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SLO Little Theater finds its groove 

Music saves the day…

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.

click to enlarge 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. - PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photos by Christopher Gardner
  • 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,â€? 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 idea?

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 Meserve treatment?

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.
click to enlarge HEAD HONCHOS :  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 - PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photos by Christopher Gardner
  • HEAD HONCHOS : 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.� Not bad!
 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 themselves.

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 ask for?

 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.
click to enlarge 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. - PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photos by Christopher Gardner
  • 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 Tennessee.

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 for.

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 fact?

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 and gutters. ∆

Glen Starkey broke a leg, but the show went on. Give him a standing ovation at


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