One of the music world's first bad boys has his story told in "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," a Sierra Repertory Theatre production opening next Friday.
Hank Williams was a star by his mid-20s, making his Grand Ole Opry debut in June of 1949 as his first No. 1 single, "Lovesick Blues," rode the airwaves across the country. By age 29, he was dead of heart failure after years of alcohol abuse combined with use of morphine and other painkillers to ease his severe back pain.
In Williams' short life and career, "he broke all the rules," director and co-playwright Randal Myler said in a prepared statement. "Until then, everyone was singing about their dogs and their mothers, and along comes this guy wailing about hot-rod Fords, and leave your boyfriend and honky-tonkin' "
Though "Lost Highway" is jampacked with Williams' hits, it's not a musical, but rather a play with music, similar to the movies "The Buddy Holly Story" and "La Bamba."
"It's most important to tell the story and make sure we're giving a true biography of Hank Williams," said Ben Hope, who portrays the singing legend. The musical-theater performer said he's put a lot of time into researching the role, though as a fellow Alabama native, he grew up listening to Williams' music. Hope said his grandfather "actually grew up in Montgomery," where Williams lived from 1937 until his death, "and he'd see (teenage) Hank out playing guitar on his stoop."
Hope is doing his best to emulate Williams' style of singing and playing guitar. "It's not perfect, but I'm working on it," he said Wednesday morning. "We still have a couple of days."
There isn't much archival video footage of Williams' mannerisms and way of talking, but Hope studied enough to realize that the singer's speaking voice would be a challenge. "He was a bit of a mumbler and his accent was really thick," he said, and neither is conducive to a play, so "we made a couple of sacrifices there."
"We" includes Myler, of course, who wrote "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" with Mark Harelik and was its original director several years back. Myler received two Tony Award nominations (best musical and best book of a musical) for "It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues" and wrote "Love, Janis," a musical biography of Janis Joplin that will come to the Gallo Center for the Arts in June.
Landing Myler was "a real coup," Sierra Rep Artistic Director Scott Viets said in a prepared statement. "To have the actual playwright direct his own piece, fully understanding the characters and story line better than anyone, will be thrilling not only for our actors but our audiences."
"Randal is a great director," Hope added Wednesday, "with a real good sense of the characters and what Hank means to the people around him. You always worry a bit when you're working with the playwright ... but working with Randal has been really nice."
"Lost Highway" follows Williams' life from about the time he got his first guitar, at age 11 or 12, until his death. Hope and the actor/musicians cast as Williams' Drifting Cowboys band perform more than 20 songs — including "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey Good Lookin' " and "Your Cheating Heart" — as the play takes them from small-time honky-tonks to the Opry. Many of the songs are performed at or close to their full length, Hope said, but others are abbreviated versions in scenes where the band is rehearsing or recording.
The cast includes David Finch, Tommy Wayne, Brian Gunter and Mike Regan as the Cowboy Drifters; Clinton Derricks-Carroll as Tee-Tot, the Alabama street singer who gave Williams his first lessons in singing the blues; Sarah Wintermeyer as Williams' wife, Audrey; Ty Smith as music producer Pap Rose, who signed the unknown Williams; Sally McClellan as Mama Lilly; and Annie D. Brown as a waitress.
The show's musical director is Travis Jones.
Sierra Rep considers "Lost Highway" a "PG-13" because of mature themes and strong language. "Hank," said Hope, "had a lot of rough edges."