It's more or less a footnote in Broadway history, but in 1985 this musical version of Mark Twain's seminal novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took the Great White Way by storm. In addition to critical praise and booming box office sales, Big River went home with seven Tony Awards that year, including statues for Best Musical and Best Score. But after a solid run of almost 1,100 performances, the show vanished upriver, joining the ranks of such long-forgotten productions as Superman: The Musical and The Civil War. That's a shame, because Big River is actually an enjoyable and thought-provoking musical, the kind you don't see very often on the post-Les Miserables Broadway scene. Primary credit for the show's quality should go to composer and lyricist Roger Miller, who drew upon his background as a country and jazz musician to craft songs which married the Americana sound to Broadway style. Big River's best numbers -- which include "River in the Rain," "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go," and "Muddy Water" -- are as rousing as any classic show tune, but their roots in old-time country music tempers them from turning overly bombastic. Miller's lyrics are equally strong, which is impressive considering the stature of the source material he's adapting. It's clear that he respects Twain too much to simply parrot passages from the novel in his lyrics; rather he uses music as a way to evoke the emotions and themes that Twain embedded in his prose. "River in the Rain" in particular showcases Miller's ability to capture Twain's spirit in song. Sung by Huck and the runaway slave, Jim, as they float upriver toward freedom, "River in the Rain" ably sums up the novel's long descriptions about the duo's life on the Mississippi while also delving into what the river symbolizes to both men. By the final chorus, Miller has painted a rich portrait of Huck and Jim's physical and emotional journeys on the water. Unfortunately, not every number is on the level of "River in the Rain." Indeed there are several tracks where Miller's melding of Broadway and Americana decidedly fails. Songs like "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?" and "The Boys" struggle too hard to replicate that down-home country feeling within the context of a large production number. It doesn't help that some of the actors play up their "authentic" Southern accents to an almost comical degree. Miller's foray into gospel, heard in the songs "The Crossing" and "How Blest We Are," is equally unsuccessful; he mimics the sound well enough, but the end result lacks any real passion. The most problematic track, however, is "Worlds Apart," the only number in the entire musical that directly addresses the issue of racism. In and of itself, it's not a bad song; the tune is pretty and the lyrics communicate the message clearly without becoming overly sappy. But overall, "Worlds Apart" is far too restrained and self-conscious to be considered a success. No doubt aware of the load the song has to bear, Miller keeps things simple and direct by having Jim explain to Huck that even though he sees "The same stars through my window that you see through yours," they will always exist in different worlds. Fine sentiments, but when placed alongside Twain's complex treatment of race, these lyrics can't help but seem somewhat trite and simplistic. Despite its flaws, Big River remains a good musical and a strong, if simplified, adaptation of Twain's novel. It's a particularly good show for children and young teenagers, who will be entertained by the bouncy tunes and genuinely moved by Jim's plight. Above all, it provides both younger and older audiences with a gateway into the original book; it's somehow a little easier to navigate Twain's dense prose with "Muddy Water" playing in your head.
Share this page