Music saves the day
BY GLEN STARKEY
The buzz is out. Word on the street is “Orbison: Only the Lonely,
a musical tribute to Roy Orbison” is another successful installation
of the SLO Little Theatre’s popular “Legends Series.”
New Times thought this was a perfect time to speak with writer, producer,
and director Mary Meserve, who’s been instrumental in developing
this series, which by all accounts has saved the SLO Little Theatre
from financial ruin.
CRYING OVER YOU
Mike Kee stars as operatic rock’n’roll music icon Roy Orbison,
in the SLO Little Theatre’s new musical tribute “Orbison:
Only the Lonely,” playing weekends through March 25th.
New Times You’ve done Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash, and now Orbison.
You seem to have settled on a formula — bio the first half, cabaret
format the second — that works for you and your audience. These
have been tremendously popular shows. How did you come up with this
Mary Meserve I decided years ago to do a tribute to Sinatra. I was
sobbing away, watching his funeral on TV. I was just crying and crying,
thinking of all the things Sinatra left us — his movies, songs,
rat pack stories, multiple affairs, wives, kids, etc. Suddenly I stopped
crying, looked at my husband cheerfully, and said, “We could make
a lot of money for the theatre with this!” (I always wondered
if that was the moment he decided to leave me: “My wife is a mercenary!”)
We’ve actually done Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat, Johnny, Patsy
Cline, Big Bands of the ‘40s and now Orbison.
The formula evolved because the first show (Sinatra) was opening in
two days and we didn’t have a second act, so we decided to perform
Act Two “Cabaret Style” with all of the actors (who played
different characters in the biographical Act One) singing Sinatra songs.
Personally, I thought it was a stupid idea and I was sure it would
bomb. This formula actually works really well for the audiences. We
just have to remind them to stay for Act Two (at the end of Act One),
because the “Legend” usually dies at the end of Act One.
And sometimes people unfamiliar with the format start to leave. I’ve
often had to chase people down in the parking lot to tell them that
“Johnny Cash” or whoever will be back in Act Two.
Now we make a live announcement, ‘cuz I’m old and sick
of running in high heels! They seem to really enjoy the change-up in
each act’s style. I think it keeps the show interesting and well
paced. Now that I think about it, I can’t think of any other Broadway
musicals, plays, or even any other musical tributes (from other theaters)
that follow this format, so I guess we’ll keep it.
It just goes to show you that sometimes ‘mistakes’ can
lead to wonderful results. It’s also allowing some awesome female
vocalists to perform some absolutely incredible renditions of Roy Orbison
songs in Act Two for this show.
New Times How do you decide who’s a worthy candidate for the
Mary Meserve Usually, I just can feel it in my gut, as to whether a
‘legend’ might be appealing to an audience. Many times I’ve
had to work to convince the Executive Director and/or the SLOLT Board
of Directors that a certain ‘legend’ would sell. The two
that were hardest to sell to the powers that be were Nat King Cole and
Johnny Cash. Ironically, they were the highest grossing shows of the
series. Roy Orbison was a tough sell also, but they kind of said, “Oh,
whatever ... do what you want. It seems to work.” Roy Orbison
is my absolute favorite. I’ve waited seven years for this show.
Writer/director/producer Mary Meserve (left) and Executive Director
Donna Sellars (right) have been instrumental in making the SLO Little
Theatre a successful financial concern, due mainly to a string of seven
musical tribute shows that have been wildly popular with the public
His music is awesome. And I don’t think most people realize it.
I can’t wait to share it with the audiences. We broke the theatre’s
60-year history with pre-opening ticket sales for “Only the Lonely.”
The ‘legends’ selected for the shows definitely need to
have a very solid body of work and what I call universal appeal. Johnny
Cash was a great example.
We had small children, society ladies, cowboys, older folks, and punked-out
kids (with multiple earrings and silver balls popping off many orifices)
all sitting beside each other enjoying the show equally. It gives the
cast, crew, and myself great satisfaction to see such a wide variety
of people in the audience smiling, clapping, and thoroughly enjoying
New Times How difficult is it to research these guys?
Mary Meserve It isn’t difficult at all. It’s one of the
most enjoyable parts of the journey for me. I truly love to research
the ‘legends.’ I read CD liner notes, Internet articles
and books, watch documentaries and DVDs of performances, biographies,
etc. The best research material always comes from the ‘legend’
themselves. If I can find an actual interview or their own autobiography
(as in Johnny Cash’s case), I try to use that as much as possible,
as I feel that provides the most accurate information. It’s the
‘legend’ telling their own story. What more can a writer
I must say that after writing the “Cash” show and watching
the movie, “Walk the Line,” I was quite disappointed with
the movie’s screenplay. I wrote our “Cash” show almost
a year before the movie came out and I was so so excited to see what
‘professional’ writers from Hollywood would do with this
wonderful man’s story.
HE WAS ALL RIGHT, FOR AWHILE
Roy Orbison suffered through the death of his first wife Claudette in
a motorcycle accident and then the death of two of his three children
in a house fire.
I liked the movie, don’t get me wrong, but so much of how they
portrayed Johnny Cash was extremely one-dimensional and one-sided —
to me at least. I was a bit shocked and confused. The movie focused
almost completely on his alcohol and drug addiction, and his affair
with June Carter. I had never found anything in my research that made
[first wife] Vivian Liberto out to be the shrew portrayed in the movie.
Johnny Cash’s autobiography is one of the best books I have ever
read. He never said anything negative about his ex-wife. In fact, she
and her second husband used to visit June and John at their place in
But I thought maybe I’m just a jealous writer with a sour grapes
attitude, at least until I saw that Johnny Cash’s daughters (from
his first marriage) were very disappointed with the movie (especially
Roseanne and Kathy Cash).
I feel very strongly about writing these shows as accurately, honestly,
and respectfully as I can. I mean, we all have our failures in life,
but why focus on just that? Besides, many times we overcome our obstacles.
In the Cash movie, as soon as Johnny was free from addiction and married
to June — blam! — the movie was over. Hey! There was a lot
more to his life after that. The man lived into his 70s, for crying
out loud. Maybe they’ll do a sequel.
When I wrote the Judy Garland show, a lot of people said, “Why
didn’t you focus on her drug addiction more?” I did talk
about it to a certain extent. But almost everybody knew about it. She
died from it. I choose to focus on what these people are really famous
Their genius, and the real treasures they left us: the music. However,
I never omit the truth, even if it’s ugly. I just don’t
solely focus on it in order to sensationalize the story. I find that
[sort of focus] kind of easy, cheap, and sleazy. It’s easy to
kick somebody when they’re down, especially if they’re dead.
There’s too much of it — everywhere, it seems, these days.
Anyway, the ‘whole’ truth is always more interesting than
one specific personal challenge.
I wrote a lot about the racism Nat King Cole endured, which most people
don’t know about, because he was such a shy, quiet, humble man.
I thought people should know what this man had to endure ... and, especially,
the grace with which he endured it. He was a class act, all the way.
New Times You don’t wait for the end of Act One of Orbison for
him to die. In fact, he dies in the opening scene! In just a short exchange
with his mother, you manage to communicate what a strange, eccentric
person he was. How did you come up with this scene? Was it based in
Mary Meserve I didn’t find Roy Orbison strange or eccentric at
all. Like a lot of guys, he just liked his toys. He had an extensive
car collection, motorcycles, battery-operated airplanes — you
name it. Yeah, though, it was true: He was at his Mom’s playing
with battery-operated airplanes on the day he died. At least he had
some fun that day.
New Times In this show, Johnny Cash makes a return appearance. What
prompted that, and can we expect to see Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis too?
Mary Meserve You won’t see Jerry Lee, but Elvis makes quite a
hilarious cameo! I had always wanted to do an “Orbison”
show and I read Johnny’s autobiography and he kept mentioning
Roy Orbison. I thought, “Well, it’s a sign from God!”
I gotta do Orbison! I actually had to stop myself from writing the Orbison
show, because I wasn’t done with the Cash show.
When I read the Johnny Cash autobiography, I noticed he spoke so fondly
of his friendship with Roy Orbison. It was a very deep, respectful friendship.
Johnny Cash had tried to get Roy signed on to Sun Records at the beginning
of Roy’s career. They were like two brothers: the wild, crazy
one, and the shy, reserved one. But they were both extremely nice people,
apparently. They were eventually neighbors in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Johnny and June were godparents to two of Roy’s sons. Anyway,
as much as I am a respectful, sensitive, adoring fan (ahem), I’m
also a shrewd, sly businesswoman. It made a sense to ride the coattails
of the Cash show with his buddy Roy and to have Johnny appear again.
New Times Speaking of Johnny Cash, I understand you got an interesting
phone call from his estate. What can you tell me about that?
Mary Meserve Oh, brother ... ugh ... I never knew how much a woman
could sweat in 24 hours. The day after the second run of the “Cash”
show closed, which was last summer, Mr. Lou Robin, Johnny Cash’s
manager of 30 years, left me a message on my cell phone, which I saved
for a long time, to say, basically, “Cease and desist! Stop running
your show.” ASCAP had told us we had the rights for the music,
when we did not. We had even paid ASCAP! In a very strange, rare situation
(one I’ve never seen before), Johnny Cash’s songs were being
licensed specifically for, of all things, a planned Broadway musical
tribute to Johnny Cash. We straightened everything out, mainly because
Lou Robin is the sweetest guy in the world. When he heard the money
went to support a 100-seat theatre and a children’s theatre program
(ACT) for San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, he couldn’t have been
nicer. Thank goodness he called the day after we closed. The money was
already in the bank, the kids got their summer camp, everybody was happy
... and I almost had a nervous breakdown!
New Times This cast for “Orbison” includes a lot of performers
you’ve used before. How open is your theater to new actors?
Mary Meserve I wouldn’t say a lot that we’ve used before,
but, yes, a few favorites like Roy Henry, Anna Romero, Donna Sellars,
and Mike Kee are back. Some of the performers have been seen before,
but I am always using new talent. Last year Jack Hardy, who played Johnny
Cash, joined us. He had never done a play before. The same thing happened
with Roy Henry when he starred as Nat King Cole. The crowds can’t
get enough of Roy. He is such a phenomenal singer. His rendition of
“Unchained Melody” in this show blows the roof off! This
year we have Debi Lewis, Michael Miller, Dave Hald, and Crystal Walter
as new ‘stars.’ They are very, very good! That “Little
Debi,” as I call her, is a serious triple threat! Absolutely professional
singer, actor, and dancer. Phew! She’s hot. I’m glad I’m
old and don’t have to audition against her.
New Times Our editor King Harris is a Roy Orbison nut, and he knows
just about everything about him. Is there anything in your show that
may be a surprise to die-hard fans like him?
Mary Meserve Hmm ... I love this question. Does he know that Johnny
Cash was in the waiting room when Roy Orbison’s fourth son was
born? As Roy came out of the delivery room, Johnny said, “What
is it?” Roy quietly answered, “Well, it’s a baby.”
I love that one. Roy was a very funny guy! He also once recited to George
Harrison an entire Monty Python script, word for word. It was one of
the determining factors that encouraged George Harrison to be in and
work on the Traveling Wilburys album.
New Times Orbison had such a strange voice and strange manner about
him. What made him such a big star?
Mary Meserve Quit calling my man “strange,” darnit! He
was freakin’ cool! The guy wore black — big deal, so did
Johnny Cash — he had bad eyesight — big deal, so did Buddy
Holly. Tom Waits called Orbison “a rockabilly rigoletto!”
But what made him awesome? He wrote incredible songs, for one thing.
Initially, he wasn’t very educated about music, so he didn’t
know the verse, chorus, verse structure. So he just “wrote what
was in his heart, and the voice followed.” That’s how such
incredible songs like “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,”
“It’s Over,” “Running Scared,” and “Blue
Bayou” were born. Elvis Presley called him “the greatest
singer in the world”! He had a three-octave range. His music is
very, very difficult to sing — arguably the most difficult in
all of pop music.
That’s why, when you go to karaoke contests, you will almost
always hear a singer do an Orbison tune. It takes serious chops to nail
this stuff. That is why I have eight excellent singers performing the
19 different songs. It would kill their voices to sing them all each
night. It’s been fun to watch absolutely great singers learn about
Orbison and learn to appreciate the incredible genius in songwriting
and difficult vocals he left us with. They are loving it. Every song
is great. He really is phenomenal. Kind of this unearthly, hauntingly
operatic voice. I’ve been washing dishes at home for 15 years
to his music, singing along, miserably. It’s a great way to get
the kids out of the house!
To be brutally honest, and I’m pretty sure my cast would agree
on this one, there is only one person who can really do all of these
songs justice in one single performance: His name is Roy Orbison. But
this cast, with their voices spread out amongst the songs, will blow
you away. Any one of their renditions, as performed in this show, is
worth the full price of admission!
New Times He had a big dry spell in his career that was revived by
the film “Blue Velvet.” Does your tribute show bring us
to that point, or do you concentrate on his early career more?
Mary Meserve Now, Glen, hell yeah, we do it all.
New Times Is it true that these series of shows have been important
to the SLO Little Theatre?
Mary Meserve These are the shows that have saved SLO Little Theatre.
For the past seven years, the Legends Series (with their world premiere
original scripts, by me, ahem), have been FUNdraisers that have saved
SLOLT from financial doom. We were absolutely going down with the ship
each year financially. It’s sort of our own little secret (but
I can sensationalize with the best of them, when I need to!), but these
shows kept us from closing our doors and ending a 60-year SLO treasure.
Due in great part to these shows, the Little Theatre is now thriving,
both artistically and financially. But I don’t want to appear
like the person who saved the theatre. A lot of people work on these
shows. I’m not like the Savior Mother Virgin Mary, I’m a
lot more like Mary Freakin’ Magdalene, workin’ the streets