs?
In the beginning, Roger didn’t think he could do it. By the time two years had gone by, he’d composed what I think is a fine Broadway score, and very much a descent of his earlier work. (Danny Troob and Linda Twine deserve a lot of credit.) But again, surprisingly, many people didn’t think so at the time. His top 20 songs, it seems to me, beginning with “King of the Road,” are brilliant and completely original. The Big River score is a little more accessible, but still original–a real accomplishment.
How did it feel to win a Tony Award? Did it change your career? Were you surprised?
As I always say, winning a Tony for Best Book of a Musical was like an out-of-the-body experience. There was a flash of light and suddenly Van Johnson was standing in front of me. I had written a TYA musical at the Yale Drama School, and went on to write another adult musical that was largely ignored. But then Frank Rich didn’t like me very much, and Rocco thought that was important. Neither Roger nor I could get very excited about this next idea, a musical of Shane. So, I went to California and wrote screenplays and novels. This show is my return to the stage.
How did you decide what need to be changed and what would be cut for this new version of “Big River?”
Everything that I thought would be disturbing to TYA audiences was cut from the show. I also moved “Waiting for the light to Shine,” which I think was an under-rated song, to the opening of the show, so that it, not “Muddy Water,” becomes the main theme.
Does changing the role of Jim from an adult to a teen change the character and if so, how does it change him?
I can’t tell you how I’ve struggled with the idea of Jim being a teen, not an adult. I’ve still got a lot to learn. In Huckleberry Finn, Jim is much older than Huck. But I’ve come to think of it as a great idea. His friendship with Huck is more innocent and develops faster than it does in the Broadway Big River.