Monday, July 28, 2014

TOM SAWYER: The Other Mark Twain Musical

Original The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
musical playbill
Photo courtesy:
In 1985, the musical that swept the Tony Awards was Big River, a musical adaptation of the classic Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This show won seven out of the ten Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical, though it could have only won a maximum of 8 Tonys, because three of the cast members were nominated in the same category (and Ron Richardson, as Jim, did win). Famous country singer Roger Miller's score won a Tony Award as well. It also swept the Drama Desk Awards, with an unheard of 13 nominations and 7 wins (again, they could have only won 10, because four cast members were nominated for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, and RenĂ© Auberjonois won as The Duke). It ran a respectable two and a half years.

I think anyone would say that a natural next step was for Mark Twain's other famous classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to become a musical too. I suppose it makes sense: if it's great material for a classic adventure story and movie, it should make a good musical too. So The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the musical opened at the Minskoff Theatre (while The Lion King was still at the New Amsterdam) in 2001 and ended up having more previews than performances, closing in less than three weeks.

But what intrigued me most was the cast. Most recognizable today (at least vocally) was the 20-year-old girl who was making her Broadway debut as Becky Thatcher, Frozen's Kristen Bell. Yes, "Princess Anna"! And can we talk about her precious headshot? Also making his Broadway debut was Joshua Park in the title role, for which he won a Theatre World Award. The other young lead, Huckleberry Finn, was played by Jim Poulos, who had just made his Broadway debut in Rent, eventually taking over as Mark (opposite Norbert Leo Butz as Roger).

The only Tony nominations the show received were lighting design (the first Tony nomination in Kenneth Posner's career, though he has only won one of the 10 Tonys for which he has been nominated) and sound design (by Heidi Ettinger, who ironically won her first Tony for the sound design of Big River). Besides Joshua Park's award, the show went home empty-handed from all of the award ceremonies that year.

So check out this video of Kristen Bell and Joshua Park singing "To Hear You Say My Name," on- what else?- The Rosie O'Donnell Show, my favorite source of Broadway performance videos.

Also, in 1973, MGM released a musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer with music and lyrics by the Disney songwriting team, the Sherman Brothers, of Mary Poppins fame, among others. Every forgotten musical movie seems required to have surprising cast members, and this is no exception. This one featured Celeste Holm (as Aunt Polly), Jeff East (as Huck Finn), and Becky was played by an adorable 11-year-old Jodie Foster. Despite this cast, a widespread love for this movie has not survived.

It seems ironic that probably the most famous of Mark Twain's novels (I'm sure we could make a case for Huck Finn being more famous, but whatever) is doomed to never be a successful musical in any form, but certainly a jumping-off point for young actors.

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:


  1. Whoa... that's crazy. Great article!!

  2. Isn't it though? This show came to mind because there's a "Tom Sawyer the Broadway Musical" poster in the school that I'm working at this summer, and I was like, "What in the world?!" Thanks for reading, Jon! :)