Chronicling Cash at Stackner Cabaret

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Eddie Clendening is in “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.” -PHOTO: Michael Brosilow

Richard Maltby Jr. has a lot to say about Broadway musical revues, and not all of it is positive. He has composed multiple revues and won the only Tony Awards ever given to musical revues for two of them – “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in 1978 and “Fosse” in 1999. By his own estimation, he is the king of musical revues.

“The reason that I am the king of musical revues is that I hate musical revues,” says the Broadway director, producer, lyricist and screenwriter. “The standard revue consists of disconnected songs and comedy sketches, and I don’t find them interesting.”

What Maltby does find interesting are the characters and stories behind the songs. “I look for the kind of emotional content that a book musical has and embed it into a series of songs,” he says.

That’s the secret to the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” which opened March 1 at the Stackner Cabaret. Maltby created the show in 2006 and is directing the Milwaukee production, which closes May 5.

Maltby’s background reads much like those of his subjects. The son of well-known orchestra leader Richard Maltby Sr., he was born in Ripon, Wis., his mother’s hometown, but spent his first two years in the back of a Plymouth touring with his parents. He attended Yale University and worked with classmate David Shire on musical theater productions. Their 1968 song “The Girl of the Minute” landed them on Broadway, where Maltby has prospered ever since.

The lead character’s biographical background also plays an important role in “Ring of Fire.” 

“This is, if not Cash’s life, then the life that Cash lived,” Maltby says. “In this show, unlike “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Fosse,” I have included some dialogue and spoken material, just to make this clearer, and to lead people to listen to the words of the songs.”

The Man in Black, born in Kings-land, Ark., in 1932, emerged as part of the Memphis rockabilly movement that included Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash went on to make his mark in rock ‘n’ roll, country and gospel. As the author of more 1,000 songs and dozens of recordings, he is considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. He died in Nashville in 2003, less than four months after the death of wife June Carter Cash.

Like the previous subjects of Maltby’s revues, Cash is a character of legendary status, which sometimes masks the truths about his life. The show’s narrative is designed to educate even the musician’s greatest fans.

“I like to have people hear songs they think they know and realize that they contain much more than they first thought,” Maltby explains. “With the Cash songs, what struck me was his sense of basic American values, the ones we cherish in our mythology.”

The singer’s rocky life – multiple marriages, seven arrests for misdemeanor infractions, drug and alcohol abuse – is an almost textbook example of the musician’s life on the road. In Cash’s case, strong personal values and a religious faith to which he was devoted paved a real-life road to redemption that strikes a chord with listeners.

“Cash in his biography asks whether this life (or traditional values) still exists anymore,” Maltby says. “I don’t know if it does, but it surely lives in our American psyche. I found in the songs a vision of America that was surprising and touchingly real.”

It’s that understanding that informs the narrative elements of “Ring of Fire.” The Rep version features a cast paired down from 10 to five, and no single performer plays Johnny Cash. The narrator (Jason Edwards) is the one chosen to speak some of Cash’s words. But the story, like its character, looms too large to be entrusted to a single performer.

“What surprised me most is that Johnny Cash’s life, taken as a whole, was a kind of spiritual journey,” Maltby says. “He was, in his way, always searching for his soul, and I think he found it.”

On stage

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” runs through May 5 at the Stackner Cabaret. For more information, visit www.milwaukeerep.com.