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Staging A Legend

Spanning multiple genres and decades, the music of Johnny Cash embodies and reflects an American spirit that will be celebrated on stage. Director/Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge sat down with us for an interview about our new production of Ring of Fire.

Johnny Cash: the myth, the legend, the man. Spanning multiple genres and decades, the music of Johnny Cash embodies and reflects an American spirit that will be celebrated with Playhouse audiences in our first production of the 2023-24 season, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. Although some audiences might remember our 2015 mounting of this musical, this current production boasts a revamped script, a new cast, a new director, and takes place in our brand new theatre space – Moe and Jack’s Place — The Rouse Theatre.

The musical first premiered in 2006 at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. 
Featuring over 30 songs from Cash’s discography, creator of the piece, Richard Maltby, Jr., said of Ring of Fire

Johnny Cash's biography wasn't the most important 
story available to tell. ... It's an almost mythic American 
tale – of growing up in simple, dirt-poor surroundings 
in the heartland of America, leaving home, traveling 
on wings of music, finding love, misadventure, success, 
faith, redemption, and the love of a good woman – and 
eventually returning home. ... That seemed to be a worthy 
story to put on a stage – and the best part is we could tell 
it entirely in the songs. In many ways Johnny Cash wrote 
and sang about the lives we all lead, regardless of where 
we lead them. If, watching this show, you feel yourself being 
drawn back to your roots, it isn't accidental – even if you've 
forgotten what those roots are.

Originally structured for eight actor-musicians and a band, this new version of the script and orchestrations, which Maltby premiered at Milwaukee Rep in 2013, has been pared down to five actors who play their own instruments, making the script more intimate and personal. This intimate experience is supported in our production by the new Rouse Theatre, in which seats are closer to the stage, bringing audience members closer to the action.

                              Allison Ann Kelly (Cast) and Leenya Rideout (Cast and Music Director) in rehearsal for Ring of Fire.

This re-invention also brings a new point of view on Cash and his work by way of Tony Award-nominated director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Playhouse audiences will remember Dodge’s direction from our productions of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (2020), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2017), The Secret Garden (2015) and Cabaret (2013). After three years of global change, including the building of a brand-new Cincinnati Playhouse theatre complex, Dodge is excited to bring a new experience to a new Playhouse. She sat down with us for an interview about our new production of Ring of Fire. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you describe your relationship with and connection to Johnny Cash and his music?
I didn't really have a relationship with Cash and his music before this. I mean, I was familiar with some of the iconic songs: “Folsom Prison [Blues],” “I've Been Everywhere” and “Jackson.” Just sort of the top 10 playlist. So, what we're doing is navigating the influence Cash had on American country, rockabilly, rock and roll, and gospel of the last 60 years, and it opens it up to new interpretations of classic songs. With our cast of five super-star actor-musicians, we can make new discoveries with the poetry of Cash and the music that thrills generations.

I'm really influenced by Adam Lambert's rendering of “Ring of Fire” and the Brandi Carlile version of “Folsom Prison [Blues].” And we have a whole list of contemporary artists who adopted Cash into their DNA and that's what we're hoping to do with our production. Give it new, vital, meaningful life for 2023 and some of it's gonna be familiar and some of it's gonna be challenging.

There are over 30 Johnny Cash songs in this musical that represent many decades and genres of music. What’s your approach to staging/ choreographing such a diverse canon?
"Celebrate the music” is our mantra. Johnny Cash was first and foremost a storyteller—so we will honor his legacy by sharing the stories of his past, present and future. We're not in an environment that conjures anything that would be quaint or considered “period.” We’re in a modern or artful environment that celebrates Johnny as our kind of guiding force and angel over the production.

We have a magical set, designed by Chen-Wei Liao. I don't wanna tell you what the walls are because they kind of reveal themselves to the audience when it's the right moment for them to be revealed. I want people to sort of discover it. That’s a really big thing. And the music is everything. We're tapping into aspects of Johnny Cash's personality: ferocity, tenderness, despair, all the themes of being human he encapsulated in his poetry of lyrics and his soul of music. So, we're gonna try to navigate inside of that and give every cast member an opportunity to convey different aspects of Johnny Cash.

And then we have a tribute to the Grand Ole Opry, which is where his career really catapulted. We're going to evoke that in a modern lens version of what the Grand Ole Opry represented. So, we'll have some throwbacks, let's say to some familiar iconic, gestures in costuming and in physical production. But really, it's about the instruments and the people, the way they relate to one another and relate to their instruments, and [how they] relate to the varied emotional landscape that Johnny Cash traverses.

                             David Rowen (Cast), Alex Canty (Cast) and Matt Cusack (cast) in rehearsal for Ring of Fire.

What’s the vibe of this production and what excites you about it?
The vibe is contemporary and impressionistic. No porches and rocking chairs here. Our production design is leaning into the muscular, modern styles of scenic art and costume fashion. I know that I'm always excited to come back to the Playhouse and to navigate what is perceived as classic work and smuggling deeper meaning to that work. Anytime I say yes [to a project], I go into complete research mode. I've been listening to authentic recordings of Johnny Cash and, as I said, more contemporary interpretations of his music. It's a feast, you know.

So, I'm really excited about finding nuance and new meaning in some of this material. My partner in crime in this is Leenya Rideout, who is our Music Director and also one of our female performers in the show. She's got a treasure trove of instrumentation, and we have a kind of female approach to this man centric musical. We are bringing a little bit of estrogen to it. We're being very mindful of some of the material that is a little trickier to navigate. So, assigning a particular performer to sing a song might give new insight into the lyrics and to the emotions of those songs.

The title of this piece Ring of Fire. Can we expect pyrotechnics in this production?
I can’t tell you that! LOL! You’ll have to come to the theatre to find out!

Who do you think should see this show and what do you hope they take away from it?
I would never prescribe what an audience takes away—I leave that to them and their experience as an audience member. Each person who joins us in the darkened theatre to share space with Johnny Cash’s legacy will bring their own relationships to the songs and they will land on each person in their own uniqueness. That said, I do hope they are entertained and hear the words of Cash in the context of living their lives today.

Cover photo of Ring of Fire director Marcia Milgrom Dodge.