Since I was a kid, I always thought of the Mississippi River as magical. I loved imagining the explorers making their way down the mighty Mississippi and “discovering” new lands and people. My childhood reading of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, coupled with visits to Mud Island in Memphis, reinforced those romantic images.
It also added new visions of Huck and Jim floating down the river and getting involved with ridiculous schemes and scrapes on their journey to freedom.
Writer William Hauptman and country music singer/songwriter Roger Miller must have been haunted by similar visions, and in 1984 they brought their talents together to create Big River, a musical retelling of Twain’s classic novel. Their project went on to win three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.
In thinking of what musical to program for AST’s 2012 season, Big River seemed a perfect fit. Like Shakespeare, Twain was a keen observer of humanity and its contradictions. Hauptman and Miller have captured Twain’s novel brilliantly, and have found a way to bring Huck’s dilemma to life on stage: should he send his soul straight to the devil by helping the slave Jim to escape, or do the “right” thing and obey the law by returning Jim to his master? On top of that, the songs are alternatively bright and soul-stirring, capturing the flavor of the rural old south with strains of the fiddle, banjo, and harmonica. All together, it is a musical that kids, entranced with the power of that Mighty Water, or adults, enjoying Twain’s sharp wit, can enjoy together.