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New Play at Laguna Playhouse: King of The Road – The Roger Miller Story

Laguna Playhouse- King of The Road | Theater News 2017

The Roger Miller Story

By: Judy Shields


Laguna Beach, California (The Hollywood Times) 4/22/17 –   “What’s compelling about King of the Road” The Roger Miller Story is that we discover how this brilliant writer of silly and serious songs struggled with a painful past that’s never been revealed before.” A quote from co-creator of King of the Road” The Roger Miller Story Cort Casady.

Roger Miller Show 1966

Riding a wave of success triggered by his mega-hits, “Dang Me” and “King of the Road,” a string of gold records and 11 Grammy Awards, wisecracking country star and Tony-winning Broadway composer (Big River) Roger Miller is forced to face his demons, confront his self-destructive tendencies and accept love with third wife Mary Miller. Andy Barnicle directs this true story with live music.


Roger Miller is a Grammy-winning country singer with a Tony award for Best Musical, Big River.  He’s a jokester who can make you cry with his broken-hearted ballads.  In the new world premiere musical about his life, he is an unlikeable anti-hero who you can’t help rooting for until the bitter end.

Country Singer Roger Miller with Wife Mary and Son (Stretched Canvas Print)

The Laguna Playhouse posted a conversation they had with creators Cort Casady and Mary Miller and director Andrew Barnicle to talk about what makes Roger Miller’s story so compelling.

The revelations are personal and private, and come primarily from Miller’s widow and the show’s co-creator, Mary Miller.  “In the 60s and 70s, even stars as big as Roger weren’t subject to the kind of scrutiny they are today, Miller said.  “Audiences didn’t know about their private lives.”

Roger Miller 1992

Roger’s private life was filled with broken marriages, heavy drinking and frequent confrontations with authority, as well as with his musical collaborators.  “Roger is forced to confront himself and finally realize that in order to have the life he’s always wanted, he has to accept his past and let go of it,” Miller said.


It is precisely that personal, emotional struggle that makes Roger Miller’s songs and stories relevant more than a half century after he began is recording career.

Mary & Roger Miller

“His songs are always going to be relevant. “ Barnicle said. “They’re about timeless feelings and human concerns. He’s also cable of some musical trickery that is more sophisticated than some of his AM radio hits might suggest.”


“Roger Miller’s music is relevant today because his humor still makes us laugh, and his insights into relationships, love and loss are timeless,” said Casady.  “Songs like Husbands & Wives, When Two Worlds Collide, and Maybe Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go are as meaningful today as they were in the 60s or 80s.”

The Laguna Playhouse will be featuring this new musical, which began yesterday, April 19th and will run through May 14th.  Get you tickets by calling (949) 497-2787 or visit their website at

Jesse Johnson rehearses for the world premiere of Laguna PlayhouseÕs ÒKing of the Road: The Roger Miller Story.Ó
in Laguna Beach, CA on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (Photo by Sam Gangwer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Actor Jesse Johnson portrays Roger Miller in King of the Road” The Roger Miller Story.

Jesse Johnson most recently appeared in and is set up to recur in NCIS for CBS. Last summer found him in Chile, shooting the film Salty directed by Simon West. Prior to that, he shot a great role in David Lynch’s remake of Twin Peaks for Showtime. Johnson is most known for his lead role of ‘John Wilkes Booth’ in Killing Lincoln for Tony & Ridley Scott, which Tom Hanks narrated, scoring record ratings and the highest ever viewership score in Nat Geo’s history at the time. He has also starred in Law & Order for NBC and Grey’s Anatomy for ABC. Prior to that, he shot the Michael Patrick King pilot A Mann’s World for NBC. On the feature side, Jesse starred alongside Christine Woods and Chris Masterson in the critically acclaimed indie Chapman for Justin Owensby.  Another little fact is that Jesse Johnson is the son of actors Don Johnson and Patti D’Arbanville and half-brother to actress and model Dakota Johnson.  In 2001, Jesse made his acting debut in a guest appearance of the CBS television series Nash Bridges, in the episode “Quack Fever”.


Seating Chart – no balcony

William Hauptman, Tony Award-winning librettist of Big River talks about Roger Miller:

I’m not sure I can do this thing,” Roger Miller said the first time we met to discuss Big River. “I’ve only seen two Broadway musicals in my life—one was My Fair Lady and the other was ‘George in the Park with Sunday.’”

Roger, of course, was pretending he was simpler than he was, because that’s how a Good Ol’ Boy shows he’s smarter than you—with irony. Just as Huckleberry Finn, in Mark Twain’s novel, declares he’s bad after making the best choice of his life: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell…I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it….And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.”

There were several old cars in the driveway of Roger’s home near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and when Roger and I took a break from working on the show, we sometimes sat in one of these cars and talked. Often we talked about the first songs we could remember hearing.

These were often country music of the forties—songs like “Ida Red,” “A Deck of Cards,” and “Cool, Clear Water.” We could both perfectly remember hearing Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon,” the first double-tracked song. “I was picking cotton,” Roger said, “and it came on the radio of the pickup that was parked at the end of the row, and I said, ‘Dang, turn that up.’”

Roger Miller sings King of the Road

Roger also told me that when he was growing up, he spent a lot of time hitchhiking from Erick, Oklahoma, the town where he was born, to Fort Worth, Texas, which had a famous strip of honky-tonks along the Jacksboro Highway. When his money was gone, he slept in the back seat of a used car on a lot, and hitchhiked back to Erick the next day. When I mentioned that this was a dangerous thing to do, Roger said, “All I know is, it’s real important to get to Fort Worth when you’re a kid.”

As we talked, I began to see that roads were the rivers of the Great Plains, and while hitchhiking along them the young Roger Miller was thinking up his great hits, “King of the Road” and “Chug-a-Lug.” Not only was Roger the Jack Kerouac of country music—he was the real Huckleberry Finn. Born into a racist society, he had already learned to think otherwise by the time I met him.

A special sneak peek of the set for King Of The Road!

Writing on demand is a gift some musicians never develop. Once, when director Des McAnuff asked Roger about the bridge of a song he was working on, I heard him say to his wife, “Mary, they’re talking about twelve-tone music again.” When the pressure got to be too much, Roger picked up the fiddle—all great country artists can play the fiddle—and just fooled around.

His lifetime had exposed him to some of the most diverse influences in popular music history, and he had absorbed them all. Once I heard him rip off a few verses in scat—nonsense syllables, eight to the bar—when words failed him.

Roger could imitate everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Jones to Johnny Ray. He treasured humor, adored Ray Price and novelty tunes like “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” even had a good word for Spike Jones.

In the end, Roger composed a score that any Broadway composer would be proud of. Everyone who created Big River did a great job—in part because we all followed this advice, which I offer to anyone who aspires to create a Broadway musical: work like you don’t need the money, dance like nobody’s watching, and love like you can’t get hurt.”

Book by Cort Casady & Mary Miller
Music by Roger Miller
Directed by Andrew Barnicle

Roger Miller on the Muppet Show:

The King of the Road workshop

Roger Miller on the Potter Wagner Show:

Roger Miller sings a melody of songs:

About Roger Miller

Roger Dean Miller, Sr. (January 2, 1936 – October 25, 1992) was an American singer-songwriter, musician, and actor, best known for his honky-tonk-influenced novelty songs. His most recognized tunes included the chart-topping country/pop hits “King of the Road”, “Dang Me”, and “England Swings”, all from the mid-1960s Nashville sound era.

After growing up in Oklahoma and serving in the United States Army, Miller began his musical career as a songwriter in the late 1950s, penning such hits as “Billy Bayou” and “Home” for Jim Reeves and “Invitation to the Blues” for Ray Price. He later began a recording career and reached the peak of his fame in the mid-1960s, continuing to record and tour into the 1990s, charting his final top 20 country hit “Old Friends” with Willie Nelson in 1982. He also wrote and performed several of the songs for the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood. Later in his life, he wrote the music and lyrics for the 1985 Tony-award winning Broadway musical Big River, in which he acted.

Staying strong: His wife Gail is seen here with Roger shortly after Larry’s death

Miller died from lung cancer in 1992, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame three years later. His songs continued to be recorded by younger artists, with covers of “Tall, Tall Trees” by Alan Jackson and “Husbands and Wives” by Brooks & Dunn, each reaching the number one spot on country charts in the 1990s. The Roger Miller Museum in his home town of Erick, Oklahoma, is a tribute to Miller.  (Wikipedia)

In a career of sharp ups and downs, Mr. Miller rebounded two decades later with his score for the 1985 musical “Big River,” which thrust him into prominence on Broadway with the same suddenness that marked his move to the forefront of country songwriters 20 years before. His original songs for “Big River,” which won the Tony Award for best musical, earned Mr. Miller his own Tony for best score for a musical.

The Laguna Playhouse – Laguna Beach, CA

Roger Dean Miller was born in Fort Worth, but his father died when he was a year old and Mr. Miller went to live in the tiny farming village of Erick, Okla. As a boy, he fixed his hopes on becoming a country performer like Sheb Wooley, a neighbor and Miller in-law, who later acted in westerns and gained fame as the author and singer of the novelty hit “Purple People Eater.”

With the $8 he made picking 400 pounds of cotton, Mr. Miller bought his first guitar at the age of 12. His schooling’s having ended after the eighth grade, he joined the Army during the Korean War, and worked as an entertainer playing guitar, drums and fiddle in a country band.

While in the service, he was encouraged by his sergeant, whose brother belonged to the country novelty act Homer and Jethro, to seek his fortune in Nashville. As soon as his tour of duty was up, he went there with a stack of songs that were soon recorded by Jimmy Dean, George Jones, Ray Price and Ernest Tubb.

In these years, he belonged to a tight circle of musicians that included Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, who were then outsiders from the Nashville establishment. They were all, as he said later “caught between the 40’s and the 60’s, between big-band music and rock-and-roll.”

He eventually signed with RCA Records in 1960, and the following year had his first top-10 country hit, “When Two Worlds Collide,” which he had written with the country star Bill Anderson. But it wasn’t until 1964 that his career caught fire.

Mr. Miller’s hits continued through the 1960’s and included such novelties as “Husbands and Wives,” “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” and “My Uncle Used to Love Me but She Died.”

Like many pop stars, Mr. Miller succumbed to the excesses that are often the curse of quick success. Although his career went into partial eclipse in the 70’s, he continued to making albums, including a duet record, with Willie Nelson, “Old Friends,” in 1982.

Mary & Roger Miller

When the producer Rocco Landesman, a longtime admirer, invited him to write the score for “Big River,” a musical based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” 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

About the Laguna Playhouse

Laguna Playhouse is an historic Equity theatre located in the charming arts colony of Laguna Beach, California. Steps away from the Pacific Ocean, Laguna Playhouse is known for its year-round season of captivating comedies, dramas, musicals, stand-up comedy and family fare.

Laudene and Jean Miller. Roger’s family photos

Named “Best in OC” in Live Theatre in 2016 and 2015 by the OC Register, Laguna Playhouse was founded as a community theatre in 1920, Laguna Playhouse is one of the oldest continuously operating, not-for-profit theatres on the West Coast.

A member of the League of Resident Theatres, Laguna Playhouse often features stage and screen stars who come to Laguna Beach for its upscale lifestyle, pristine beaches, fine dining, and numerous artistic offerings, all within minutes of the theatre. In addition to its theatrical offerings, Laguna Playhouse hosts a wide variety of performing artists on its Moulton Stage throughout the year. It is home to the annual Laguna Dance Festival, Laguna Beach Music Festival and Laguna Concert Band. Laguna Playhouse invites children as well as adults to attend special productions designed for young audiences. Actors of all ages share their talents through Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre. Laguna Playhouse actors also visit local schools with educational productions, which have been honored by the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, Arts Orange County and the Orange County Department of Education.

Many world renowned performers have appeared on the Laguna Playhouse stage, including Ed Asner, Leslie Caron, Gretchen Cryer, Bette Davis, Charles Durning, Mike Farrell, Hershey Felder, Harrison Ford, Davis Gaines, Julie Harris, Val Kilmer, Cloris Leachman, Linda Purl, Teri Ralston, Rita Rudner, Charles Shaugnessy, Sally Struthers, Toni Tennille, Dick Van Patten, and Stephanie Zimbalist.