By Rachelle Hughes
The success of the Tony Award-winning musical Big River is something of a musical miracle: its musical composer Roger Miller and author William Hauptman were both in a creative lag when the opportunity to create this musical was presented by the producer, Rocco Landesman.
Singer, songwriter Roger Miller had not written a new song in six years and had only seen one play in his life, while playwright and author William Hauptman had not written a play in seven years when they agreed to take on Landesman and his wife Holly’s idea for a musical on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It would turn out to be a crowning moment in both their careers.
Roger Dean Miller was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Fort Worth, Texas on January 2, 1936. Just one year later he lost his father to meningitis. Economic hardship forced his mother to separate her three sons, and Miller was sent to Erick, Oklahoma to be raised by his aunt and uncle. Erick claims Miller as its own, and despite his acceptance into the mainstream 1960s pop music scene, he always stayed true to his country music, honky tonk roots in both his musical style and songwriting.
As a young boy Miller rubbed shoulders with family friend and in-law Sheb Wooley, who later became famous as an entertainer and for his song, “Purple People Eater.” They spent a lot of time together nursing each other’s dreams. “During those early years near Erick, Roger and Sheb often rode out ‘fixin’ fences, chasing steer and talking about stardom,” Wooley was quoted as saying in an article on Travelok.com (“Roger Miller,” https://www.travelok.com/rhythm-and-routes/artists/roger-miller).
Miller was always a dreamer, and, while he was required to work on the farm, he was not especially good at it or at school. He dreamt of music and stardom. By the time he was eleven he had used his earnings from picking cotton to buy himself a guitar. Wooley, already a rising star, taught Miller his first chords on the guitar. During his late teen years, Miller left Erick to chase his dreams. At age seventeen, he had a run in with the law that led him to join the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The army brought him the opportunity to play in a band, and he spent the time there playing guitar, fiddle, and drums in the Circle A Wranglers.
Miller’s time in the service set him on the path to his next big break. While playing in the band, he met the brother to entertainer Jethro Burns, who helped arrange an audition for Miller at RCA Nashville. However, His first audition did not go well, and he was advised to work on his songs and return and try again. So, while Miller tried to break into the Nashville music scene, his first job in Nashville was actually as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, located in the middle of the Nashville music district. He quickly became known as the “singing bellhop” because Miller’s love of music overflowed into everything he did. He would sing for anybody who would listen as he took them up and down the elevator. During that time he did record a few songs with Mercury records and occasionally toured with Minnie Pearl as a fiddler and as a drummer with Faron Young. His recordings were unsuccessful, and he kept his day job as a bellhop until he signed on with Mercury-Starday as a songwriter.
Performers like George Jones and Jimmy Dean were some of the first recipients of his songs. Eventually, he became a sought after “hillbilly songwriter” when his songs took performers like Faron Young, Rex Allen, and Ernest Young into the top ten with songs like “Billy Bayou,” which became a number one hit sung by Faron Young. “He spoke in songs,” Grand Ole Opry bassist said of Miller (Travelok, https://www.travelok.com/rhythm-and-routes/artists/roger-miller).
As his songwriting career took off, Miller decided it was time to try to sing his own songs again. His popularity was soaring as he moved to Hollywood and began appearing regularly on The Jimmy Dean Show and The Merv Griffin Show. Suddenly the country became enamored with his goofy personality and quirky novelty songs. He signed a record contract with Smash Records, and his first single, “Dang Me” rose to number one in 1964. A few months later he followed that song with another top ten hit “Chug-a-lug.” In 1965, Miller released the biggest song of his career, “King of the Road”—a song that would go on to win Miller five Grammy Awards in 1965. Miller continued to write and perform his own songs and had several hits in the 1960s including "Husbands and Wives," "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd," and "My Uncle Used to Love Me but She Died."
In the 1970s and ’80s his singing and songwriting career slowed down as he took his talents down some new avenues. He concentrated on his hotel chain aptly called King of the Road. In 1974 he wrote and sang songs for Disney’s animated “Robin Hood.” His biggest hit of the ’80s was a duet with Willie Nelson, titled “Old Friends.” So, when Miller was approached about writing the music for Big River, it took a while to convince him to venture into unknown territory; and, as rehearsals began, he still had not finished writing all the songs. In the end, however, it was a perfect match for Miller’s talents. Big River (1985) went on to win seven Tony awards, two of which went to Miller for outstanding score and best musical.
According to Miller’s obituary in the New York Times, when the producer invited him to write the score for Big River, “Mr. Miller had never read the Twain classic. Studying the book, he recalled, he was overcome with language and imagery that swept him back to his rural Oklahoma childhood” (“Roger Miller, Quirky Country Singer and Songwriter Is Dead at 56, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/27/arts/roger-miller-quirky-country-singer-and-songwriter-is-dead-at-56.html).
Big River was Miller’s last big project before he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in 1992. He left behind his wife, Mary, seven children, and seven grandchildren and a legacy of quirky honky tonk, country music.
William Hauptman was born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1942. Hauptman credits his father with exposing him to the landscape and the themes that dominate many of his works of fiction, as well as introducing him to theatre. Hauptman went on many adventures through Arizona and Wyoming with his father who was a petroleum geologist, and his story “The Desert” is a reflection of these adventures. As a boy Hauptman learned to love theatre when his father took him to see Gene Autry and Champion, the Wonder Horse. Hauptman knew he wanted to be an actor and eventually studied drama at the University of Texas.
Hauptman then set out to become an actor and spent some time living what he called the “hippie life” and searching for himself (William Hauptman, Author,” http://williamhauptman.net/WH_about.html). He made his way to New York and started auditioning for acting jobs while paying the bills as a temp. When he couldn’t find a monologue that suited him for auditions, he began writing his own. Soon he discovered he had a knack for playwriting and writing. He submitted those monologues in the form of a play to the Yale School of Drama in New York and was accepted as a playwriting student.
In 1974 his plays Shearwater and Heat were published, and, as he saw his plays start to have some success in New York, he says he began to see himself as a writer (http://www.williamhauptman.net/WH_about.html). His comedy Domino Courts/Comanche Cafe about two 1930s gangsters couples who met at a hotel in Oklahoma, won an Obie Award in 1977. In 1985 his collaboration with Roger Miller garnered him his greatest success to date as he applied his gift for writing American adventure stories to the adaptation of another American adventure writer’s epic story, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the musical Big River. The play won seven Tony Awards, including best book. In 1987, Hauptman’s play about the oil boom and bust, Gillette was published.
Hauptman is also a well-published fiction writer, and his short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories anthology, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Southwest Review. He has also published a collection of stories, Good Rockin/Tonight, and a novel, Storm Season. Hauptman is currently working on a musical about JohnWesley Powell who was the first explorer of the Grand Canyon.
Hauptman lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife Marjorie. They are the parents of a son and a daughter.