Welcome to Lyric Theatre and our first show of 2023!
The musical you are about to see has had a long and interesting journey. Our story first begins in 1885 with the publishing of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. According to Twain, the adventures in this book happened 50 years earlier in 1835. Twain was reflecting on the events that shaped our nation – both tragic and hopeful. The creators of the 1985 Broadway musical, BIG RIVER, also were reflecting and commenting on this difficult period of American history when they decided to bring the story of Huckleberry Finn, an enslaved person, Jim, and the other characters from the novel to theatrical life.
The music and lyrics were written by the late singer-songwriter and Oklahoma-born Roger Miller. The book, or script, was written by Tony Award-winner Bill Hauptman. The musical has been beloved by many theater-makers as well as audiences since 1985. However, in the past decade, the musical has become more problematic in its portrayal of both the white and African-American characters. Also, by adapting the book, the musical becomes unbalanced in the opportunities given to the actors telling the story of this difficult period in American history. While I do believe Twain was a humanist and believed all of us are created equal, some of the language and situations in the book have become traumatic for many when they are lifted off of the page and brought onto the stage in the present day. This doesn’t mean the musical shouldn’t be performed, but like all stage productions, must be looked at through the lens of the present day.
Our rehearsals have been an exploration of both the original novel, the musical, and the current conversations we are having in America about race and our legacy of slavery. Most importantly, we are looking for ways for this production to help us all come together to move forward with kindness, understanding and acknowledgement. This new version of BIG RIVER, geared for young audiences, was the idea of Michael Bobbitt, the former artistic director of Adventure Theatre in Washington, D.C. He thought that if Huck and Jim were the same age and were actually played by teenagers, the show could become a way to show how the power of children can change the world. He also wanted input from the African-American community during its development to make sure this new version was a positive experience for all children and families coming to see the show. Most importantly, he asked Hauptman, the writer of the original BIG RIVER, if he would be interested in creating this new version. Bill enthusiastically agreed to write this new version with input from the African-American community and creative team. I have both acted in and directed previous productions of BIG RIVER, and to be able to work with and learn from Bill on this production has been a true honor. This is the third stop in a three-theatre collaboration, and at each stop, we’ve made changes to bring clarity and hope to this heartfelt musical. We’re excited to announce this Theatre for Young Audiences BIG RIVER will soon be available for theatres and schools to perform everywhere.
I would like to give a special thank you to both Associate Director Monique Midgette and Assistant Director Lauren Harrison for sharing their talents and guidance throughout this production’s creation and development.
And, thank you for joining us on this journey and supporting live theatre created here in Oklahoma! Feel free to share your thoughts with us – both kids and adults – on the production and any conversations it might have sparked!