The 1984/1985 Broadway season was one of the worst on record, worse than any other in Broadway history except for the legendarily awful ’88/’89 season. For the first time in Tony Award history, whole categories were skipped over because there was simply nothing worth nominating. Only one thing kept hope for the American musical alive at the time…a sole gem in this dungheap of a season that still stands as one of the all-time triumphs of adapting fiction into song. That one beacon of hope was a musical version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a score by Country singer-songwriter Roger Miller.
Now, at least two previous attempts had been made by musical-theater veterans to musicalize Huckleberry Finn, but both versions had ultimately been abandoned in defeat before they were even finished. One was by Kurt (The Threepenny Opera) Weill and Maxwell (What Price Glory?) Anderson, intended as a followup to their collaboration on Lost in the Stars. The other was a prospective movie musical by Alan Jay (My Fair Lady) Lerner and Burton (Finian’s Rainbow) Lane.
And to be honest, as much respect as I have for all of those artists, I can’t see either of them successfully pulling it off. Weill, for all his genius, was a European Semiclassical composer, far too self-consciously sophisticated for the material (which, while in reality extremely sophisticated, calls for a feeling of elemental simplicity). As for Lerner, he was an Ivy League graduate, and for all his genius, he would have been writing about imaginary scenarios and characters he had never personally encountered, which is not how Twain approached the material at all. No, to do this material justice, they needed a Country musician who came from the same roots as Huckleberry himself, and that’s exactly what they found in Roger Miller, who would serve as this show’s composer.
Miller probably didn’t seem as obvious a choice at the time as he does now, though. He had once had a thriving career as a writer and singer of hilarious Country novelty songs, but by the end of the Sixties, his crippling alcoholism had reduced him to performing covers of inferior Country songs written by far less interesting songwriters. On top of that, his only previous experience with musicals had been writing most of the songs for the dreadful Disney animated version of Robin Hood, including the legendarily awful “Whistle-Stop” that opens the film.
But the show’s producers took a chance on him, and he delivered his Magnum Opus here. The score is a mix of lyrical ballads like “River In the Rain”, “Worlds Apart”, and “Leavin’s Not the Only Way To Go” that capture the novel’s nature-rhapsody and depth of humanity beautifully, and raucous comedy numbers like “Guv’Ment”, “Hand for the Hog” and “When The Sun Goes Down In the South”, which perfectly match the novel’s style of humor. There are also a few spirituals throw in, including “The Crossing”, “How Blest We Are”, and the painfully beautiful “Free At Last” that serve to keep the show from losing sight of the racial issues at the core of the story.
The show’s centerpiece is the gorgeous gospel-flavored anthem “Waitin’ For the Light To Shine”. We hear a brief taste of it in Act One, serving as a kind of foreshadowing, but the full version is reserved for the key moment of decision in Act Two. You all know the one I’m talking about…the “All right, I’ll go to Hell!” moment. Some have accused the song of being, for all its beauty, little more than a generic Gospel song, but it only seems that way if all you pay attention to is the chorus. The verses, on the contrary, are a kind of anti-Gospel song, slamming the door on the possibility of salvation and refusing to take the blame for it because, after all, it is “The way that (he) was taught to run”. This is, of course, exactly what the moment calls for, and it is one of the greatest musicalizations of a key fictional moment in Broadway history.
The show is admittedly not flawless. The book is almost dogmatically faithful to its source, but it doesn’t show nearly as much inspiration in bringing the spirit of the novel to life as the score does. It also tries to fit as much of the novel’s content as possible into the show, meaning that unabridged productions are long, verbose, and heavy in proportion (then again, it’s still based on the story of Huckleberry Finn, so it’s still pretty hard to convincingly complain about the result).
The score itself occasionally fails to match the novel’s details…for example, Pap Finn’s “Guv’Ment”, while it perfectly captures the style Twain generally used when satirizing the government, is rather too likable for the irredeemable monster Pap is portrayed as in Twain’s novel. But a few minor hiccups are inevitable when doing this kind of adaptation, and on the whole, between the immortal story being told and the degree to which the score captures and compliments it, this is one of the greatest musicals of the Eighties, and serves as a model class in how to adapt great fiction into musical theater.