‘The Will Rogers Follies’ has staying power

Will Rogers from 1922 / Photo Credit: Google Images

By Ande Jacobson

Sometimes a show touches you in ways that you don’t really expect going in. My recent run of The Will Rogers Follies was such a show. I wrote a previous commentary/promotional article chronicling the journey to opening from the pit’s perspective, and the music was both challenging and very rewarding to play, but the show became so much more than any one piece of the production. The run finished several weeks ago. Still, the story continues to linger in my mind as I contemplate how things could be if more people held attitudes like Will Rogers. The show is a musical with book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and opened on Broadway in May 1991. The story, told by the title character, takes a biographical look at the life and times of Will Rogers via musical acts, conversations, and monologues that contain many quotes from Rogers’ actual speeches and writings. Rogers was known as an entertainer and humorist, but more than that, he was a keen observer of people. He had an almost unheard of talent for poking fun, even at controversial subjects, without offending anyone. He’s also very well-known for stating that he never met a man he didn’t like.

Early in the show, Rogers went through a solo sequence pulling stories out of newspapers, the first one being that day’s New York Times. He poked fun at the news of the day in a non-threatening way. After the current day’s sequence, he asked for an older paper – in our recent production one that was eighty-years-old – which took things back to the day he and Wiley Post died in a fatal airplane crash in Alaska. He quickly asked for another paper even older than that, perhaps ninety-years-old, and started going through headlines in that one. The interesting thing was that he managed to equate many of the stories from the 20’s with the stories of today at a societal level, quipping that perhaps the Times had been publishing the same paper each day to save on expenses since the news never really changed.

His life and times were fascinating. His ties to the Zeigfeld Follies of yore were shown, and several “Zeigfeld” acts were staged and performed. As a musician, the music was a critical piece, but between the musical numbers, there were some monologues and speeches that landed with such force, they took your breath away. Rogers knew what it was to be on the outside looking in from his childhood. He was part Cherokee and other children teased him, calling him derogatory names. In a touching scene, his father explained that he wasn’t any derogatory term. His dad told him that he was an Indian <Native American>, and their “people didn’t come over on the Mayflower – they met the boat.”

Even after a challenging childhood, one theme that Rogers kept coming back to in the show was that it was important to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. He did it in a very folksy way:

“I guess I met a whole lot of people in my lifetime, and I always tried to approach ‘em the same way my … ancestors would. … you must never judge a man while you’re facing him. You’ve got to go around behind him … and look at what he’s looking at. Then go back and face him and you’ll have a totally different idea of who he is. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to get along with everybody.”

Rogers gave a particularly prescient monologue that occurred in the story during the great depression following the stock market crash of 1929. Whether that speech actually occurred historically in that context is irrelevant. The content of the speech was the important part and was culled from many of Rogers’ writings. The points he made, even though they took place about 90 years ago, are just as relevant today. They highlight the struggles that plagued society then and continue to do so now, and they are heart wrenching.

“Mr. Hoover wanted somebody to follow him who could cheer you folks up. Well, he must be pretty desperate if he has to ask a Democrat. The problem is, who’s gonna cheer me up? Because all I know is what I see on the street corners. And what I see tonight are people without jobs, without homes, without food. They’re our own people. American people. … These people are asking for our help … And the next best thing we can do is see to it they have food and the necessities of life. We’ve got the money because there’s as much money in the country as there ever was. Only fewer people have it. But it’s there. … but up to now only a handful of men have got any. The difference between our rich and our poor grows greater every year. A man can make a million dollars overnight and he’s on every front page in the morning. But it never tells who gave up that million that he got. You can’t get money without taking it from somebody else. That means there’s not a one of us that has anything that doesn’t owe part of it to those who need it now. … It wasn’t the working man that brought this Depression thing on at all – it was the Big Boys themselves who thought that this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over-borrowed and over-merged and over-capitalized and over-everything-elsed, and that’s the fix we’re in now. People are starving to death. Americans, can you hear that? Here in this country with more wheat and more corn and more everything else than any country on the face off the earth we’ve got people starving. No country ever had more, and no country ever had less. Ten men could buy the whole world, and ten million can’t buy enough to eat. We hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poor house in an automobile. It’s up to us – to every one of us who doesn’t go to bed hungry at night – to see that no one else does, either. You’d think that some of our Big Men would understand that and try to fix it, that they’d try to arrange a better distribution of things. Because if they don’t do that then they’re not Big Men and that’s all there is to it. Where are all the Big Men? Lord, we sure could use one now. I – I can’t say anything more about it than that.”

Michael Hirsch as Will Rogers / Photo credit: Edmond Kwong

The real differences between then and now are that there are more people, and the disparities are more extreme. When our Will Rogers gave that speech each performance, the gasps from the audience were audible. It didn’t matter on which side of today’s political divide people sat, this show touched them. It made them think, and just maybe, at least for a while, it allowed people to look past their differences, go around behind those with whom they disagreed, and examine things from another person’s point of view.

The Will Rogers Follies (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Will Rogers Follies (Vocal Selections): Piano/Vocal/Chords

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