Big River

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman

The minds behind the creation of Big River were Rocco Landesman, a former professor at the Yale School of Drama who was also Roger’s number one fan, and his wife Heidi who was a set designer.

“I thought he was an absolute genius. I knew more about Roger than he did,” – Rocco Landesman

The Landesman’s went to see Roger’s performance at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City. After the show, they approached Roger’s wife, Mary, and presented the idea that Roger write a Broadway score, feeling that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be the perfect choice. She encouraged them to write a letter to Roger explaining their idea. Rocco wrote a number of letters to Roger in hopes of persuading him to write the music but Roger kept telling Rocco that he couldn’t write seventeen songs about the same thing. Finally, after much cajoling, Roger accepted because “Rocco made me an offer I couldn’t understand”.

Roger spent a year and a half on the first phase of the musical. The first opening was at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre. There were only seven songs and the performance was a long three and a half hours.

The play then moved to the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California. Roger continued to write more songs and William Hauptman continued to write the book for the musical. A new cast was hired and rehearsals for another production began. John Goodman, a struggling young actor at the time, won the role of Huck’s father, Pap. His feature song was “Guv’ment” about Pap’s dislike for the government, which Roger wrote while thinking about his uncle E.D. Miller who raised him.

“How could we fail? We’re so sincere” – Roger Miller

Rocco successfully guided the musical to Broadway. The production, directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Janet Watson, opened on April 25, 1985 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and closed on September 20, 1987, running for 1,005 performances.

When John Goodman left the play to focus on his film career, Roger took over the part of Pap for three months. During this time Roger recorded a self-titled album through MCA. Several of the songs on the album were from the play, including “Guv’ment” and the moving “River in the Rain”.

On June 9th, 1985, Big River won seven Tony awards. Roger won for Best Original score, lyrics and music. He is still the only Country artist to win a Tony Award. Roger said, “This is something that will take a long time to absorb. The songs were coming from every piece of my heart”.