Friday, April 6, 2018

A Window Above: Waitin' for the Light to Shine

Song: "Waitin' for the Light to Shine"
Composer and Lyricist: Roger Miller
Musical: Big River
Premier: February 1984, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I adore Huck Finn.   I am a sucker for nearly any interpretation of or allusion to Mark Twain's great American odyssey.  So, I was always going to love Big River.

Nearly every summer growing up, I would go to Cleveland for a week on my own to stay with my grandmother.  In 1987, when I was 14, she got us tickets to the touring show Big River, knowing my affection for the source material: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  We were both blown away, especially by the booming voice of the actor who played Jim, Michael Edward-Stevens.  No, I didn't actually remember the name but thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, I know it now.  I also now know that Cleveland was the first stop on the tour.

Big River was released in the mid-'80s, the same era that spawned Cats, Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera, probably the last household name musicals on Broadway until Hamilton came along.  Big River was a modest success in comparison, though it still dominated the Tonys for its year.  A 2003 revival led by a deaf and hearing-impaired cast was also a big hit.  It's a shame more people don't know the show because it's loads of fun.  The music is inspired by the country, bluegrass and gospel of the twentieth century but it evokes the Mississippi River culture of an earlier time perfectly.  The characters, of course, are unforgettable.

We first hear "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" at the beginning of the tale, before Huck sets off down the river.

We get the reprise at the moral climax - one of the crucial moments in all of American literature - when he resolves to steal Jim out of slavery again, doing what we all know is right but still firmly against his own southern upbringing.

Many years later, I got to know the song again when I conducted a local middle school district festival.  The choral arrangement combines the initial song with the reprise perfectly.  I would direct the show in a heartbeat given the chance, though the demographics in our small town Vermont high school would have to change dramatically for that to be possible.


  1. What a delight show! I did not know Roger Miller wrote the music.

    1. King of the Road, himself! Quite a kick in the head, isn't it?

  2. I've heard of it but never seen it.
    And I probably need to read Huck again. It's been a long time.