Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman
The story of Big River is as fantastic as any of Roger’s life.
The key man was Rocco Landesman, a former Yale professor at the Yale School of Drama who happened to be the world’s #1 Roger Miller fan. “I thought he was an absolute genius,” Landesman says. On the way to a New York appearance by Roger at the Lone Star Cafe, Landesman conceived the notion that Miller ought to write a Broadway score – and the Adventures of Huckelberry Finn would be the perfect vehicle. He approached Roger’s wife, Mary, after the show. She encouraged him to write a letter to Roger with the idea. Roger jokes, “He made me an offer I couldn’t understand.”
Nevertheless, Landesman wrote a number of letters to Miller and about a year later had him convinced he was the right man for the project. Roger was off on another new journey. Landesman commissioned William Hauptman to adapt Twain’s book and the project was underway.
Roger, initially intimidated, spent a year and a half on the first phase of the musical. He was “writing from every corner of my heart,” as he put it. The play opened at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, then moved to La Jolla, California, where a struggling young actor named John Goodman took the role of Huck’s father, Pap. In the play, Pap’s feature song is “Guv’ment”, which Roger wrote while thinking about the uncle who raised him. Elmer Miller didn’t drink like Pap, but he did “used to cuss out the government,” Roger said.
Big River opened at New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985, during one of the bleakest seasons in the history of the Great White Way. The press offered the hope, which they clearly considered him, that Big River might save the day. As it turned out, the play was a smash hit, earning seven Tony Awards, including Miller’s for best score. When Goodman left the role for the movies, Roger took over his part for three months. He also made an album on MCA, called Roger Miller, on which he sang several songs from the play, including “Guv’ment” and the magnificent “River in the Rain”.
For Roger, Big River was the crowning achievement of a fantastic career that to him only then seemed complete. He is still the only Country artist to win a Tony Award. With Big River a proven success, Roger was able to relax at his Santa Fe home and focus on the family life he had made with Mary and their two young children, Taylor and Adam. “I (had) a brother who’s five and sister (who was) seven,” says Dean Miller, “and they were his all-consuming passion.” Roger had found a happiness with Mary and the children he had longed for all his life.