In 2002, Johnny Cash wanted no part of any musical about his life, says actor/musician Ben Hope. But when a new approach was offered, namely that of being based on his songs rather than on his biography, he was more receptive.
Cash died before the show went on Broadway in 2006. "They continued ahead with the show as Johnny Cash had given his blessing and consent. The original production was kind of vignettes with each of his songs playing out without too much of a through line," Hope says.
It closed after about six weeks. Audiences wanted more of a story to the enterprise and so after Cash died, the musical was reworked to bring in more of The Man in Black's history of struggles and triumphs, using lines from his own autobiography, Hope says.
The newest version has been much successful and it is that one that's coming to Stages Repertory Theatre in Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. Hope takes on the Johnny Cash role while his real-life wife Katie Barton is June Carter Cash. Barton also directs while Hope handles the music direction duties. Last seen at Stages last summer with Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie and before that in Hank Williams: Lost Highway, they've both done Ring of Fire in the past. There's a 12-person version, a nine-person version and a five person — which is the one they're using at Stages to chronicle Cash's life.
"The five person version is based on Johnny Cash's most recent autobiography so all the dialog in the show comes straight from his autobiography. It's a fabulous read. He is such a good story teller especially at that point in his life, his perspectives on his mistakes and his triumphs is just so profound," Barton says, adding that it may for "a very intimate story" which is perfect for Stages' Arena theater space.
Everyone on stage is also a musician (Barton plays the bass, the guitar and the autoharp and Hope plays guitar all night) so the talent level has to be pretty high for it to work which is also important because this is what Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin has chosen to kick off the theater's 41st season. The two-act showcases 31 of Cash's songs. "We called the most talented friends we know to produce this one," Hope says.
Asked how he got started in this particular genre of musical theater (he referred to it jokingly as "of dead guitar players"), Hope says it's gotten more and more popular in the last ten years, appealing to a different part of a theater's audience.
Hope and Barton met in 2005 at Flatrock Playhouse in North Carolina where they were both theater apprentices. He stayed on after and got to meet two veterans of the Broadway production of Ring of Fire. "And so it began." He was from Alabama and she was from Gainesville, Georgia, both of them fortunate enough to attend public high schools with strong theater programs.
A lot of people don't realize how intelligent Johnny Cash was, Hope and Barton say. "He collected from books all over the world as he traveled with June and The Tennessee Three," Hope says. "He talks about how when he was overseas and couldn't wait to get home to read his new books and learn something new. And that is why his perspective at the end of his life was so rich and detailed. And how he was capable of giving voice to so many different types of voiceless people. Throughout his career writing songs for the Native American population that he felt had been overlooked and the prison population that he felt didn't have a voice. But also in his philanthropic ventures he opened shelters for battered women, shelters for burn victims.
"You don't really expect him to be a bleeding heart but he was. And I think that was because of the wealth of knowledge that he had and how well traveled and well studied he was,." Hope says.
The story takes him from his early days right through the death of June and then Cash's own death four months later. Cash was a very empathetic person, willing to listen to people with different views from his own, Barton says."I think Johnny Cash was a master of that, stepping into someone else's shoes."
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At the same time, she says, it shouldn't be overlooked that he had a dark side. "He was no saint. But that's what makes all those acts of kindness even more important. He wasn't perfect. I think a lot of times he felt like he was making up for some bad mistakes."
Hope says they made the decision "to make the show exist as it would have on the radio in Johnny Cash's era. We thought if Johnny Cash could produce "Ring of Fire" in 1960 how would it sound, what would it feel like. We're trying to get rid of the digital world. We want to step back into the analog world of radio for a couple hours."
"It really does make for such a warm inviting personal evening, like you're kind of sitting on the porch with Johnny Cash and having him tell you about his life and the things he's learned," Hope says.
Performances are scheduled for July 11 through September 2 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25-$63.