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:
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
"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
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.