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BIG RIVER 1985 Tony Awards
RISE & SHINE BROADWAY FANS!! The 74th Annual Tony Awards is just 37 DAYS AWAY. We continue to celebrate the return of the Great Bright Way leading up to Broadway’s biggest night on our TOP 50 TONY AWARDS COUNTDOWN. We have so many more iconic performances from previous telecasts coming up. All of this truly celebrates what makes Broadway the place that it is.
Our selection at # 37 on our countdown today takes us to Missouri during its era prior before the Civil War. It follows the journey of a rebellious teenager and a runaway slave encountering a group of conmen, an orphaned family, and tons of prejudice. This is a tale from the BIG RIVER…… or known as THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Based on Mark Twain’s best selling classic 1884 novel, this musical features an unbelievable blend of bluegrass and country in its score written by Roger Miller. The book is by William Hauptman.
From the 1985 telecast, Daniel Jenkins as “Huckleberry Finn”, Ron Richardson as “Jim”, and the cast perform a medley of MUDDY WATER and RIVER IN THE RAIN.
BIG RIVER was developed and first performed in 1984 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. It later played at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, CA.
With the success of its premiere productions, the show transferred to Broadway the following year of 1985 playing the Eugene O’Neill Theatre for 22 previews and 1,005 regular performances. Under the direction of Des McAnuff and choreography by Janet Watson, the cast was led by….
Daniel Jenkins (later Martin Moran and Brian Lane Green) as “Huckleberry Finn”,
Ron Richardson (later Larry Riley and George Robert Merritt) as “Jim”,
Rene Auberjonis (later Russell Leib, Brent Spiner, Ken Jenkins, and Stephen Mellor) as “The Duke”,
Bob Gunton (later Michael McCarthy) as “The King”,
Patti Cohenhour (later Karla DeVito and the Broadway debut of the late Marin Mazzie) as “Mary Jane Wilkes”
John Short as “Tom Sawyer”,
Gordon Connell as “Mark Twain” and others,
And more.
The original production became one of the few successful American musicals in the mid 1980’s to be performed amongst the time of shows that were coming to Broadway from the UK. It was nominated that same year for 11 Tony Awards winning 7 including BEST MUSICAL. BEST SCORE (for Roger Miller), BEST BOOK (for William Hauptman), and BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL (for Ron Richardson). It also won 8 Drama Desk Awards and a special Theatre World Award (for Patti Cohenhour).
BIG RIVER would later be revived on Broadway 18 years later. That recent revival in 2003 was a transfer of a successful production produced by California’s Deaf West Theatre. It featured a mix of deaf actors using sign language as the characters and hearing actors doing all the acting & singing for the signing actors. See, all of this is very Powerful accessible theater for everyone. In association with the Roundabout Theatre Company, this production played Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre for a limited engagement of 28 previews and 67 regular performances. Under the direction and choreography by Jeff Calhoun, the cast was led by…..
Daniel Jenkins reprising his performance from the original production as “Huckleberry Finn” but providing the vocals with Tyrone Giordano signing as the role. Jenkins also played “Mark Twain” in this production,
Michael McElroy doing the signing, acting, and singing as “Jim”,
Walter Charles providing the voice and Troy Kotsur signing as “The Duke” and others,
Lyle Kanouce doing the signing, acting, and singing as “The King” and others,
Melissa Van Der Schyff doing the signing, acting, and singing as “Mary Jane Wilkes” and others,
Michael Arden in his Broadway debut doing the signing, acting, and singing as “Tom Sawyer”,
And more.
This revival of BIG RIVER was a huge smash hit. It went on to receive a special Tony Award Honor in 2004 for EXCELLENCE IN THEATRE. It also got nominated for BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL and BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL (for Michael McElroy) but lost those categories. It also was nominated for 4 Drama Desks that same year but lost too.
Today, BIG RIVER has continued to be a smash hit musical around the world. It has been performed in schools, community, and regional theaters everywhere.
How uplifting is this musical?!!
Mike Haber
Author: Mike Haber

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